Violence in Entertainment
[In response to the recent slate of gun violence, I offer three essays on violence in our culture and entertainment. This is the first of the series. It is a consideration of the topic.]
Is our entertainment making us more violent? After Sandy Hook, Aurora and so many other massacres, we’re looking for someone/something to blame. The list of usual suspects (movies, music, video games, drugs and guns) are quickly rounded up and put on the trial of public opinion and the 24 hour news cycle.
Violence has always been part of entertainment. Violence and passionate love are the extremes of being human, when we are most alive. Plays and films, the forms of entertainment that are most life-like, are drawn to these heightened experiences. Every dramatic work ends or begins with violence or sex. They make good entertainment.[i]
One of my teachers (someone at Shakespeare & Company, either Tina Packer or Kevin Coleman) taught that it is no surprise that theatre expanded from acting out stories around the fireside to a full blown entertainment at the same time we started to live in cities. To live in close proximity with so many others and strangers, we needed to control our impulses and large emotions. Otherwise, our cities would be torn apart by violence. To enjoy the benefits of City living, we had to trade a part of our humanity. Every great human innovation requires a loss of some vital part of humanity.[ii]
As a consolation prize for limiting our full range of emotional expression, we got theatre. Watching actors in the throes of simulated life having the full and raw emotional experience of humanity replaced and settled our own need to have these large emotions. We modulated our response to experience. In exchange, we got theatre and entertainment. The actor’s responsibility is to feel all that we do not allow ourselves to feel, to be the extreme and raw experience. Watching/ Hearing/ Experiencing theater allows us to touch this extremity without going through the full experience ourselves.
Theater also helped to socialize the populace and teach them how to live (and how not to live) in society. Entertainment is intended to be instructive.[iii]
In Ancient Greece, theatre grew to be a community experience. It was large and epic. At the start, the violence was kept off stage. It was reported and spoken. The actors expressed the full experience of the violence and its impact on their lives, but the act of violence was not seen. They didn’t see Agamemnon being stabbed in his bath nor do they see Oedipus gouge out his eyes. Slowly, the violence began to creep onto the stage. By the time the theatre of the Greeks transitioned to Rome, the violence had crept onstage. With the excesses of the Roman Empire, came greater violence as part of the Roman tragedies. It is reported that it grew in excess to the point there were “snuff plays” where actors were actually killed onstage. It’s no surprise since theatre was competing with the Gladiator contests at the local Coliseum.[iv]
What happens to a society when the acts of violence are portrayed in the entertainment? What is happening in a society that needs to continually increase the extremity of the violence in their entertainment? There must be a correlation.
When popular theater resurged again in the Renaissance, violence was initially kept off the stage.[v] They had read their Aristotle. Though in time, the violent acts began to creep onto the stage. As Elizabethan theatre gave way to the Jacobean Era the portrayal of violence expanded and became more explicit. As one part of the culture became more liberal and permissive of all extremes, a conservative backlash grew until the King lost his head, the theaters were closed and the country edged toward a theocracy. Was this caused by the explicit violence in the theaters and the adjoining bear baiting arenas where animals were torn apart for sport?
Soon after motion pictures began at the beginning of last century, there was a movement to force restraint and limit explicit violence and sex. (i.e., the Hayes Code). These restraints began to fall off in the sixties and seventies. Filmmakers began to explore and add more vivid portrayals of violence. It was done to express realism, but it devolved in time for titillation and commerce. They knew and exploited the fact that violence sells. It fed something in our culture.
At this point in my argument, I might be expected to advocate for less violence in entertainment, that the showing of violence in entertainment is a degradation of the culture. However, as I thought about this trend from the violence being kept offstage to being brought onto the stage/screen, I noticed a trend in each of the cultures: the elevation in violence often coincided with a lack of wars in the countries and to the populace. This is not to say the Romans, Elizabethans or Americans weren’t engaging in wars or colonization during the Pax Romana, the Elizabethan Golden Age or America in the later twentieth century. The difference is that the stability and strength of the country meant that the wars did not happen in the country nor was the full populace at war.
