By Dave Kopel & James Swan
October 16, 2002 9:25 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on television.
On Sunday evening, October 13, Showtime aired a movie, Bang Bang You're Dead, about school violence. The movie ostensibly is about the role that bullying plays in school violence. But the movie itself promotes intolerance and is, in its own way, a form of bullying by the media. The author is aggressively promoting the script for use in school performances; parents, teachers, and students ought to think twice about encouraging a performance of such a mean-spirited and misleading show.
In the Showtime drama, Trevor Adams (Ben Foster) is an intelligent and articulate teen who in a year's time has become an outcast and the target of bullying by "the jocks." Trevor threatens to blow up the football team and becomes even more of an outcast. Drama class is his only refuge. The drama teacher, Val Duncan (Tom Cavanaugh), tries to help Trevor and offers him the lead in a play about school violence, Bang Bang You're Dead, that the teacher found on the Internet. The offer is sweetened by the appearance of a new girl from California, Jenny (Jane MacGregor), who will play the female lead.
The play is about a teenage boy, Josh, who has shot and killed five of his classmates. He is sitting in a prison cell and the ghosts of his victims come back to question why he did what he did. Powerful stuff. It has the potential to be a healing work, but it quickly devolves, as the killer is identified as a hunter who has used his new hunting rifle to shoot his victims. Josh turned into a killer after his grandfather took him on his first hunting trip. The ghosts of his victims spend considerable time (about ten pages of a 65-page script) taunting Josh, asking if his killing them was like killing a buck he shot with his grandfather. Few other motives for the killings are given except a recent break-up with a girlfriend.
As the play begins to take form, parents and school administrators object to the play and ban it from school. They feel it stirs up emotions and offers few solutions. Val moves the play off-campus, where it is performed, stirring up even more controversy, which makes Trevor even more a target of suspicion and ridicule. Trevor vents his rage by making a video for class alluding to the shooting of a football player. The video gets him in trouble, but since it contains material on bullying in school, the police and school administrators are forced to examine the school system. All the attention focused on Trevor distracts from a gang that may well have real plans to wreak havoc.
Billed by Showtime as "A play, A movie, and A Worldwide Phenomenon," the movie Bang Bang You're Dead is written by William Mastrosimone (Extremities, The Burning Season. The triple billing here is that the play that is the center of controversy in the movie is an actual play, also written by Mastrosimone and also called Bang Bang You're Dead. The play's script (http://www.bangbangyouredead.com) is available on the Internet. Mastrosimone says that he wrote the play in one night after an incident at his son's school. He then contacted the drama teacher at Thurston High School in Springfield, Oregon, which had just experienced a rampage shooting by Kip Kinkel.
The play premiered at Thurston High School, and, according to Mastrosimone, has since been downloaded over 120,000 times and performed all around the world. Mastrosimone licenses the play to be performed free of charge if the actors are amateurs and if not one word of the script is changed. After the play has been performed, he requires that all copies of the script be destroyed, except one for "archival purposes."
The Showtime movie, with its play-within-a-play, thus serves as a commercial for the basic play, and a preemptive attack on members of the school community who raise concerns about the play. The Showtime movie argues, in effect, that people who object to Bang Bang You're Dead are partly to blame for school violence.
All the recent school murderers were victims of bullying. The movie version does call attention to bullying, but it falls into an easy stereotype of athletes being the bullies. In earlier times "greasers" were the bullies, as in West Side Story.
Today, some schools have "Goths" who are bullies, while in other schools they may be victims. Other schools have gangs of various ethnic persuasions who are bullies. Laura Fries, writing in Variety(October 10) about Bang Bang You're Dead, observed that "In reality, most bullying goes unnoticed or unacknowledged and Trevor's near-redemption smacks of idealism." In the real world, bullies and victims take time to heal.
The Showtime movie also makes an appeal for improved communications among parents, students, and kids. Good idea. Communities should be trying to understand why school shootings are happening and what needs to be done. A breakdown in communication often causes conflicts to intensify.
But as the school administrators and parents in the movie rightfully claim, Bang Bang You're Dead, the play, has some serious problems, chief among them its choice of villain.
