Sex and Violence

An interesting response to my comments on Schechter’s book at Withywindle’s blog makes me think a bit more about the representation of violence in mass culture.

Withywindle suggests that there is a difference between violence for violence’s sake and violence which serves some moral or dramatic purpose in a cultural work. I’m hard-pressed to think of a cultural work containing violent representations that couldn’t be plausibly argued to have such a purpose.

Violent entertainments almost always present themselves as making both moral and narrative use of violence. Films like Saw, Hostel, and so on can always claim they are delivering some specific message about a particular group of people, a particular way of acting in the world, or more generically, revealing something about “the human condition”. Action films like Transformers or Live Free or Die Hard claim violence as a necessary part of telling a story about conflict.

A critic can cynically ignore those arguments and insist that a viewer who goes to see Hostel is just exulting in the pure violence of the film. But that cuts both ways. When does violence become respectably imbued with message or purpose? When can you safely be said to be watching it for a reason, and not the thrill or satisfaction or emotional power of seeing violence represented? Name me something that a respectably genteel critic would feel to be the legitimate use of violence in cultural representation, and I’ll bet I could make a plausible claim that this is just a mask for illicit pleasure taken in seeing violence and gore. Much as I dislike the sleazy dime-store postmodernism of Paul Verhoeven’s use of violence in Robocop and Starship Troopers, he’s pretty much got this problem pegged. As long as you give a respectable middlebrow viewer enough irony or moralizing disgust surrounding his uberviolence, he’ll furtively enjoy the grand guignol as well as anybody.

The contrast with pornography is instructive. Contemporary cinematic pornography may have started with a protective claim to be doing something other than what it appeared to be doing (e.g., the “educational” angle of I Am Curious (Yellow), or feigned moral disgust at the exposure of illicit behavior on film) but fairly quickly it assumed an alignment between the purpose of its viewers (arousal and sexual release) and the nature of its representation. Later on, other purposes may have started to appear (maintaining a sense of community among people with particular fetishes or interests, an argument about the ‘real’ nature of modern culture or individuals) but mostly it still doesn’t insist that the representation of sex is functional or instrumental to some “higher” purpose. In fact, in most contemporary culture, any time sex is represented as pleasurable and ordinary, viewers tend to take the purpose of such representation to be erotic. If sex is represented and the intent is not centrally erotic or pornographic, the sex almost has to be unpleasant, repellant, disturbing, empty.

We have very few real or experiential ideas about the pleasures of committing violence. Many of us have no experience of committing violence, much less taking pleasure in it. (Many people may have experience of being victims or targets of violence, on the other hand.) Johanna Bourke’s (heavily criticized) An Intimate History of Violence suggests that at least some soldiers in modern wars come to aesthetize and find pleasurable the experience of killing other men, without being aberrational psychopaths or monsters. There’s certainly a literature on boxing that argues not just for the pleasure of watching people fight but even for the pleasure of fighting. There’s a minor canon of cultural works that suggest that fighting or violence of a relatively non-consequential kind is a pleasurable component of manhood. Still, we can readily imagine that the pleasure of sex could be liberating and egalitarian for everyone involved in it, without victims. Violence is always asymmetrical: someone is always hurt. It seems as if we cannot take overt or unguilty pleasure in its representation unless it is purposive, so even the most low-culture work is going to claim somehow that its uses of violence are serving some purpose other than violence itself, that the violence is justified by its righteous or necessary ends.

I think that there’s a pleasure in seeing one comic-book character kick another in the face and I’d rather not churn out a tediously respectable domestication of that pleasure. Violence which is both spectacular and unreal produces pleasure because of its unreality, because it aestheticizes violence. When I was in fourth grade, I didn’t need any tediously righteous adult to tell me that violence was a bad thing: I was getting my face shoved into the dirt on a daily basis. But I also didn’t need a clueless adult telling me that Yosemite Sam getting blown up with a bomb was related to the real-world violence that I was experiencing. It was the lack of relation, its aesthetic purity, that made it funny and pleasurable to watch. Personally, I tend to get more and more squicked by violence in mass entertainment as its accompanying aesthetic makes stronger and stronger claims to realism, and I make more demands at that point for some accompanying purpose. But I also trust in the unarticulated critical intelligence of most viewers. What seems to me to be more distressingly mimetic in its intent or aesthetic may appear obviously hyperreal or exaggerated to some other viewer.

