Many psychologists and theorists argue strongly for a model of a child’s developmental growth and character to a simple idea of parental influence (Freud 1900/Berne 1960) and social modelling by imitation (Bandura 1980). However in this paper I would like to explore the influence of cinema on how leading actors in film can have a huge influence over not only how society sees itself but how individuals can model certain aspects of screen persona to guide and influence their own lives.
If you ask most Americans what a man is like – they say, John Wayne. (L.A. Times – survey). Why would a generation of Americans identify with a movie actor as their ideal – someone who actually plays a role in a movie which is not real, a fantasy character that portrays a fictional often historic time or contemporary moment? Further more if the do identify with this actor and his screen persona how has that influenced their attitudes to life and a way of behaving that signifies not a father/mother role model but in fact a movie stars portrayal of a character. They often quote that the reason John Wayne never won many acting awards was because he was just being himself in all his parts. This is because certain actors become bigger than the movies they star in. So in this sense the public said it is a John Wayne movie rather than identifying with the story line (plot) of the film. Today we can think of the recent movie, 2012 about the end of the World through a solar disaster. Like all disaster movies the star is the special effects in which the actors take part as hapless victims of a catastrophe. The movie goers talk about the great visual scenes and not of the performance of the actors. This leads to the conclusion also that modern movie actors are less influential as role models than perhaps in the past. Today fans are more interested in celebrity than what they actually see on the screen. The actors have become the focus of teen idol rather than serious performers.
In child developmental terms as we grow up to a diet of movies from the past, of a Hollywood that we see and hear our screen hero’s talk tough, as men of action, having some key morality, handsome (in most cases) and stiffly romantic. If you grew up as a post Second World War baby television was in its infancy and so most children who had the means went to the cinema. Here they would see there hero’s on the big screen doing all those things they wish they could do, except those times have gone. The way of the West is past (and mostly fictions) the Gangsters and molls of the thirties have gone along with proabbition. So as a child you want to recreate that movie in the playground, in your bedroom, with your toy soldiers, teddy bears and your friends. A cardboard box in the garden became a fort, a motor car, a castle and any other thing that your mind could imagine. Today that is sadly lacking in modern youth, a diet of violent movies, depicting high-tech adversaries and special effects have left no room for the imagination of play. Instead we have a generation of lone children cosseted in bedrooms fixed to computer screens having all their needs met by someone else’s imagination through games and video shorts. You do not have to imagine being part of something – you are part of it – as the hero who directly shoots and finds your way through the levels of a computer game. Do not think – just react!
Childhood Moral Development
Movies of the past often had censorship rules to apply to where harmful content (in the Governments eyes) was strictly applied to prevent harmful language or content being absorbed by those who avidly watched movies. As times have gone by most censorship has vanished and replaced by a rating system that practically allows any content at the discretion of the audience who can choose whether to see a motion picture of not. Older movies then often depicted hero’s that through some trial would overcome all to do the “right thing”. Good overcame evil and people left the cinema knowing the World is always safe when hero’s can be counted on. So for the child watching, doing the right thing was a tenement of social learning in a society that saw the power of the Church decline in post WW2 amongst the young. Movies were almost the new tool for understanding the morality tales that the New Testament and other religious ideology tried to teach the readers. Now we could not just read about morality but see it on the screen, with flawed characters overcoming their difficulties to win out and put things to right. As a child watching these movies you would leave the cinema with a heightened idea of right and wrong, good and evil, for those growing up in the 70’s however things changed. Actors such as Clint Eastwood produced Westerns with an anti-hero; the Dollar Westerns had a man with no-name who as a gunslinger was interested in collecting money for dead outlaws, the bounty hunter. In these movies the anti-hero (Eastwood) would steal, kill and have easy sex without any moral thoughts other than take what you want by any means you can. For the young born in the 60’s this time of movies represented confused values. It was the time of the new teenager, the young with money to spend, better education than previous youth and a more rebellious stance towards authority than the previous generations. Later Clint Eastwood produced the anti-hero Dirty Harry a cop who got the job done despite his anti-authority attitude displayed in the movies. Again the youth of the 80’s saw that even within the legal system it was OK to kill the bad guy, torture your suspects and criticise the establishment all the time while the character Dirty Harry is actually part of that established order. Now children in play can be both hero and villain but can become morally confused about that role in real life. Could movies makers argue that they are in fact reflecting real life in film rather than the black and white tales of the 40’s and 50’s when the good guy wins and the bad guy dies? So this new realism is teaching children that sometimes the good guy loses, that bad things can happen to good people that bad people can come out on top? In psychology we call this the. “Just World Hypothesis” that good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. However that teaches children that life is fair and just. However the message for the modern youth is that life is not fair, that many movies show terrible things happen to ordinary people. How does this then effect attitude from youth to the society they have to live and work in? Do modern movie going youth have a more realistic view of life or do they have just a new fantasy as warped by movies as the all manly John Wayne movies of the past? The movies are however a mixed category of viewing and popularity of types of movies go through phases too. Such as the Sci-Fi movies of the 70’s and the disaster movies of the 80’s and 90’s with the special effects of the 3D era after 2005 in such movies as Avatar.
I started this paper in stating that movies can have an effect on the attitudes, character growth and development of morality just as the influence of parents, society and peers in a child’s development. Those children in the past were given positive role models from movies that highlighted fairness, goodness and despite all odds the hero can overcome their foes. I have also tried to show that generations of movie goers have had various new influences that shed light on a changing moral climate in society along with a more anti-authoritarian youth with more realism in its outlook about whether life is fair or not.
Our parents told us to be good, to be honest and do the “right thing” but our movies have been talking to us at the same time where our hero’s of the silver screen have given us mixed messages from generation to generation so that modern youth shows less imagination than previous times, that modern youth has taken materialism as the goal of life and not doing good. I myself have been a fan of movies all my life and have seen the emergence of cinema as a great part of my growing up. Also that Hollywood over-shadows all other cultures in film making (at least in the past) even as a child growing up in England and Australia where I saw the more sober movies made in England as examples of what it is to be British, stalwart, stiff upper lip, unflappable and most of all a decent chap! We still wanted the Hollywood features as their movies stars always seemed bigger, more real and more heroic. Is part of the modern American character an imitation of each generations movies and that other cultures have changed to meet that influence by becoming materialistic and selfish in nature? Most psychological research of television and movie watching has concentrated on the negative effects of violence and desensitization of emotions but I think the movies also have a real positive role to play in a child’s development and parents should choose carefully what their child is watching because that is the child imitation you will have to deal with when you ask yourself as a parent, “where did they get that notion from?”
I should point out that my influences during my own youth were Westerns and War movies. John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and many others were my early hero’s who shaped my play and fantasy adventure, as I grew older the Hammer Horror movies from England changed my imagination to things you could not see in the dark but at the same time movies such as. Tom Brown’s School Days and Goodbye Mr. Chips made profound emotional content, later the English period of Hitchcock before he went to Hollywood such as Foreign Correspondent and other classics. As the 70’s arrived the biggest influence was probably Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. I find now as I am in my middle 50’s that I often re-watch the movies that influenced me as a child such as the Kung Fu movies of Bruce Lee (which made me take up Karate) and all the movies of the 30’s and 40’s where acting was what carried a movie and not special effects. Recently I went to the cinema to see Avatar in 3D (science fiction) and was very disappointed as the story line was incredibly thin and the 3D was interesting but did not actually add much to a poor quality script. However the modern audience of young people all seemed to like it. So at that I have to move over for this generation.