Using Violence for Good and Evil

So I was cruising twitter at work, as I do, and I came across this excellent article by Drew McWeeny.

What happens when we find ‘The Line’ as viewers?

In it, he talks about how, as a movie reviewer, he has seen hundreds of depictions of rape, and how he finally just snapped. He’s questioning why this happens so often, and coming to the conclusion that is essentially laziness on the part of the writers/directors, in most cases. (It’s quite a good article, you should read it.)

Anyways, I sent it to my movie-buff friend, and he came back with this.

He makes a much-needed point. I haven’t seen a lot of movies that included on-screen rape – only one comes to mind, and I’m hoping it’s only that one, because otherwise something is seriously wrong with me that I’ve just gone and forgotten the others – but the same principle applies (in a lesser sense) to other depictions of extreme violence and sexuality on-screen.

And I responded;

And it goes beyond mere gratuitous violence/sex, which is the usual accusation against pointless content. It’s just sloppy. So much writing nowadays is short-hand for emotional impact. (And I’m guilty of this too.) We need the audience to feel grief– so the child dies. We need the audience to feel horrified– so we rape someone. It angers me on two counts, because a.) it’s sloppy writing (something I feel strongly about), and b.) it cheapens the actual grief, pain and violence. Which is something I feel even more strongly about.

I thought of you when I read this, because I seem to remember you saying something like that in the past. 😀

Then Zack again…

Well, I sure hope I said something like that. ‘Cause, yeah, it’s true. I think it also indirectly leads to lack of character development, because seriously, what kind of writer would be able to write a convincing, sympathetic, well-developed character and then just casually have another character rape him/her, or the like? I mean, maybe a psychopath writer, but I sure can’t imagine doing that, and I think what generally happens is that that kind of thing is used as a substitute for character development, which ties in to what you’re saying about sloppy writing. Ironically, because the audience or readers won’t be all that attached to the character being brutalized in some way, they won’t feel the affect of the act as keenly, which, yeah, cheapens the evil on display and feeds the growing prevalence of apathy towards this kind of stuff.

And at this point I asked if I could put the conversation on my blog.
And I’ve been thinking about this over the last few days, because of my reaction to certain things in books. Books about Cancer, specifically. And everyone in my internet is suddenly reading A Monster Calls and A Fault in Our Stars, both of which I’m sure are fabulous books, but ones that I am terrified of. This would be because I lost my little brother to cancer at the age of 4, and it was not a good time for me. (I’m not gonna bother to go into how bad of a time it was, because if you can’t infer it from “little brother died of cancer when he was four” then we clearly have a failure to communicate that goes beyond word choice.)
That’s not to say that stories about tragedy cannot be worthwhile. The best stories invariably DO contain a seed (or sometimes a forest) of pain. In all of my favourite books, horrible things happen, have happened, will happen, and are being dealt with. But pure content does not make a story good or bad. But pain as content is something like juggling fire. If it’s done well, it’s awesome. If it’s done badly, it is a really bad thing for everyone. I firmly believe that there is no middle ground.
And unfortunately, stories about cancer usually go down in flames; Nicolas Sparks being a prime example. Children dying is used in procedural TV shows to add a dash of pathos. The slow death of a child is used as a checkbox to elicit a brief emotional response, and then the story moves on to the important stuff– the sexual tension between leads. It worries and disgusts me.
So if I feel like that about cancer, something that touches huge swatches of the population and yet is mishandled in fiction and the media constantly, how do rape survivors feel about how often it’s used (as outlined in the article I linked to), to add some brief horror and sexiness to a film? How do domestic violent survivors feel about all the jokes about “he didn’t give me the right gift, so I’m gonna beat him up/if she doesn’t give you a sandwich give her a black eye.”
And I am not immune to this failing. It is so much easier to give a character a traumatic backstory and then never deal with it. Because yeah, I don’t want to deal with it. Pain is not fun to delve into, I’d rather add some trauma to make people edgy and badass and then have them be So Awesome™ for the rest of the story. So writing this post, and thinking about it, has made me realize that is a terrible approach to story-telling. If I want to share my stories (and I do), I have a responsibility to make sure they don’t go around throwing people’s pain in their face and telling them that it is worthless. And I do not want to do that.
P.S. Still gonna read The Fault In Our Stars someday. Just maybe when I’m feeling less fragile.

6 thoughts on “Using Violence for Good and Evil

  1. The paragraph that I wanted to cheer for was this one:
    If I had to pinpoint what bothers me most about the subject, though, it’s that our ratings system in this country is so broken that a film that contains a sustained, brutal rape sequence featuring full-frontal female nudity can breeze right through with an R-rating, but if you include a sequence in which two people engage in spirited, consensual sex and we see anything that resembles reality, you are automatically flirting with an NC-17 or going out unrated. We have created a code of film language in which the single most destructive act of sexual violence is perfect acceptable to depict in the most graphic, clinical detail, but actual love-making has been all but banished from mainstream film. There’s no “almost” about it; it is disturbing on a philosophical level to realize how backwards the system is right now, and I think one of the reasons many filmmakers will include a rape scene is so they can get some nudity into their movie, and the context doesn’t matter to them.

    That can be generalized to any violence, really–decapitation is, I’m pretty sure, just an R now–but rape is one of the most violent acts a person can survive, which is why it’s overused as a device to traumatize characters.

    • I agree, that is an awesome paragraph and a deeply disturbing point.

      And I barely knew, because I usually don’t watch movies, and especially not R-rated ones. Comes from living in a town without a theatre.

      I’m not arguing for “nothing bad” in media, not at all. I just think how we’re USING the extreme content we’re allowed to portray is very problematic. Case in point, that quote. That’s just DEEPLY worrying.

  2. This is really good.

    When I think about PAIN (all the examples you’re talking about) in fiction, the sources that I am okay with them are generally books. Partly I think because I don’t have to watch an actual human being go through it, but also because the books that I’m thinking about (eg A Monster Calls) don’t just add in pain to get pathos from the consumer. They are investigating pain in the human condition (common tragic things that happen to human beings) to see how humans deal with them, can deal with them, should deal with them. One of the foremost reasons I read is to learn about all the things that I don’t know that happen to or involve humans, even if they’re painful. Um so there’s that. I’m not very eloquent at the moment. Um as long as the author is respectful, too. And I’m not going to read a crappy book just because it has subject matter I don’t have experience with, LOL. I have the same standards, obviously, for reading the book in the first place.

    Me and the words….it’s my birthday I can do what I want. But this is a fantastic post. You did a really good job of explaining your thoughts (most of which I kinda knew but they’re all together and stuff now).

    • I am glad you think it’s good. 😀

      I personally am also better with written fiction-pain than, say, tv-pain. But that could be because I am more familiar with fiction, so I am both used to print and not video, so that in the one I know what I’m in for and I can spot tells in the story, while in the other I am all AUGH WHAT IS HAPPENING WHAT IS HAPPENING all the time. So me personally– books all the way. That is NOT to say that there can’t be great movies that I am not going to rewatch. The Departed was a fabulous movie with a lot to say about justice and sacrifice and the costs of going under cover, and basically everybody dies on screen in the last 5 minutes. I dug my nails into my hands until they bled. (No big deal, just choking on terror over here…) ANYWAYS.

      And yes. I agree about the “investigating pain in the human condition” thing. For example, I cried over Plain Kate again last night.

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