Film, Violence, Ratings,

Heard a great presentation by a job candidate today on the motion picture rating system and increasingly violent content in PG-13 films. I’m not much of a film fan (tl:dw), but it got me thinking about violent content and television. And also, an argument we were having in my class today about violence onscreen and off.

So here’s my dilemma. I’ve always been skeptical of narrow media effects arguments: comic books and juvenile delinquency, romance and loose morals, porn and sexual assault. But at the same time, I find myself ever more disturbed about the images of violent masculinity on television and the kind of endless “critical acclaim” they garner: Breaking Bad, Justified, Walking Dead, Grimm, Sons of Anarchy, The Following, etc.

I think I need to do some research on this — not sure if it’s just my own perceptual shifts or if there’s something going on in all this post-recessionary manlitude.

2 responses to “Film, Violence, Ratings,

  1. Have you read or heard of Adam Kotsko’s “Why we love sociopaths?” It is pretty silent on the fact that most of the sociopaths in question are men so it might benefit from your critical eye, but it is a quick read and makes some interesting left-inflected observations on something like this phenomenon.

    In general, I think your reflex to ignore narrow media effects arguments, but there is a case to be made for what Doug Keller called a “symptomatic reading:” What does this media tell us about what (media executives think) audiences want? That parenthetical caveat is a pretty important one, but the fervor with which Breaking Bad fans tell me about how great the program is seems to indicate there is something going on. I think video games figure in here as well though I’m not sure how. My first thought there is inspired by the relative furor over sex on screen.

    It is worth noting that I think many of the shows you mention are on cable or basic cable. In those cases, it seems like the medium is just stretching its legs after decades of relative puritanism. That and the increased possibilities of a narrative arc make it easier to write graphic violence into a script in a meaningful way – and once fans of shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad see some ghastly act of violence, it takes more to impress them. That’s just off the top of my head. I’ve never watched Grimm but it’s worth noting its namesake were a pretty popular set of stories, and far more violent than the Disney-washed stuff we’ve been spoonfed.

    I didn’t see the presentation, but it is possible that the ratings board is getting laxer. What were the conclusions the speaker drew from this? How does US TV compare to that of other countries? When my wife was in Spain, they played Silence of the Lambs unedited on network TV – but they also televised bullfights from beginning to end. When people talk about US TV – especially in the context of gun violence, I’m skeptical of it as some primary cause, but it certainly fits into the overdetermined cultural scene from which these shootings emerge. On the other hand, as several people have pointed out to me in these debates, it is important to note that gun related deaths in the US are overwhelmingly dominated by suicides rather than murders.

    If you look at the firearm-related death-rate per 100,000 population in one year, we are certainly a violent country by European standards – 10.2 as compared to France’s 3.0 or Germany at 1.2 or the UK at 0.25 – but of that 10.2, 6.3 are death by suicide. To come full circle, Kotsko’s argument (augmented by Mark Ames “Going Postal”) seems to suggest part of what might be attractive about violent TV shows right now is that we live in an increasingly desperate society where there appear few avenues for agency.

    It is sort of a tangent, but Malcolm Harris’s take on Breaking Bad is also worth reading – he makes some good point about race, arguments that might work for Weeds as well vis a vis the drug war:

    • So much to think about this and I’ll check out the article on BB. Regarding suicides and gun deaths, true, but it’s also true that the US has the highest murder rate of the industrialized north. Compare the US to Canada or England, for example, and you get a sense of the disparity. Of course, that varies in the US by region and it would probably make more sense to look at maps like this to come closer to understanding externalized forms of violence. With the exception of DC, the highest murder rates also line up with the highest numbers of executions. Homology between state violence and violence at the individual level worth thinking about.

      Have to think more about TV and violent masculinity. Have you seen Argo? For me, one of the pleasures of the film (and I know that there’s been a lot of criticism about its representation of Iranians and yes, the CIA as heroic) was that you have men relying on guile rather than brute force to attain their goals. None of the good eyes guys are armed. None of them throws a punch. Very different from Homeland to take one example and certainly a very different form of masculinity.

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