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3 Responses to Sex and Violence

  1. jpool says:

    Nice response over at Withywindle’s. I think there’s way in which it’s not just a question of respectability, but of the very primal nature of violence and sex necessitating a set of political and moral implications for any representations of them, and not just in the flat everything’s moral kind of way. In that sense, it can be more of a question of how well/consciously an artist deals with those implications rather than simply the figleaf of moral instruction.
    I think, to get back to an earlier theme here, that this part of why I personally was unable to switch off my brain and simply enjoy the visual spectacle of _300_ without being constantly irked by its crypto-fascist subtext: it invoked a set of representational politics without really dealing with the problematic implications of those politics.

  2. withywindle says:

    I have anotherlong post on my co-blog on this subject.

    On the pleasures of witnessing violence, and the range of moral and immoral reasons for such enjoyment, George MacDonald Fraser’s Black Ajax, which I have recommended for other reasons before, is very good.

  3. jfruh says:

    I’ve been following the discussion here with some interest, and yesterday I had reason to think about it when I absolutely least expected it: my wife and I rented 9 to 5 (yes, the Jane Fonda/Lily Tomlin/Dolly Parton one), which I had somehow managed to never include in my cinematic education. I was pretty shocked about how violent it was in some ways. Though it was not explicit or gory in a Hostel/Texas Chainsaw Massacre sense, there is this weird undertone of menace.

    The centerpiece of the film is a sequence where the three main characters smoke a joint (something that I also think you wouldn’t see in a mass-market light comedy aimed at middle-class women today) and visualize their elaborate fantasies of what they would do to their terrible boss (Dabney Coleman) if they could. Dolly Parton’s scene is fairly tame: she turns the tables on his constant sexual harassment, then lassos and hog-ties him and (here’s where it gets a little much) roasts him over a fire. Jane Fonda, who was horrified by Coleman’s hunting trophies, imagines pursuing him through the office with a shotgun, before eventually cornering him in a bathroom stall and and shooting him at point-blank range. In light of high-profile workplace shootings that have taken place in the last 20 years (not that I think such things are new by any means), I can’t imagine any studio would greenlight this today. (As a side note, Jane Fonda is dressed in a very fetching hunting outfit in this scene, whereas in the “real life” aspects of the movie, she’s dressed quite dowdily.) Lily Tomlin’s sequence is the best, though: she’s dressed as Disney’s Snow White and tailed by cute cartoon animals, but the action takes its cue from the Warner Brothers cartoons as she poison’s Coleman’s coffee (while the adorable animals egg him on), watches him drink it (he reacts similarly cartoonishly, with his head whirling around and smoke coming out of his ears), and then kicks him out the window of his skyscraper office.

    In the rest of the movie, certain aspects of these violent scenarios play out in “real life”; they are much more “realistic” in those scenes, but still fairly broad and cartoonish. What most struck me was how light and airy the movie was, despite the fact that the bulk of it involves the three principals kidnapping their boss at gunpoint and keeping him hostage in his own home (dressed in a weird S&M mishmosh to keep him restrained, no less). I think if the movie were made today, the violent aspects would almost demand that it be done as a very black comedy, and maybe that’s how it was perceived at the time, but in the present-day context its unrelenting sunniness made it all the more unsettling.

    (I should add that I actually really liked the movie, perhaps not least because it was violent but not graphic — there’s something very visceral about hearing bones break and seeing blood that bothers me, though even if I know that would be the logical result of on-screen violence and I don’t see it, that doesn’t really resonate.)

    Anyway, sorry for the long comment, but I had to talk about it with someone.

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