Wait, There's Torture in Zootopia?: Examining the Prevalence of Torture in Popular Movies

Forthcoming, Perspectives in Politics

76 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2019 Last revised: 15 Dec 2019

See all articles by Casey Delehanty

Casey Delehanty

Gardner-Webb University

Erin Kearns

University of Alabama

Date Written: December 11, 2019


Roughly half of the U.S. public thinks that torture can be acceptable in counterterrorism. According to recent research, dramatic depictions of torture increase public support for the practice. Yet, we do not know how frequently—and in what context—torture is depicted across popular media. What messages about the acceptability and effectiveness of torture do Americans receive when they watch popular films? To address this question, we coded each incident of torture in the top 20 grossing films each year from 2008 to 2017 to analyze how torture is portrayed in terms of its frequency, efficacy, and social acceptability. Results show that the majority of popular films—including films aimed toward children—have at least one torture scene. Across films, the messages sent about torture are fairly consistent. As expected, movies tend to depict torture as effective. Further, how movies portray torture is also a function of who is perpetrating it. Specifically, protagonists are more likely to torture for instrumental reasons or in response to threats, and are more likely to do so effectively. In contrast, antagonists are more likely to use torture as punishment and to torture women. The frequency and nature of torture’s depiction in popular films may help explain why many in the public support torture in counterterrorism.

Keywords: torture; media; counterterrorism

Suggested Citation

Delehanty, Casey and Kearns, Erin, Wait, There's Torture in Zootopia?: Examining the Prevalence of Torture in Popular Movies (December 11, 2019). Forthcoming, Perspectives in Politics, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3342908 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3342908

Casey Delehanty (Contact Author)

Gardner-Webb University ( email )

P.O. Box 997
Boiling Springs, NC 28017
United States

Erin Kearns

University of Alabama ( email )

101 Paul W. Bryant Dr.
Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States

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