Natural Born Killers & Capitalism
Natural Born Killers Natural Born Killers (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1994) is a film directed by Oliver Stone. The story is about Mickey and Mallory Knox, two serial killers that travel across America on a killing spree which elevates them from criminals into international media celebrities.
The story sounds like a modern day Bonnie and Clyde (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1967), however Mickey and Mallory’s crimes are much more severe and without cause. Stone intended the film to be a critique on a culture obsessed with violence and the media’s glorification of violence.
In Chaos Rising: The Storm Around Natural Born Killers’ (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1994) Stone explains “What I was doing was pointing the finger at the system that feeds off violence, and at the media that package it for mass consumption. ” Unfortunately, many people perceived the message of Natural Born Killers as a glorification of violence. The film even inspired several copycat killings. The film Natural Born Killers was intended to critique a culture obsessed with violence, yet inspired murders.
The reason this film was decoded so differently by some viewers was due to social stereotypes imposed by capitalist ideology. How an audience perceives a message from a text is through the process of decoding. Those who produce a text encode it with messages and meanings through the use of semiotics. When the audience receives a text, they then decode and identify these meanings through the signs and signifiers. Morley (1992, p. 53) explains that meaning in a text is generated through two main factors. The first factor is the way a text is encoded through semiotics.
This can invite certain readings and block others. The second is the social background of the receiver, which can be studied sociologically. The interaction of these two constraining structures will define the notion that a text can be interpreted in an infinite number of individual ways. Stuart Hall’s work on the role of social positions in the interpretation of mass media texts also helps explain this. His work was based around the three different ways a viewer can decode a text. The first is the dominant reading.
This is when the reader shares the text’s code and accepts the intended reading. The second is the negotiated reading, which is when the reader partly accepts the intended reading but not completely. The reader then modifies it in a way that reflects their own position, experience sand interests. The third is the oppositional reading, which is when the reader’s social situation causes them to oppose the dominant code. They understand the intended reading but don’t agree with the code and reject the intended meaning, causing them to develop their own interpretation of the text.
On March 6th 1995, teen couple Ben Darras and Sarah Edmondson shot a local businessman in Oklahoma. They then drove to Louisiana where they also shot a store store clerk. After their arrest, the couple said that they had been taking acid and watching Natural Born Killers several times. Upon Darras’s arrest he also shouted the words “I’m a natural born killer man”. Since the release of Natural Born Killers it has been linked to 8 murders. Each of the murderers shared the same lower class social position, and passion for the film.
What can Hall and Morley’s work tell us about how this film was decoded so differently from its intended meaning by these adolescents? Hall (1977, p. 182) explains that texts are polysemic, meaning they may be read differently by different people depending on their identity, cultural background and personal opinions. Traditionally in film, those who commit acts of violence are villains who get punished for their crimes, while the police are seen as heroes. In this film the police are violent; one being a murderer himself.
Throughout the film, Mickey and Mallory slaughter without reason yet by the end of the film they gain sympathy and likeability from the audience. An oppressed lower class audience may see Mickey and Mallory as lower class heroes as they overcome the oppressing system. Some may sympathize and relate with Mallory’s abusive upbringing. An example of this is shown in the film when Mickey and Mallory leave Mallory’s house after murdering her parents, the wallpaper displayed is an open bird cage, signifying that she is now free.
In this scene the fact that they have just murdered two people is completely overshadowed by Mallory’s escape from an abusive environment. The viewer’s own personal situation, experiences and beliefs heavily influence how they decode the message of this film. Each of the individuals who committed copycat crimes after watching Natural Born Killers came from lower class social backgrounds. This implies that the social conditions that the lower classes endure under capitalism have a direct relation to why these individuals received the oppositional reading of the text.
Natural Born Killers dwells on the fact that the two protagonists come from a lower class family, are uneducated, and how capitalist society associates people in this situation with crime. In the film Mickey calls himself a ‘natural born killer’ as he was born into the lower class, therefore society assumes he is a natural born criminal. He explains, “I was thrown into a flaming pit of scum, forgotten by God. ” In this instance, Mickey refers to society and the members of it collectively as ‘God’. The use of semiotics to express this point is quite strong.
