Violence in the media is always a touchy topic. Many viewers are divided on its usage and its consequences. Some activist groups like the Parents Television Council want to limit all graphic violence from media, as well as sex and profanity. Other groups support violence in moderation, while a third bracket of viewers support the freedom of expression over preventing any “harmful effects” that media violence could propagate. Personally, I fall in the third group. I’ve always had a high gore tolerance (hence my love of slasher movies), and often when watching a particularly gruesome scene, I’ve stopped and wondered “Have I become desensitized?” It’s not difficult to imagine my brain developing immunity to such grotesque images; can you blame me if I stop flinching after the sixth zombie has blown up? Yet at other times, I’m the viewer covering my eyes at a character’s death, and I’m the one still reeling after the movie’s end. It’s not the level of violence that matters, but how’s it presented on-screen that makes the difference. Media falls into 3 main categories: Good Violence, Bad Violence, and Exploitative Violence.
Artistic, Purposeful, Demonstrative
“Good Violence” isn’t exactly prevalent on TV, often because it can be too graphic, but a few excellent shows feature this type of violence. To fit into this criteria, the presented violence must meet 2 of the 3 points. It must be artistic in construction (filmed well, beautifully designed), it must be purposeful (drives the plot/ serves the narrative) and it must be demonstrative ( proves a point/ underlines a theme). One of the shows which I think best exemplifies all 3 of these points is Hannibal.
Hannibal is certainly not for everyone; it’s extremely graphic and rated TV MA, which in movie speak could be rated R. Many viewers find the content disgusting (cannibalism is no joke, okay), but opinions aside, the violence (or ultraviolence) in the show is presented in an unparalleled way. Take for instance, the death of Beverly, a well-loved main character . (Avert your eyes if squeamish).
If you’re unfamiliar with this image, you’re probably thinking “what? Is that what I think it is?” And yes, you’re right. There is a show on television in which a main character was sliced like sushi and presented in glass slides. On any other show, this would be horrific. And it was saddening to see the death of such a beloved character, but the reason Hannibal keeps this grotesque display out of the exploitative category is because of its outlandishness. We know that this type of dissection would be next to impossible to pull off; it’s more similar to a twisted fairy tale than real life.There’s no glee in the way the body is shown and the tone is appropriately somber. Artistically, it’s a stunning scene. It’s not random violence: Beverly’s death is the catalyst towards Hannibal’s downfall. And it highlight the show’s overall theme: exposing Hannibal’s hidden monster.
We see this again in the finale of the second season, when Hannibal fights Jack in his house. The majority of the time, we don’t see Hannibal killing his victims, only the after-effects, but in this scene, the “action” of the violence was shocking.
The scene features almost balletic fight choreography, but is also brutal enough to prevent it from being Bryan Fuller’s West Side Story. It hits all 3 points; artistic merit, purpose (Hannibal and Jack’s confrontation), and demonstration ( thematic release of the beast. In all ways, Hannibal earns the badge of “Good Violence.”
Random explosions. Buildings collapsing. Hundreds, nay, thousands of innocents citizens killed by meaningless destruction that is never addressed in the movie. And most importantly, the endless pummeling of vague “henchman” that is so bloodless and humdrum that we are made to forget that actual violence is taking place. This is what I consider “Bad Violence.” Most superhero movies employ this type of violence because they’re appealing to a general audience in the United States, and an even greater audience overseas. The violence is never specific (i.e we never the after-effects of the victims) and it doesn’t contribute to the plot. Often, I’ve watched a Marvel movie and realized that none of those mind-numbing explosions were necessary.
I’m glad that the Netflix show Daredevil had time to discuss how pointless the Avenger’s destruction of NYC was (especially since Matt was so busy torturing “villains”). It’s one of the only programs to acknowledge the after-math of a standard Marvel finale battle. And speaking of Daredevil, that show is an excellent example of how a television series can exhibit both “good violence” and “bad violence.” The famous hallway scene, for example:
The scene fits all 3 descriptors of “good violence.” It has undeniable artistic merit ( homage to Oldboy), serves a purpose (he must defeat these henchmen to rescue a kidnapped child) and is demonstrative of a theme (the eternal struggle between one vs. many). Simultaneously, it features “bad violence” in the impersonal way the fighting is shown. Matt fights with henchmen after henchmen, all fading away to be replaced by the next antagonist. There are no repercussions to the violence, no awareness that this fight is anything other than a method of demonstrating Matt’s impressive martial skills. Primarily, this scene is “good violence”, but it shows how the divide can be murky.
