Remember when everybody smoked in the movies? Good guys, bad guys, teenagers, old people — everybody was doing it. Then something changed, and it was roughly when society shifted its attitude toward smoking. Suddenly lighting up wasn’t cool anymore. Hollywood saw the writing on the wall, and the major studios passed anti-tobacco policies. Today, far fewer movies depict smoking.
And now society is changing its attitude toward guns. And Hollywood is paying attention.
The mass shooting tragedy in Parkland, Florida and the unified reaction by its surviving students has already caused a shift in our country’s gun culture. It’s gaining momentum too. Today, politicians, the NRA, the media, teachers, and parents are responding — new laws, protests, legal suits, intense news coverage — and its scaring the hell out of the entertainment industry.
Hollywood’s always had a love affair with guns. One of its earliest narrative films, The Great Train Robbery (1903), featured a series of running gunfights and a good dozen shooting deaths. Today, guns in movies are the norm. The evidence is right there in movie posters — almost 20 percent of the top 100 domestic grossing movies in 2015 featured a firearm in their marketing, according to Business Insider.
The regularity of mass shootings in this country, particularly the recent Parkland event, has compelled the vast majority of Americans to demand new gun control measures, based on media reports. But is it realistic to expect fewer guns in movies?
It might help to examine how smoking declined in film.
Almost half of Hollywood’s top-grossing movies between 2002-2016 were PG-13, and 58 percent of those depicted smoking, according to the CDC. The Surgeon General reported that nearly six million kids would die from smoking-related diseases if the trend continued. Hollywood was apparently ahead of the curve, as ‘smokefree’ youth-rated movies (G, PG, PG-13) increased from 35 to 74 percent by 2016. Unfortunately, overall incidents of smoking in movies has actually increased over the same period.
So, while fewer movies contain smoking, there’s still plenty of it in film. The takeaway: if Hollywood does move to supress firearms in movies, it won’t happen overnight.
But Hollywood might be ahead of the curve on guns too. The heroes in blockbuster movies like The Hunger Games, Logan, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi wield bows, claws, and lightsabers, according to The Guardian. Marvel and DC’s superhero films, which dominate theaters these days, seldom show their protagonists firing guns. Contrast this with than the .44 Magnums and M60 machine guns of Dirty Harry and Rambo films from previous decades.
It suddenly feels strange to watch a movie (or TV show) that openly promotes firearms. I just finished watching The Punisher series on Netflix, and I was struck by it’s opening title sequence — a skull logo assembled from dozens of semi- and fully-automatic weapons. It felt odd, wrong, and tone deaf. Recent action movies, such as Atomic Blonde or John Wick — both are very gun-centric — barely hold my interest. (I have the same reaction to films and TV shows that are pro-smoking too.)
Hollywood trends generally follow societal changes. When smoking was shunned and outlawed in just about every public venue, Hollywood responded. Now guns (and those that advocate for them) are being shamed, and Hollywood appears poised to react. Maybe someday we’ll have a conversation that begins, “remember when everybody used guns in the movies?”