Given that the University of California—Santa Barbara killer cited his inability to get laid in college as a motivation for his massacre, should Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow and Zac Efron apologize for making movies that glorify the sex and excess inherent to college life?
Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday thinks so. In a recent article about the horrific weekend attack that left seven dead in Isla Vista, California, she implicitly blamed Neighbors, a new film that casts Rogen and Efron as residents of a fictional fraternity row:
How many students watch outsized frat-boy fantasies like "Neighbors" and feel, as Rodger did, unjustly shut out of college life that should be full of "sex and fun and pleasure"? How many men, raised on a steady diet of Judd Apatow comedies in which the shlubby arrested adolescent always gets the girl, find that those happy endings constantly elude them and conclude, "It's not fair"?
The killer, Elliot Rodger, was a wealthy social outcast with a father in the film business. According to his 141-page manifesto, Rodger was rejected by fellow students at the UCSB campus and came to hate all women for refusing to have sex with him. Clearly, the version of campus hookup culture glorified in movies like Neighbors did indeed spurn Rodger.
But is that what made him a murderer? Hornaday roped in male privilege and violence in media to complete her argument:
If our cinematic grammar is one of violence, sexual conquest and macho swagger — thanks to male studio executives who green-light projects according to their own pathetic predilections — no one should be surprised when those impulses take luridly literal form in the culture at large.
Part of what makes cinema so potent is the way even its most outlandish characters and narratives burrow into and fuse with our own stories and identities. When the dominant medium of our age — both as art form and industrial practice — is in the hands of one gender, what may start out as harmless escapist fantasies can, through repetition and amplification, become distortions and dangerous lies.
Rogen took to Twitter to dispute Hornaday, branding her "horribly insulting and misinformed," according to The Huffington Post.
"How dare you imply that me getting girls in movies caused a lunatic to go on a rampage," wrote Rogen in a Tweet.
Apatow had nothing to do with Neighbors, but has worked on similar bro-friendly comedies with Rogen. He did not take kindly to Hornaday's insinuation, either. He tweeted that it was absurd to blame movies rather than mental illness.
The angry reactions from Rogen and Apatow garnered significant media attention, and eventually drew a video response from Hornaday.
"In singling out Neighbors and Judd Apatow I by no means meant to cast blame on those movies or Judd Apatow's work for this heinous action, obviously not," she said in the video.
But she did defend her view that certain movies—those made by white males, in praise of wish fulfillment and vigilantism—are unhealthy for the culture.
In times of tragedy, violent entertainment often plays the role of convenient scapegoat. Nevertheless, there is good reason to be skeptical of such claims, especially in the immediate aftermath.
Expect to hear more media figures blaming movies, video games, mental health care deficiencies and lack of gun control in the coming days.