Signs such as the way Mickey and Mallory speak, the way they dress, how they are groomed and the families that they come from signify that both are a part of the lower class. Other important characters in the film, such as officer Scagnetti, warden McClusky and reporter Wayne Gale wear suits, speak well and are also well groomed. Several shots in the film such as Wayne Gale trimming his nose hairs and McClusky combing his moustache are used to emphasize their appearance and social status. These characters are portrayed like this to signify that they are higher within the capitalist social hierarchy.
All three seek control over Mickey and Mallory for personal gain, implying that the higher classes seek to control the lower class. As the film addresses the difference in occupation of classes in a capitalist society, it also addresses the aspiration levels of the lower class. As revealed previously, Mickey explains that society turned its back on him. He also states “I came from violence, it was in my blood. My dad had it, his dad had it. It’s just my fate. ” Here Mickey is saying that he came from a lower class, as did his father and grandfather.
He is also saying that to remain in this social status is just his ‘fate’, meaning the social norm. Hollingshead (2007, p. 285) explains that children have limited their horizons to the class horizon, and in the process they have unconsciously placed themselves in such a position that they will occupy the same levels as their parents. This being a direct effect of the capitalist ideology as Reissman (1953, p. 233) puts it, the proletarian can have no aspirations under capitalism, but instead must come to identify with their own class and aspire to an entirely different system of values. This entirely different ystem of values Reissman is referring to is that in many cases the lower class youth will pursue the quick rise to success and fame. In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory become international celebrities through their actions, they have fans and fame by taking the ‘short route’, regardless of the means used to get there. Williams and Mcshane (1993 p. 52) state that the lower class youth may be associated with and aspire to become a “policy king”: “I want to be a big shot… have all of the guys look up to me. Have a couple of lincolns, lots of broads and all of the coppers licking my shoes.
As Natural Born Killers points the finger at the media for the glorification of violence, it also points a finger at capitalism for restraining the lower classes aspirations and confining them to a life of crime. Tshiwula (1998, p. 27) also shares this theory as she explains “capitalism is the root for the cause of much criminal behavior, particularly in crimes committed by the lower class. ” Stuart Hall and David Morley’s work suggest that an individual’s social status can greatly influence how a text is decoded and the message they receive from it, regardless of the intended meaning.
This suggests that people in a lower social status may see the antagonists as lower class heroes as they can relate to their situation. Semiotics in the film was used to signify the social gap between Mickey and Mallory, Wayne Gale, warden McClusky and officer Scagnetti. This explores the stereotypes of social status in capitalist ideology. The film’s references to the lower class being confined to a life of crime and having restricted aspirations inform us that these factors are imposed by capitalism.
Unfortunately, these points are still valid in modern society. Many people who come from low income families believe that having the occupation they desire is unachievable due to their social/financial status. This isn’t necessarily true, however people in this situation may think this due to what the rest of society thinks of them. Not only is the intended message of Natural Born Killers important in making people realize the media’s glorification of violence, but also the message of lower class stereotypes and how they affect the individuals within that class.
This text also provides us with an extreme example of how a text can be decoded by different individuals. It’s safe to say that the oppositional reading of Natural Born Killers was a direct result of capitalist ideology and its influence on lower class individuals. References Hall, S. (1977) Culture, The Media and the ‘Ideological Effect’. America: Open University Hollingshead, A. (2007). Elmtown’s Youth – The Impact of Social Classes on Adolescents. Chicago, America: Case Press Morley, D. (1992). Television Audiences and Cultural Studies.
New York, America: Routledge Penn, A. (Director) Newman, D. (Writer) (1967). Bonnie and Clyde [Motion Picture]. America: Warner Bros. Pictures Reissman, L. (1953). American Sociological Review: Volume 18. America: American Sociological Association Stone, O. (Director/Producer) Tarantino, Q. (Writer) (1994). Natural Born Killers [Motion Picture]. America: Warner Bros. Pictures Tshiwula, L. (1998). Crime and Delinquency. Pretoria, South Africa: Kagiso Publishers Williams, F. P. , & McShane, M. D (1993). Criminology Theory. America: Anderson Publishing Co