If you’re pressed for time, just ignore me. Instead, click over to Mick LaSalle’s excellent essay on violence in popular entertainment. I have things to say, but I can’t imagine I’ll say them any better than he does.
O.K., welcome back. Wasn’t that an excellent use of your time?
To make a not-as-trivial-as-it-first-seems comparison, violence on t.v. and in movies is a lot like soft-drink consumption. We don’t want someone else telling us what or how much to consume. We figure that as long as we pay attention, we can avoid its worst effects. But I don’t believe either product is as benign as its promoters would have us think—and I doubt my own ability to control their effects on me.
Most of my favorite t.v. shows over the years—CSI, Numb3rs, Elementary, for example—are structured around violence. Even when they’re not graphic, violence is the sun at the center of their little solar systems. I think of the characters in these shows as “my people.” I like following their lives, thinking about the decisions they make, hoping the best for them, but most of the time I don’t acknowledge the fact that they’re just small planetoids circling around a central act of violence.
I have my “aha! moments” when I see the violence clearly. Years ago, I was more or less hooked on reruns of The Equalizer, which A&E aired on weekday afternoons. I loved the mythic proportions of the narrative, they way that the central character, Robert McCall, used knowledge gathered during his career as a CIA operative to set things right for ordinary people. Sickened by covert ops, he became a rescuer of everyman (and woman). And since his hands were already stained with blood, since he was used to it, I felt no regret at his continuing violence.
One episode changed all that for me. It was the episode where the bridal parts gets taken hostage by anti-corporate terrorists. Robert McCall makes sure he’s not one of the hostages released early and eventually manages to free everyone. Of course, there was the small matter of the bride being gang raped by the terrorists. But everyone got out alive and McCall made the best of a bad situation and it wasn’t real anyway….
Here’s the thing of it: that particular story wasn’t real, but the events it depicted were real. Women are gang raped; people are held hostage; individuals find themselves victims of larger forces well beyond their control. For just a moment, I saw the violence on that show as truth, not as fiction. And I never watched another episode.
Obviously, given that list above of favorite shows, the fact that I could no longer watch The Equalizer didn’t really translate over to my other television viewing. I never watched Law and Order S.V.U. because I didn’t want to see a show that focused on violence against women, children, the elderly. But it’s not as if some of my other favorites, eschewed that kind of violence—they just didn’t proclaim that as their focus up front.
I am human and therefore, as Melissa put it recently, “messy.” Not in the housekeeping sense (though there is that, too), but in the sense that I’m inconsistent. I make choices that aren’t in my best interest. I’m still watching Elementary. But, at the same time, I wonder what I see (the expanded “I”: conscious, subconscious, literal mind, figurative mind) when I see acted violence. The parts of my mind that I’m in direct contact with know that the violence is staged, know that it isn’t desirable, even if it’s part of an effective story line. But what about the parts of my mind I don’t control? What about the millions (probably) of decisions and assumptions I make every day below the conscious level. How does violent entertainment factor in there?
Melissa and I were discussing Mick LaSalle’s essay (here’s another link in case you breezed by without clicking through earlier) this morning. Melissa pointed out that as a culture, we’ve pretty much come to accept that the pervasive, unnatural, air-brushed images of women in advertising and entertainment have devastating effects on the self concepts of young women (and a good many of us older women, too). We haven’t eliminated those images, but we’ve found ways of responding to them that can strengthen and affirm us.
But we are much less critical about violence.
I’ve come to two resolutions.
First (and this resolution really isn’t new), I intend to avoid entertainment where the violence is the entertainment. I can’t promise I’ll never watch another crime drama or historical movie, but I will do all I can to make sure that the violence is well-contextualized with a world that includes gentleness, respect, and thoughtful approaches to problems as well.
Second (and this is the new resolution), I am going to start training myself to talk back to violence in entertainment the way I take back to all those unnatural images of women that the media keeps throwing my way. When the media give me distorted images of what beauty is, I try to stop, think of the women I know, think of the different shapes of their bodies and the things I find beautiful about them. I think about the price we all pay in terms of our relationships with ourselves and others when we let our understanding of beauty be so arbitrarily limited. When the media show me rape, murder, cruelty, I need to talk back to those images, to remind myself of the real-life damage they do. I need to reflect on the examples set by my friends who are exceptional problem solvers, who find mutually beneficial ways out of what first seem like irreconcilable differences.
We need more conversation. More conversation about beauty. More conversation about violence. And we need to be talking with ourselves, as well as with others.