I’d like to ask some honest questions: How much violence can you tolerate in entertainment? Where do you think the line should be drawn for violence and entertainment more generally (i.e. it might make you squeamish, but it’s fine for others)? Can we represent violence in ways that don’t contribute to dehumanizing or objectifying certain people? Do you think violence in entertainment has a real impact on consumers of media? Who is responsible?
Earlier today, I posted a story to Facebook about two elementary school boys who plotted to rape and murder a classmate. The story details how the boys (aged 10 and 11) understood the implications of their actions and the dynamics behind rape: In the mental capacity hearing, a psychologist testified that one suspect planned to rape the female classmate while the other stood guard. The boy knew that rape meant ‘having sex with someone when they don’t want to,’ and, according to the case’s prosecutor, Tim Rasmussen, he understood it as ‘a display of strength and power — not sex.’ When asked why they wanted to brutally assault and take the life of their classmate, one of the boys explained, ‘She’s rude and always makes fun of me and my friends.’
After seeing my post, my dad texted me, “Why would anyone be shocked by the actions of the boys in that story. We in media and popular culture have done a great job instilling these values, or total lack of values, in people. The younger the audience the faster they learn. Say any of that and listen to the media squeal ‘not our fault not our problem…'”
My father has worked in the media, radio specifically, for over thirty years. He’s also raised three reasonably well-adjusted children (well…). So, I tend to respect his opinion. Over the last year, every time there has been an act of mass-violence (and there have been far too many), we have ended up having a debate about the role of the media. I argue that the media valorizes violence by making celebrities of killers and uses too much violence in general. (For example, my post about The Call last week.) Dad counters that violence sells and most of the people in the industry with real power care about money, not morality. I assert that the media helps shape consumer desire. And then we reach a stalemate.
We could go around and around like that forever. Violence does sell. People don’t have to watch violent things. But there’s so much it’s becoming unavoidable. So, the media should have some accountability for the impact this violence has on young people, if any, but we don’t have to watch it and violence sells…The feedback loop is maddening.
Because we’ve had this argument so often, I’ve thought a lot about the violence I consume and I’ve decided to tune-out when I find violence in entertainment gratuitous or wholly disrespectful. I like mysteries and some scary movies, but I’m figuring out where I draw the line. For example, I started watching Bates Motel yesterday. I’m a big fan of Hitchcock, so it was mildly intriguing. I expected there to be violence, but, stupidly, I thought it would be more Hitchcockian and less…horrible. Then I hit (or was hit by?) the controversial rape scene half way through the episode. I found it so graphic and shocking that I turned it off. For good. And, research junkie that I am, I googled. Most of the criticism around the depiction seemed to brush it off or focus on the fact that, unbelievably, the show was only rated TV-14. Kerry Ehrin (of FNL and Parenthood, whut!?) explained the scene, “From the beginning, it was something we wanted to be real. That you would feel for her what she was going through. We didn’t want to gloss over it, and be, like, oh, and she gets raped. It’s the most horrible violation. We wanted to not in any way sugar coat it.” (BuzzFeed)
I don’t buy it. 1) This rape wasn’t necessary. It’s a fictional show and the character was already pretty deranged to begin with, so it didn’t add much to the origin story. Plus, the idea that we need to see her raped to understand that she is crazy is just upsetting in itself. That graphic of a depiction certainly seemed extreme regardless. 2) I’m reminded of Steven Volk and Marian Scholotterbeck’s arguments about the representation of violence against women (they focus specifically on depictions of the feminicide in Juárez, Mexico). They assert that while sometimes representations can become a space for mourning and working for justice, others “narratively revictimize Juárez’s women by representing them within a framework of male dominance and female submissiveness” (58). It’s important to clarify that they are writing about real-life victims of horrible violence. I think their argument, however, can be a productive way to think about violence in our media more broadly, though. Given the current dialogues about rape culture, the representation of Norma Bates being cut, handcuffed to a table, and raped, then sneered at, “You liked it” seems to just reproduce the very problems we’re fighting. That Norma kills her violator doesn’t really help because, well, so far she’s kind of the bad guy.
For me, it was too much, so I’m not giving the show any more of my time. And I’m thinking critically about that decision here. But otherwise, I’m at a standstill with the issue.
So, seriously, back to my original questions, what do you think?
Volk, Steven S., and Marian E. Schlotterbeck. “Gender, Order, and Femicide.” Aztlan32.1 (2007): 53-86. Web.
Also, here’s a 2003 psychological study showing a positive correlation in adolescents between exposure to violence in entertainment and aggressive behavior: The Influence of Violence on Youth
And a 2001 study found that reducing time spent watching TV could reduce aggression in children and adolescents: Effects of reducing children’s television and video game use on aggressive behavior: a randomized controlled trial.