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Perspectives on Politics





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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 twenty top-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.


This is the accepted manuscript of an article accepted for publication in Perspectives on Politics. American Political Science Association holds the copyright and the article can be accessed at

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Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.