There is an epidemic in film and television of senseless violence. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are, in my opinion, two prime examples. In both shows, the prescription for a night’s entertainment is: become connected to a group of people who are all inevitable victims of “fictional worlds” that live by a code of kill or be killed. This is not the cutthroat world of Real Housewives, reality shows based on metaphorical stabbings in the back, manipulation, and defamation. These show are literal “I’m going to cut your throat and stab you in the back” worlds; brutal, carnage-filled atmospheres devoid of hope, change, or justice.
Some creators hide behind the allusion that it’s fantasy or based on a time period when rape and pillaging was the norm. Regardless of the beliefs behind these worlds, I’m choosing to actively step back and reevaluate why I would want to be a part of them in the first place.
As a professor, I am able to take these thoughts that are concerning me and have them debated by younger minds than mine. It’s a privilege and a gift that allows me to peek at another viewpoint I may not have previously held. One such idea is the idea of art and how it may or may not endanger society. Each semester I ask my students to compare and contrast Plato and Aristotle’s views on theatre. (Bear with me here…)
One view is that theatre (and much of art) is dangerous to the perfect society: it builds weak children who are unable to distinguish between reality and fiction. Theatre and the imitation that occurs during acting is said to confuse children, so much so that he may be an eventual threat to the perfect society, as they may become overly emotion and wish to live out what they witnessed on the stage. (PLATO)
The other school of thought was that theatre strengthened a society because it allowed citizens to feel feelings in a safe environment, thereby having a catharis/katharsis or purification of an excess of unsafe or dangerous emotions. This will result in people being much safer and more balanced within society, thereby strengthening society. (ARISTOTLE)
For a long time, I agreed with the latter school of thought – how could I not? I built my life (and my debt) around art, specifically that of theatre. How could I accept that I was doing something harmful to society? I scoffed at the reports that Marilyn Manson made students shoot their classmates at Columbine, video games made you more likely to bomb a building, and that Eminem made you beat your girlfriend. It was art, music, games, entertainment – how could anyone mistake it for real life?
Now… I’m not so convinced. America’s gun culture is a contagion. There’s guns on billboards, in magazines, in advertisements for movies and television, in homes. If the average American watches 5 hours of television a day, that’s 1825 hours a year having gun, crime, and violent imagery reinforced in your psyche. (Imagery like a new television drama that creates a world where it’s sexy to commit murder together.)
And, though, I have a grave concern with the gun laws in America, my main concern tonight is not with gun control, but with these “kill or be killed” television shows that reinforce an unnecessary amount of violence. I’ve watched both GoT and TWD and read the complete Song of Fire and Ice series. I know that these are long-standing literary traditions that outlive their television counterparts. However, after another main character seems to have met a gruesome end on last night’s The Walking Dead, I can’t help but ask: What am I watching this for? And, more importantly, what lesson am I learning?
If the point of all of this media is to teach me that the world is cruel and bloodthirsty – I don’t buy it. One would think that if the lesson I am learning is that the world is cruel, I would also be led to believe that I should be taught a way to fix that world. Right? That’s how the scientific method works: You have a problem, you find a solution. But this is not the lesson that we’re taught when Jon Snow gets an axe to the head or Alexandria Townsperson #4 gets her throat slashed. When the characters we form a bond with, and even those that we don’t, are killed mercilessly and violently, we are not given a solution to end the violence. Our reward for survival is more violence, and that’s no reward at all. This leads me to believe that we’re supposed to not diagnose the violence and mayhem as a problem that needs solving; we are supposed to just accept it as the status quo with no hope for change.
If the message the producers and writers and directors are trying to give me is that you’ve got to fight to survive, I think the producers/writers/directors are lazy. You haven’t given us any hope or beauty or will to survive for. Your show is devoid of hope and logic and the cause and effect we study time and again – so how can you be teaching your audiences anything? How do they make sure this doesn’t happen in their own lives when it seems as though your characters have laid down and just accepted it?
Which leaves me with another option, an option I like even less: that this is somehow solely for entertainment purposes. This is even worse than the flimsy excuse of “surviving” and “learning.” Why would people find it entertaining to watch small children get shot, fragile throats get slashed, women be brutalized, and characters you know and love be killed off with general ease? And, sometimes, those aren’t even the worst deaths. Those beloved characters typically get at least a five-minute period of grief, maybe even an episode of mourning, if they are really lucky. What of the nameless, faceless characters who are cheap kindling? We, the audience, don’t care about them. They are merely added to the body count. We forget that those bodies are supposed to represent people, people who were sons and daughters, people who were in love, or were married, who had hopes and desires, maybe even grandkids. Why are they not worthy of mourning?
When my granddad died, I wore his dog tag around my neck for two full years. I actively mourned him from the second I got the phone call until the chain broke around my neck. For two years I carried his memory with me and now, ten years later, I still mourn the man he was and the life he may have had if his heart hadn’t stopped. That is what death feels like. It’s years of carrying around a memory. It’s a lifetime of holding on to lifetimes. Sometimes it happens quietly, sometimes it happens quite loudly, but regardless of the volume, it happens.
And, yes, you may say, he was a real person. We are talking about fictional people – Starks and Ricks and Lannisters and Alexandrians. But where does the line blur? When do we begin to confuse reality and fiction? When do we become numb to death in our own lives? When do the people on the bus lose their meaning, their names, their DNA, and become just another body added to your count? When do we stop feeling for the fiction and stop hoping in the reality?