For Halloween week 2002, Jackass: The Movie had the highest gross of any film on the nation’s 35,000 screens. For several more weeks, it was in the “top 10” in gross, in both income and content.
Based upon the popular MTV series, the 87-minute Jackass is a series of two to three minute grossed-out stunts, many bound by feces and vomit, that appeal to a target audience of adolescents of all ages. Many of the stunts and practical gags are stupid and benign; some are stupid and dangerous. All are performed by professional stuntmen-apparently, there were no women dumb enough to attach fireworks to their roller skates or to walk across a tightrope over an alligator pit while wearing little more than a piece of raw chicken meat.
Dozens of amateur jackasses have imitated the stunts. In Denver, three teens decided it would be “fun” to play bumper cars in stolen golf carts. Bruises, strains, and occasional broken bones are usually all that result from such stunts. But, there have been near-fatal and fatal consequences for the copycats.
A 12-year-old New Hampshire boy suffered third degree burns after lamp oil was ignited on his body. A 15-year-old in Seattle poured alcohol on his shirt, then set himself on fire while his friends videotaped the stunt that landed him in a hospital. And in Seneca County, Ohio, an 18-year-old freshman at Tiffin College, trying to imitate a Jackass stunt, rode in the back of a pick-up truck, set a chair on fire, threw it onto the roadway, then either fell or jumped while being videotaped by his friends. County officials said the youth died from massive head injuries. The official word from MTV/Paramount, obviously reviewed by a horde of lawyers, was that the death “has no connection to any stunts performed” on either the TV show or the movie.
Whether or not there was any connection, Jackass wasn’t the first movie to have dumb or violent stunts; it certainly won’t be the last. Adults tried horse-riding tricks after seeing stunts in movie and TV westerns. Children tried to fly, sometimes from second floor balconies, after first reading about Superman in comic books, then seeing the man of steel in movies and television.
A decade before Jackass, a five-year-old boy watched moronic TV cartoon characters Beavis and Butt-head, imitated their reckless use of matches, and watched as fire destroyed his family’s trailer and killed his two-year-old sister. The mother (who had left the children alone), the fire department, and most of the community blamed the cartoon. MTV eliminated pyromania scenes from the cartoons.
In Pennsylvania, Texas, New Jersey, and New York, five teenagers, imitating a scene from The Program, a 1993 film about excessive football conditioning, lay down on the median lines of highways. Three were killed; two were critically injured. The communities blamed the film; Touchstone Films responded by deleting the scene from all prints.
MTV/Paramount has no plans to eliminate any scenes from Jackass . The movie was made for about $5 million. In its first month of distribution, it had a gross of about $60 million. Several million more will be earned from the sale of foreign rights and pre-recorded videotape sales. The producers can honestly say they are giving the people what they want. But, there will still be protests.
Parents, community organizations, and vote-seeking politicians will again express outrage at what they perceive to be the low levels of the entertainment industry. They will argue that by the time teenagers graduate from high school, they will have seen on television about 12,000 murders and almost 200,000 acts of violence. They will cite any of 3,000 media and violence studies that suggest exposure to repeated acts of violence in the media may result in the viewer not only becoming immune to acts of violence, but may identify with the violent characters, may imitate violent acts, and may believe that violence is an acceptable solution to problems. They will ask that the television and film industries be “more concerned” about the effects of their product. They may even suggest that Congressional investigations are necessary. A few might even claim they “understand” the First Amendment, but governmental regulation is the only way to make the media more “responsible.” Without question, the media influence our behavior and our lifestyle. But, the federal government in the past two years has already begun shredding our Constitutional rights; we don’t need more regulation over the First Amendment guarantees.
A nation that allows its government to impose arbitrary and capricious restrictions upon free speech soon loses its right to call itself a representative democracy. But, perhaps we could do something very unusual in our society-we might take responsibility for our own actions, and stop blaming the media, no matter how irresponsible, inept, or manipulative we think they may be.
Walt Brasch, a national award-winning reporter and editor, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. He is the author of 13 books, including The Press and the State, and the current book, The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era. You may contact him through his web-site www.walterbrasch.com.
copyright 2002 Walter M. Brasch.