The increasing darkness of popular culture

While scanning the headlines at Tor.com, I came across this review of the first book in a new gritty fantasy trilogy starring a 14-year-old murderous sociopath.

Now I haven’t read the book nor am I likely to read it. I don’t know the author – for all I know he is an absolutely wonderful person beloved by everybody. All I know about this book is the what’s in the Tor.com review. That’s also why I’m not naming book and author here. Because this post is not about a particular author and a particular book. Besides, it’s not as if this was the only example of ultra-violent, ultra-bleak and ultra-dark epic fantasy out there. There are other books and other authors in the same vein, many of them quite well known and successful.

As it is, I only picked the Tor.com review as an example for a disturbing trend. What trend, you ask. Well, the trend for pop culture to get increasingly darker and more violent. This trend was also addressed in the debate about nihilism in epic fantasy earlier this year. You can find my round-ups of the discussion here and here.

However, the trend towards violent antiheroes* with very few redeeming aspects and almost pornographic violence, disproportionately often committed against women and children, is not just limited to the fantasy genre. It can be found across the entire spectrum of pop culture and it has been growing since approx. 2000.

Here’s another example. And this time I’m also naming names, since it’s not a fantasy novel by a debut author, but a multiple Emmy winning TV-series, namely Breaking Bad, which is the story of a normal American suburban middle class guy who finds out he has cancer, becomes a drug manufacturer and dealer to earn money for his family and starts killing a shitload of people. Some time ago, I read this article about Breaking Bad and asked myself the following question: Why the hell is this considered quality television that wins awards?

Because my reaction to reading the Breaking Bad article and the Tor.com review was exactly the same: “Oh my God, this sounds absolutely revolting. Please don’t tell me that this is a real book/film/TV show.”

Nor are those the only pop cultural artifacts that have given me that reaction. Indeed, I find myself thinking “Crap, this sounds unbelievably awful” with increasing frequency. The Tor.com review and Breaking Bad were only two fairly recent examples that came to mind. There are plenty of others. Books, films and TV shows that sound so god-awful that I feel as if I have accidentally stepped into some bizarro parallel universe, where the nastiest stuff imaginable is considered high quality entertainment.

My disgusted reaction to an increasing number of pop cultural phenomena is troubling for me, because I have always viewed myself as a person who likes dark stuff and who can stomach gore and violence. I adored Shakespeare’s Richard III, a magnificent bastard if there ever was one, when I first read the play in 12th grade**. I can give you a list of the best filmic execution scenes – indeed, I have sat through impossibly boring courtroom dramas for a single execution scene at the end. I have written plenty of dark stuff: sexualized violence, tortures scenes, executions, physical and sexual abuse, cutting, rape – I’ve written it all. Two of my currently available e-books include execution scenes and the darker stories I’ve written e.g. for Man’s Story 2 are not even available yet.

What is more, since my teens, I have been vehemently opposed to censorship of violent content and to cutting violent or gory scenes from movies and TV-shows for the sake of “the children”. I am against censoring or banning violent films or videogames. I don’t believe that media violence is in any way responsible for real world violence except in some rare cases of very disturbed individuals who would probably find something violent to inspire them in the Teletubbies.

So the fact that there are works – not just one or two, but a whole lot of them – where the mere description turns me off to the point of “why did something like this ever get made?” is very disturbing for me. After all, I was always the person who defended this sort of thing, who said that while Sexy Teenage Nazi Zombies 2 [apologies if that’s a real title] is almost certainly a film without artistic merit, it nonetheless has a right to exist and adults who want to watch it should have the right to do so freely. I’m still against any sort of censorship of art, apart from the obvious legal exceptions of child pornography and incitement to hatred. But the sort of thing that is increasingly being served up as mainstream entertainment disgusts me more than the Teenaged Nazi Sex Zombies 2 ever did.

I wonder why that is. Am I simply getting soft in my old age? Or worse, conservative? Or has mainstream pop culture really gotten that much worse? Consulting my teenaged diaries and thinking back on my younger years, I notice that my dealbreakers have remained remarkably consistent over the years. What would have made me switch off a film or TV show in disgust or throw a book against a wall at the age of sixteen, still annoys me today. If anything, I have actually become more mellow, because some character actions and plot devices that struck me as unforgivable back in the late 1980s, are acceptable to me today, though I still don’t like them.

So the answer would seem to be, pop culture has gotten so much worse in the past twenty years. Or has it? What bothers me about the examples given above and many others is not so much that there is violence and that there are bad people who do awful things. Violence and people who do awful things are very much a fact of life. What actually bothers me, however, is that these awful things are portrayed as normal actions and that I am asked to sympathize with the characters who do awful things. Another thing that troubles me is that the violence in many of those works is directed disproportionately often against women and children.

