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

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 March 2020


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.

Special Section: The Uses of Violence
© American Political Science Association 2020

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A list of permanent links to Supplemental Materials provided by the authors precedes the References section.

*Data replication sets are available in Harvard Dataverse at:

This project was funded by the University of Alabama. They would like to thank Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Netflix for making these movies easily accessible and relatively inexpensive and Adam Ghazi-Tehrani whose extensive movie collection supplemented streaming services. They are most grateful to Lauren Delehanty who put up with constantly pausing movies to rewind and code—this was no doubt annoying. She was particularly instrumental as a sounding board for coding decisions. They would also like to thank the many people who provided feedback on coding dilemmas—namely J.M. Berger, Chardon Murray, and Laila Wahedi. Victor Asal, Courtenay Conrad, and Rochelle Terman provided valuable feedback on this manuscript in various stages. The paper’s title was inspired by Leili Haririan, a student in Kearns’ course on Torture, who was shocked and saddened to learn that there is torture in her favorite movie.


Authorship is listed in alphabetical order where each author contributed equally to the project.


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