Tuned In

What We Should Be Thinking About Pop-Culture Violence, and What We Will Probably Do Instead

It should be possible to criticize excessive, numbing, bludgeoning violence in pop culture without reaching for a dubious argument that it leads to massacres.

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Gilles Coulon / Tendance Floue

Children playing a Nintendo DS.

Maybe it was when I had to pause a screener for an upcoming new TV show to answer the doorbell recently, and noticed that the screen was paused on the image of a man with a broken bottle jammed in his mouth. (I won’t name the series, not that the scene is a spoiler. It’s just the kind of thing that apparently happens on this show.) Maybe it was when I watched the pilot for another new series in which a serial killer mentioned his elaborate ritual for detaching a certain bodily organ.

Maybe it was in a late episode of Sons of Anarchy, in which a character (played by creator Kurt Sutter) intentionally bit off his own tongue and spat it out. Maybe it was during The Walking Dead this season, when Michonne jammed a shard of glass into the eye of The Governor–a brief change-up of human injury amid the scenes of the living slamming implements into zombie heads with wet thunks, as if they were jelly-filled pumpkins.

Probably it was a more cumulative thing. But at some point I found myself thinking, Man, hasn’t the violence on these shows–good, or at least ambitious, TV dramas–gotten, er, intense? And baroque? And, maybe, verging on self-parody?

All of which is to say: as someone who consumes a lot of pop culture for a living, I think there are plenty of good reasons to be critical of the violence in it: its ubiquity, its extremity and its use as a dramatic crutch. Many of the greatest dramas I’ve loved and admired most in the last decade have been violent, to intelligent, even artistic purpose. But a lot of not-so-greatest dramas lean on blood and gore too. There’s a monotone to a certain section of our culture right now, and that tone is: AUUUUUUUGGGH!

That’s worth looking at; it’s worth questioning. After the Newtown shootings, however, it looks like we are again going to look at violence in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons–simplistically, reactively and temporarily.

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe Monday, former GOP congressman Joe Scarborough renounced his longtime opposition to gun control, but also suggested, as if in a tradeoff, that it was time to set limits on entertainment content. Decrying “the harvest sown from violent, mind-numbing video games and gruesome Hollywood movies that dangerously desensitize those who struggle with mental-health challenges,” he asserted that Hollywood’s First Amendment rights do not allow it to peddle violent movies with impunity.

Columnist Peggy Noonan added to that: “everyone who has warned for a quarter-century now that our national culture has become a culture of death—movies, TV shows, videogames drenched in blood and violence—has been correct.”

Possibly sensing a stirring, and not wanting to get on the wrong side of it, TV networks and movie studios have been pulling and postponing entertainments having anything to do with bullets, blood, child endangerment or simply death. Which is turns out is quite a bit of stuff. Movie premieres were cancelled for Django Unchained and Jack Reacher. Episodes of shows like Family Guy and American Dad were pushed back. Discovery Channel is cancelling one reality show about gun sellers and enthusiasts (though the decision may have been made before the shootings) and has pointedly not decided about another. TLC pulled a special (and possible new series), Best Funeral Ever, scheduled for Dec. 27. It will instead air Jan. 6, by which time I guess it will be totally appropriate again.

OK, so these are gestures. Gestures are fine—it’s only decent to be a little more considerate at a time of suffering and try not to stir up bad feelings. But if something is really inappropriate one week, is it any better a year later—and vice versa? Is any of this addressing a real problem or threat, or just p.r.?

There are some reports that shooter Adam Lanza liked to play violent video games. There has been less evidence that he was in any way influenced by violent movies. And there is little substantiation for the idea that any pop culture of any sort enabled his spree, or anyone else’s, to an equivalent degree that having access to an arsenal of guns did.

Yet this is what we do after a tragedy like this, because things feel wrong. Things feel sick. There must be something in the air. And popular media is our air. When actual violence horrifies us, people notice the fictional violence that horrifies them and decide there must be a causal connection, QED.

It’s a gut argument. Noonan really says as much: “Deep down we all know it, as deep down we know our culture has a bad impact on the young and unstable who aren’t sturdy enough to withstand and resist sick messages and imagery.” Typically of Noonan, it’s culture warfare as Goldwater slogan: In your heart, you know I’m right.

