When Entertainment Violence Works
[Sorry for the break in the conversation, work and taxes took me away from writing. This became my second essay on violence in our culture and entertainment. To read the first essay go to: Violence in Entertainment. I was headed in a different direction with the second essay, then I felt I needed to define the what/how/when of entertainment violence before I wrote about the growing number of people on the fringes who can’t handle the violence we are displaying.]
Let’s define how entertainment uses violence. Sometimes it works and is necessary. We’re talking about the exposure and response to violence in entertainment, including film, television and video games along with sports and even old world forms of entertainment like theatre and books. This is make-believe or simulated violence. I’m not discussing actual violence that happens to a person, her/his family and loved ones or is personally witnessed. (I plan to address that topic in another essay: Do we live in a Violent Society?) I’m also not currently addressing actual violence reported on and exploited by the news media. (I’ll get to that in the next essay. It’s a barrel of monkeys unto itself.)
Violence is used in entertainment to create a visceral and emotional response in the audience. The emotions range through fear, anger, sadness, excitement, desire (in its many forms) and even hope or joy when we wish for it to turn out well or when it does. There might also be some pleasure when the villain gets her/his due. Through the art of storytelling, we usually associate with a character or a collection of characters, our heroes. They are placed in opposition with other characters who either are violent to our “heroes” or are expendable due to the fact that they are on the opposite side of our heroes, the villains. We root for the heroes and revile the villains. Our heroes are the good guys and the villains are the bad guys. Here are a few of the factors usually at play:
1. The hero is “us”, and the villains are “other”. This plays on a very deep human impulse to fear and hate anyone who is not part of our tribe or is different. There is not a lot of room for seeing the other as the same as us. When it is addressed, we know we’re watching some serious drama. We are for us and against the other because the other wants something we have, disagrees with our world view or way of life, or generally wants to see us off the planet. Playing on this us-other instinct increases racism, sexism, specieism (when dealing with aliens or radioactive spiders[i]), and other –isms that differentiate us from others.
2. Our heroes are the good guys. Along the way they might have to do bad things, such as kill more people than a mid-sized village, but the means justify the end. Since the Second World War, most of our heroes have been what are classified as anti-heroes. We acknowledge that our heroes might have to do awful things to win. They no longer wear white hats. Their hats are grey which are lighter than the black hats worn by the villains. We justify their by contrasting them with the villains who behave in worse way than the heroes and by excusing the collateral damage as being the villains fault. Lately, there has been some acknowledgement that our heroes are damaged by the deeds they must do to win and the journey might destroy them or at least leave them with scars that they will carry for the rest of their lives.
3. The violence is justified as long as the villains get theirs in the end. The bad guys must be punished for their misdeeds. It is the basis of our moral code. If the villain gets off or goes free, it is wrong and the violence and journey were not justified. In recent films, villains have been increasingly going free. This might be causing some of our current problems with violence.
4. There is an implied argument between right v. wrong and good vs. evil. The entertainment asks us to support one way of life or world view over another, even though we might not actually agree with the world view we are asked to support.
5. The emotional experience is entertaining in that it amuses us and distracts us from our lives, it often leads us to consider thoughts/feelings/experiences we wouldn’t in our lives and it helps us experience our own large emotional responses, including violent tendencies, in a safe and controlled environment.
The “healthy” response to well told violent entertainment is to recognize that it is a fictitious story with characters who are not real people. We are experiencing a story. We are able to differentiate between the story and real life. We have a cathartic emotional experience that releases our own need to act violently. This normal response shifts when the “rules” are broken, such as: violence is gratuitous or excessive; the hero injures others, especially innocents unnecessarily; or the villain does not pay for his/her violence. The response also shifts if the violence feels real, we begin to empathize with the person injured, or we feel as if there is no justice.
In many ways, the violence we are seeing in entertainment is slowly evolving towards a more actualized relationship to violence. This reminds me of a chart in Carol Pearson’s book, THE HERO WITHIN: Six Archetypes We Live By. She writes about the Warrior Archetype and the phases of the Warrior’s journey. [I’ll switch up the masculine/feminine pronouns because Warriors aren’t only men.]