Could it be that the expression of violence in entertainment is in direct relationship with the violence in the culture? Some people will argue that the United States in the 2013 is a violence culture, look at the number of gun deaths. I would argue that most Americans have very little exposure to violence. There are certainly violent sections of every city and a sub-section of the populace is regularly confronted by violence. For most Americans real violence is reported on the television and on our smart phones, it is not something we actually encounter. Is this why we need the placebo of violent entertainment? Is it making up for something we intrinsically need as humans?
We haven’t been “civilized” for very long in the grand evolutionary scheme. Primitive life contained a greater daily threat to violence, disease and death than we Moderns experience. The only real daily threat I feel is driving on the freeway in Los Angeles and it is mitigated by my own skill and the “armored” Jeep that protects me.
If we really want to reduce violence in entertainment, perhaps we should have the Civil War that is being threatened by our divisiveness. If we Americans were truly confronted with the risk of violence or death, we might not crave violence in our entertainment.
The biggest problem with this increase in entertainment violence is some in the culture can’t handle it. On one side of the spectrum there are those who are sensitive to violence due to past trauma or their heightened sense of empathy. Experiencing an act of violence for them is like it is happening to them.[vi] On the other side of the spectrum are people, usually young men, who no longer see or feel the violence happening to others. This disassociation from shared humanity disconnects them from their actions and the impact on others. In a few sick young men, their inability to differentiate between media and real violence allows them to massacre others.
Is the violence in our entertainment still helping to socialize our culture? Or has it expanded to nullify and numb any and all emotional response? Is it keeping us from experiencing our lives? Are the people who are becoming increasingly hyper-sensitive to violence coupled with those who have become immune and disassociated from the violence a sign that we are putting ourselves in danger? Are these folks on the edges are proverbial canaries in our coal mine?
Follow this link to the next part of the series When Entertainment Violence Works.
[i] I’m writing about violence in entertainment. Sex and Nudity in entertainment will need to wait for another essay. Discussing violence in the States is a walk in the woods compared to slogging through the swamp of our culture’s relationship with sex.
[ii] While I speak of a living in a city, I’m not just talking about places with a population over a million. For tens of thousands of years humans lived in large tribes where everyone knew each other and was in some way related. When the towns grew to the size where you no longer knew everyone in town, then you had challenges.
[iii] The two chief definitions of the word entertain is to amuse and to consider. Our entertainment should embody both aspects at the same time.
[iv] I wrote this footnote for the Teeter Totter of the Brain Series. I like the idea and wanted to share it again: When the Romans took over a city, they were quick to build three specific buildings: The Amphitheatre (or Hippodrome) for the horse/chariot races and wagering; the Coliseum for the blood sports, and the Theaters for cultural instruction and comedy. These three different venues for entertainment were important because they helped distract and civilize the citizens. The races or athletic competitions fed the desire for competition. There were four teams designated by color throughout the Empire. If you were a Green, you’d root for the Greens wherever you were. Think of this as the sports entertainment that fills our TVs today. The Blood Sports of the Gladiators offered the cathartic experience. This allowed for the release of the basest and most violent instincts. This pacified and distracted the mob. We currently get this from our movies and football. The Theater was built for both tragic and comic plays. This entertainment taught the new populace what it was to be living in their time as members of the Empire. It was also the place that allowed a place to make fun of and ridicule the leaders.
[v] There was theater between the Romans and the Renaissance. I can discuss the full transition in detail, but most people would quit reading. I’m working with bold strokes. If you want more details, write me. As one colleague once said, “Go ask Carey, he’ll tell you more than you want to know.”
[vi] There is a lot of writing on this. The simplest introduction is to the research by Elaine Aron, PhD. Her writing on the Highly Sensitive Person or Sensory Processing Sensitivity is accessible and not to technical. High Sensitivity Persons. Jung coined the phrase “Innate Sensitiveness” in 1913.