Is violence on TV and Films useless and socially damaging?

“Television is full of fictional and real violence that is turned into entertainment.” Bill James

“Seeing a murder on television… can help work off one’s antagonisms.  And if you have not any antagonisms, the commercials will give you some.” Alfred Hitchcock

“Art has to reveal to us ideas, formless spiritual essences. The supreme question about a work of art is out of how deep a life does it spring.” James Joyce

It could be argued that in the last decades, if not since its very inception, popular culture has been permeated with activities and displays which glorify blood and violence; from the movies, we watch to the books we read, to the nightly news, blood and violence are everywhere. Individuals are both repelled and attracted to it.

And yet, for all the protests over the amount of violence that media displays on a habitual basis, these shows, books, or sports are among the most consumed forms of entertainment. One could argue, that popular culture gives a person insight into the underlying beliefs of a society. It seems that as blood is a measure of life, those violent acts which are most bloody are the most compelling, they are saturated with meaning precisely because they are a combination of both life and its potential loss. Violence does not necessarily lead to blood, nor blood to violence, it is when the two are combined that the most powerful messages are sent.

However, this is a double-edged sword, while violence and its results can sometimes help punctuate narrative objectives, often times, violence is displayed just for the sake of displaying violence. It works, because it appeals to the most basic human instincts that are attracted to violence, just like a well placed canned laugh can be used to lessen the effect of a really bad joke, violence is often used so bad content can be overlooked.

Being exposed to violence in the screens can a desensitizing effect on personalities especially for people who are highly impressionable, such as children or teenagers; in those cases, it can cause more aggressive and confrontational behaviours. This is aggravated by the fact, which more often than not, violence in pop culture passes without remarkable harmful consequences: i.e. a character jumps off a building with only grazes or is beaten to an unbelievable degree and comes out of it with a smile and at most, some beautifully placed blood stain. On another hand, violence is, more often than not, glorified by the use of the protagonist and when he or her employ it, violence is seldom depicted as aggressive, but instead as righteous, more importantly, it becomes a prevalent tool to resolve conflict and to assert oneself as being.

Still, one could make the exact opposite point, that is not violence on media that breeds violence in our societies, but the other way around, and entertainment is just portraying a social reality, that increasing levels of violence are not the cause of media but of socialization.

Violence in popular culture, or dare I say it, in culture in general, is not useless or negative by definition, it is also not always intrinsically necessary, but neither it can be completely disregarded; if one of the functions of art is to reflect life, it would be a faulty reflection without including violence, for as problematic and negative as it is, it’s a fact of life in our societies; indeed, Shakespeare’s plays were some of the most violent of the time, Greek catharsis usually required violence and, if we collected them, we could pocket gallons of blood from 1001 nights, all of them are unique and exquisitely valuable pieces of a culture at its peek and tell stories with worth. What is indeed negative and useless, is gratuitous violence and blood, only for the sake of entertainment, that only seeks to appeal to the basic instincts, that is cool and doesn’t invite or prompt a reflection about it. But before demanding the reform of what is displayed in popular culture we should first embrace a critical viewing of all the content we consume.

Violence on TV should have a function, evoke not only feelings but also thoughts: Would we enforce that violence?  How would we feel on the receiving end?  Films and TV products that use violence devoid of message, compare to those who make positive uses of violence portrayals – like say, a film that is portraying violence to convey the sheer horror of a situation to the point that the viewer is transfixed uncomfortably by a pain that is lingering–, as you would compare Rembrandt with a street caricaturist, there is a mastery of artistic value in the former than the latter will never achieve. Our attitudes towards that content should be the same, no one goes to the national museum to see a caricature or displays them with untold pride in honoured spaces of their homes, maybe they fancy being comically depicted every once in a while, but they do not give more value to result, than they would to any random souvenir. For violence in fiction to be useful, it should be troublesome to the audience, it should disturb. The portrayal of violence should never inure us to its inherent horror or dull our concern.

A production that only portrays violence is as problematic as one that only deals with eternal happiness, life encompasses a myriad of emotions, from love to hate, from profound misery to exhilarating happiness, from the loss to discoveries, and all the much more common in-betweens. Films that only portray one single thing are negative, simply because they are incomplete. By Paula R Escribà

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