First Phase – The Warrior sees the enemy as the other. The enemy is completely different and separate than the Warrior. The Warrior objectifies the other, denies any similarity with himself and barely acknowledges his enemy as human. He negates the enemy’s desires, drives and humanity. He denies the right and the justice of the enemy’s point of view. He objectifies and negates the humanity of the enemy’s family, relations and people. They are all enemy. The Warrior must win at all costs, even at the cost of his loved ones and his own life.
Second Phase – The Warrior begins to recognize the enemy as being similar to her. She respects her opponent and appreciates his abilities. She recognizes the humanity of the enemy and acknowledges that she shares the same drives, needs and feelings as him. She begins to appreciate the point of view of the other side. She still has a duty and responsibility to fight for her side and fights to win, but it is out of duty rather than malice. The Warrior learns to fight for true beliefs and values and the importance of fighting for self and others. Her sacrifice is vital to protect her people and their rights.
Third Phase – The Warrior knows that the enemy is a part of himself. He and his Enemy are in many ways the same. The battle is for the good and right. He knows that he also contains evil (a shadow) and must do bad things for the right to win. For him to win, he must conquer the evil within himself. He accepts the fight will cause him permanent mental and physical damage. If he survives, he will forever wear the scar. The Warrior knows assertion (I’d say aggression) as part of the dance of life. It is a part he must play.
Carol Pearson writes about the Warrior Archetype being one of six (Innocent, Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, Martyr/Caregiver and Magician)[ii] that all humans must traverse through all phases to be actualized. As much as it is true for the individual, it is also true for the culture. The United States being younger than the Old World Western and Eastern Cultures is still making its way through the first and second phases. Our entertainment reflects this.
There is nothing wrong with telling the first phase Warrior stories to fifteen year old boys. And since it seems that they are the only audience that the Entertainment Industry is targeting, this might be ok. However, we as a culture we need to move through the phases of the warrior’s journey.[iii] [iv]
Our lack of true initiation rites for our youth might be the reason we are having difficulty moving through the phases of warrior. Or it might be the Military’s committed use of psychology to craft warriors who objectify their enemies and disassociate from their emotions.
My largest concern is that the creators of entertainment have become disconnected to the potency of portrayed violence and overly driven by commerce. It’s ok to play with fire if you are properly trained and have a healthy respect for fire. If not, you could end up burning down the barn and the country.
Next I'll discuss how are brains impacting our response to violence in entertainment.
Next I'll discuss how are brains impacting our response to violence in entertainment.
[i] Building on the current trend to retell fairy tales with overly amped up violent films such as JACK, THE GIANT SLAYER, HANSEL AND GRETL, LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD or SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, Jan Strnad and I were joking that it was time for MUFFET, THE SPIDER SQUASHER. It would you be a hyper-tale of a grown up and busty Little Miss Muffet who exterminates a plague of giant radioactive spiders. “Get off my @#%$ tuffet!”
[ii] Carol Pearson later added an additional six archetypes in AWAKENING THE HEROES WITHIN: Twelve Archetypes to Help to Find Ourselves and Transform the World. The twelve archetypes she lists are divided into three sections: Preparation for the Journey: Innocent, Orphan, Warrior, Caregiver; The Journey – Becoming Real: Seeker, Destroyer, Lover, Creator; and The Return – Becoming Free: Ruler, Magician, Sage, Fool. Her work deeply draws on Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and their people.
[iii] As we plunged into the unnecessary Iraq War, I kept feeling George W. Bush and many in our country were stuck in first phase Warrior. As many faced the complexities of the situation, we became disinterested in the war. Fighting a clear enemy like Saddam was easy. Being in the midst of a civil war where the enemy became unclear (was the enemy the Shiites, the Sunnis or the Americans?) we lost our appetite for combat.
[iv] This is not to say that it is not being done. For every Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Dolph Lundgren, Vin Diesel and Steven Seagal who all tend to play in 1st Phase Warrior land, there is a Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jason Statham who tend to play on the 2nd Phase. I especially appreciate the Chris Nolan’s Dark Night Trilogy, the Lord of Rings or the last few James Bond films for wading into 3rd Phase Warrior muck while still producing popular entertainment. Of course, this might be the problem, we have trained our audiences to watch 1st phase Warriors and then we give them a Batman who is trying to master the 3rd phase of being a Warrior. Was this the cause of the massacre in Aurora? Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN should be noted as an interesting 3rd phase Warrior story. [This list is highly debatable. It is intended as a suggestion not a definitive list.]