Not everyone likes hunting. People are entitled to their opinions. However, making Josh a hunter, and drawing comparisons between hunting and homicide, is not based in reality. Only one of the recent youth school shooters, the youngest — Andrew Golden in Jonesboro, Arkansas — had passed Hunter Education, and he has had a history of severe emotional problems.
School shooters are not the average kid, obviously. Dr. Helen Smith is a forensic psychologist who has interviewed over 4,000 troubled young people and is the author of The Scarred Heart, an in-depth study of violent youth. She explains: "Teens who commit murder have usually been in trouble with the law before. They typically show mental problems, substance abuse, a history of violence, and a record of troubles with juvenile authorities."
Numerous well-respected behavioral scientists have written that hunting is a normal, healthy pursuit. According to the American Psychological Association, there is no data to the contrary. In fact, when Professor Chris Eskridge of the University of Nebraska-Omaha looked nationwide at hunting-license sales and levels of violence, he found an inverse relationship: The more hunting licenses sold, the lower the rates of violent crime
In the November 30, 1998 issue of Time magazine, Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center (created in l984 to study school violence), flatly states, "The notion that anyone who hunts is violent is nonsense. . . . There is no reason in my view to condemn hunting." In the same article, Terri Royster, who teaches a class about crime and juvenile justice for the FBI Academy, backs him up, saying that she can think of no research that links hunting and violence against humans.
There are 15 million licensed, legal hunters in the United States, many of them teenagers. Hunter safety education is required in all 50 states to get a license, and hunting has a lower injury rate than golf, tennis, bicycling, tennis, and even ping-pong. And thanks to wildlife management and the conservation taxes paid by hunters, most huntable species are more abundant than when Teddy Roosevelt was alive.
Making the murderer Josh into a hunter does not help solve school violence. It feeds an anti-hunting agenda that often advocates violence and terrorism as a solution. Thurston High School drama teacher Mike Fisher in Springfield, Oregon, was interviewed by Scott Stouder, a reporter for the Corvallis(Oregon) Gazette-Times. Fischer claimed that making Josh a hunter was for "dramatic effect," and not intended to scapegoat hunters. He further stated that playwright Mastrosimone is a hunter. Anything is possible, but if there's no political agenda behind making Josh a hunter, and the psychological profiles of school shooters shows no association between shooters and hunters, then what purpose is served by putting a hunter's mask on a killer's body?
For "dramatic effect," it would have been possible to make Josh into a fervent Zionist who is taunted by his Christian classmates. Of course this wouldn't fit the psychological profile of school murderers either. Indeed, such a "dramatic effect" would be rightly condemned as mean-spirited and dishonest scapegoating of American Jews, and it's doubtful that Showtime would have broadcast a movie that incites fear and hatred of America's six million Jews. It is legitimate to ask Showtime, and the sponsors of the Showtime movie, why they are promoting stereotyping, bigotry, and scapegoating of a different group.
The average teenager today does not know much about hunting. Those teens who do hunt often have to bear the brunt of personal attacks from their peers. The profile of the average eco-terrorist is a teenager. This is precisely the audience targeted by the play. Producing this play encourages ignorant anti-hunters to treat their law-abiding schoolmates who hunt as potential murderers. The play makes these innocent teenagers into potential targets for bullying, or worse.
People do need to talk to each other, and to do so they must also discard stereotypes, scapegoats, and stigmatizing; they must develop a zero-tolerance attitude toward terrorism. And if a teenager has problems with anger and violence, he ought to receive appropriate therapy. The film Good Will Hunting did a fine job of showing how a therapist can help someone work through anger and resentment. We need more films and plays like that.
Log on to , read the script, and decide for yourself. There is an e-mail zone for comments on the website. Parents, teachers, students, and health professionals: Ask yourself if this play would create heat or shed light on the volatile subject of school violence. If you believe that your school should be a safe zone from bigotry and stereotyping, don't be intimidated by the argument that people who stand up for tolerance are the cause of school violence.
— Dave Kopel is a columnist for NRO. James Swan is the author of seven books, most recently Nature As Teacher & Healer: How to Reawaken Your Connection With Nature.
More by Kopel on media bias in coverage of gun control.