But does it work as an answer to the real-world fact that Americans sell a lot of guns, keep a lot of guns and–more so than citizens of other countries–use those guns more quickly out of anger, aggression or insanity? To accept that, you have to overlook that those bloody multiplex movies are among America’s most reliable exports, eagerly consumed in industrialized nations with far lower rates of gun violence. You have to overlook that violent video games, and other gory entertainments, are popular in Japan, where guns and gun murders are scarce. If this doesn’t exonerate, or excuse, dumb violence, it at least indicates that armed assaults don’t leap fully formed from American TVs. (Media scholar Jason Mittell has a much more in-depth look at the evidence, or lack thereof, that pop-culture violence causes real violence.)

One argument I’m suddenly hearing a lot of is: Of course violent TV has a violent influence. Isn’t the whole TV advertising model based on the idea that content can influence action? Does that influence stop once the commercials are over?

For starters: yes, actually, it kind of does. In the sense, at least, that advertising is a different kind of rhetoric from fiction. It’s generally a direct argument: buy this product, for this reason, you will get this benefit, you will look and feel a certain way.

Fiction–even really bad fiction–doesn’t work that way. It tells a story, and people make meaning from it. It can have profound effects on people, but not necessarily the same ones on everyone, and it’s message isn’t linear. Breaking Bad, for instance, is a violent story of bad people, but you would have to have much more contempt for its viewers than I do to assume that it’s “message” is: life is cheap, power is awesome, so go cook some meth, dominate your wife and hurt whomever you have to, even kids, to get your way.

Now, most pop culture is not Breaking Bad. There are many lousy movies and TV shows that do, in fact, portray violence as awesome and exciting and not much else. There are others—I’d say The Walking Dead for instance—that both offer splatter-pandering and ask tough moral questions. None of us have yet seen Best Funeral Ever, so I can’t say that it’s reprehensible simply because it’s an entertainment about funerals. But Six Feet Under was an entertainment about funerals, often using dark humor, and yet that show was a deeply thoughtful examination of life and death. It’s not as easy as saying certain content and subject matter = offensive.

But the kind of discussion we get after atrocities like Newtown usually isn’t interested in qualitative judgments, only quantitative. It becomes about weighing content on a scale. If it’s bloody, it advocates violence. If it has sex, it advocates sex. List the curse words, count the bodies, measure the fluid ounces of blood and you got your answer.

One reason, I think, that discussions of pop culture at times like this are so polarized and useless is that we mix up influence and causality. That is, yes, art and entertainment affects people—moves them, gets in their heads and stays there. That’s why it exists. (I wouldn’t write about it for a living if I didn’t think it had ideas that were worth engaging with.) But it doesn’t follow from that that it programs people, that it affects the same people the same way, that it causes certain predictable aggregate actions (be it violence or teen sex) or that it can move a society in a certain planned direction en masse.

Peggy Noonan says blithely that “when Hollywood wants to discourage cigarette smoking it knows exactly how to do it, because it knows exactly how much power it has to deliver cultural messages. When Hollywood wants to encourage environmentalism it knows how to do it.” Really? Did I miss the passage of the cap-and-trade law? Noonan’s claim doesn’t explain why Hollywood remains much to the left of its audience–on environmentalism, on foreign policy, or, hell, on gun control. The American audience has shown plenty of capacity for gladly paying to see “message” movies, then living life by a different message. When it comes to movies and society, it’s not nearly so clear who is the leader and who the follower.

But you don’t need causality to be critical of excessive, numbing, bludgeoning violence in pop culture. It should be possible to criticize it without reaching for a dubious argument that it leads to massacres. It’s enough to say that it punishes our sensibilities. That it often substitutes for imagination. That it’s just freaking exhausting sometimes to live in a pop-culture whose aggression level is pumped up to 11, to sit through movie trailers that are 15 eardrum-shattering variations on FIREBALL TORTURE BREAKING GLASS, to see assaultive video game and movie ads everytime you watch a game on TV. (Linda Holmes and Alyssa Rosenberg are two critics who have been writing perceptively about this even before Newtown.)

And a heartbreaking crime like the Sandy Hook shooting could remind us that we want something other than mayhem in our culture, without our having to claim that it leads to real-life mayhem. It could just be an occasion to ask: hey, isn’t there something besides this? Aren’t there interesting subjects for ambitious cable dramas besides charismatic brooding men killing people? And maybe your “escapist” torture-porn movie is never going to make anyone torture someone else–but doesn’t it make the world more grim and unpleasant?

We could do that. We could expect creators and entertainment companies to do better, not because bad movies are anywhere near the moral or practical equivalent of loaded guns, but simply because it would be better.

Or we could go through another round of hyperbolic claims about the media, and temporary p.r.-driven postponements. That it looks like we’re going the latter route—again—is just one more thing to be depressed about.