Another example is the first season of Justified, which I hate to include because I love that show to death, but I can’t deny it fits the bill. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, Raylan Givens is a deputy marshal in Kentucky who spends most of his time shooting people instead of trying to talk to them. The show is aware of the “bad violence”; Raylan’s boss Art often comments on his “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality, and one of Raylan’s main challenges as a character is overcoming his reliance on violence. But with these acknowledgements aside, there’s no denying that the episodes feature purposeless/ ineffective violence too often. Predominantly in shooting deaths.
Okay, good violence, bad violence, but what about the third one? Let me get to my least favorite category:
Purposeless + Exceedingly Gruesome
Let me talk about the show Sons of Anarchy. Now I”m aware that many fans out there stand by this show whole-heartedly, but I’ll explain my opinion on its reliance of what I deem to be “exploitative violence.”
I watched only 2.5 episodes of SOA before giving it up as unwatchable, and bear in mind that I’m not a sensitive person when it comes to TV violence/ gore. In my opinion, it was a nasty show, full of despicable characters, uninteresting writing, and of course, over-the-top displays of violence. The first discovery of the dead and pregnant illegal immigrants threw me off immediately because of the nonchalance associated with the act. It’s one thing for a TV show to exhibit extreme violence, but it’s another to have a breezy attitude about it. I was iffy about continuing the show, especially since it made me feel so icky to watch it. So I looked up the synopsis of the next few seasons on the internet, which is probably never the safest thing to do, and found these gems:
In this scene, Tig’s daughter is burned alive. Yep. As I haven’t watched this far into the show, all I know is that Damon Pope burns Tig’s daughter in revenge for the accidental shooting death of his daughter, Veronica. There’s a purpose to this death, but the gleeful way the death is shown and prepared is shameless. I’m in no doubt that rival gangs are vicious and wouldn’t stop at burning an innocent girl to suit their needs, but I feel like when developing this scene, the writers only thought of what would be the most shocking way to kill this girl. They could have achieved the same effect with any mode of death (just the fact that Damon Pope killed her shows that he’s a cold mofo), but this scene is a wanton act of shock-you television.
Which brings me to the next instance of SOA exploitation, a.k.a the reason I decided not to continue watching the show, and that is the death of the protagonist’s wife, Tara. I hadn’t met much of Tara in the first 2.5 episodes, so I was only vaguely aware of her importance and felt little attachment to the character. Discovering her death in the later seasons wouldn’t have shocked me so much if it wasn’t for the fact that she was killed WITH A FORK by her own mother-in-law for the petty reason of miscommunication.
And all I could say was “Really?” If a television show has to go this far (murdering a MAIN CHARACTER in a humiliating/shameless/unethical way), then its not a quality program. Shows like SOA that use violence for shock value are the reason that we have watchdog groups trying to prohibit violence in television at all. Another TV show that fall into this category is Game of Thrones, which needlessly intensifies the already heavy book violence. Of course, the movies that feature exploitative violence are well-known and fit into their own torture-porn category, so no need to discuss these.
Sifting the “good violence” from the “bad” and “exploitative” is difficult because they often meld together. One person’s exploitative violence (a.k.a the killing of Tara) might be another person’s good violence. I’d say that it’s mostly subjective, but it’s important to distinguish the difference for yourself. For instance, if watching a scene makes you feel sick, and you can’t find a purpose or meaning behind the act, it’s most likely exploitative. Don’t waste your time on exploitative shows. You could spend those valuable hours watching Bob’s Burgers instead! In conclusion, why the hell are people still watching Game of Thrones?
I apologize for picking on Sons of Anarchy, but I truly don’t understand the appeal. If your main character, a.k.a the one you’re supposed to be rooting for, is severely beating prostitutes, shooting people and then having sex next to them, or killing their mother, then what is the point of rooting for them? And you can’t claim that it falls under the same category as Don Draper anti-hero syndrome. Don Draper was a dick, but he never beat up no prostitutes! Jax is simply a horrible, violent, man, and the show is asking us viewers to support him.