Here’s another example: Torchwood was always a dark show from season 1 on. But in season 1, there was still a clear difference between the good guys, even if they did questionable things on occasion, and the bad guys. Okay, so the good guys did not always win and they made mistakes, but they were still likable people. Then, early in season 2, our hero Captain Jack Harkness suddenly tortured a suspected alien terrorist with almost zero provocation. And as fate would have it, this alien terrorist had the appearance of a black woman. This rubbed me completely wrong, because while Jack could be an arsehole, he didn’t torture people, especially not without proof. The same episode also showed three occasions where the alien terrorists explicitly killed children. I stopped watching soon thereafter, when it turned out that the alien terrorist episode was not an aberration but the new normal. Season 3, Children of the Earth, finally not just found justifications for sacrificing and killing children, it also had Captain Jack Harkness kill his own grandchild. I repeat, Torchwood had one of the most likable SF characters in recent years kill his own grandchild. And we’re supposed to applaud this because – well, sometimes you have to make hard choices and sacrifices and such bunk. To which I say: Fuck all that! There’s no way in which a plot like this is ever acceptable.

Alas, it seems I was in the minority with my utter disgust at season 3 of Torchwood or indeed at the equally torture and rape justifying Battlestar Galactica or at Lost or – well, you get the idea. Because while the SFF community quickly decided that Torchwood season 1 was bad television, because it contained the occasional sex scene and gay content and emotional scenes and a Cyberwoman and a petrodactyl and Owen Harper being successful with women and Gwen cheating on her loser boyfriend and because it was not written by Joss Whedon. However, the very same SFF community had overwhelmingly positive feelings about Torchwood season 3, a show which justifies the killing of children and turns its hero into a child murderer. And most of the outrage there was about Children of the Earth was about the death of a member of the regular cast (which annoys me, too, because I liked that character more than the ones who survived, though I liked Owen a lot more and no one mourned him) and not about the fact that the hero of the show had killed several children.

Back to our second example: I actually checked You Tube and found the exploding turtle with severed head scene mentioned in the article linked above. And here is another Breaking Bad scene involving corpse disposal gone wrong. Warning, the clips are obviously pretty violent. Actually having watched those clips, it seems as if Breaking Bad is going for very black comedy, which actually makes it more acceptable to me. Never mind that there is a certain Robert Rodriguez vibe about those clips. And is that Danny Trejo‘s head on that turtle?

However, since Breaking Bad is winning Emmys in the drama category, it probably takes itself deadly seriously. And there’s another difference to the films of Robert Rodriguez. The films of Robert Rodriguez have a moral compass. In fact, both the Mariachi trilogy (lone hero stands up against the drug culture that has Mexico in its clutches) and From Dusk Till Dawn (mundane villainy meets supernatural evil that is infinitely worse) are basically morality plays. Breaking Bad, meanwhile, like so many other American cable TV shows these days does not seem to have a moral compass at all.

And that’s really what bothers me most. Not the fact that there is blood and gore – though there could certainly be a bit more restraint – but that there is no difference between good and bad in these shows. If anything, the audience is asked to root for bad.

I don’t mind villains doing awful things (though I don’t necessarily need to see them rendered in loving detail). They’re villains after all and villains do awful things. However, I like my heroes to be better than that. I also like a bit of humour (it may well be dark), a bit of light and a bit of hope amidst all that darkness. And if there is to be torture and death and destruction, is it too much to ask that the victims be a bit more evenly distributed instead of just targeting women and children?

*Actually, can’t we just call them villains or bastards or biggest jerks in their respective fictional universe? Because once upon a time “antihero” used to designate either lovable rogues like Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds or the sort of passive, unheroic protagonists found in some works of literary fiction. The sort of characters described here strike me as all out bad guys.

**I sometimes joke – with reference to another magnificent bastard who is widely loved – that I adored Tyrion Lannister before he was Tyrion Lannister.

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11 Responses to The increasing darkness of popular culture

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  3. Estara says:

    Do you know – I agree with your worry about this trend a whole lot, because I don’t know what male media heroes to point my students towards which I could feel good about endorsing (this also has to do with the fact that I’ve basically cut myself of from German media since 2003, when I got the full fledged broadband internet flatrate, however).

    At the end of the school year when the grading is done, I like showing films in English with English subtitles, and the class sometimes offers to show their own DVDs and there’s quite a lot of violence included. So I’ve decided (just like I don’t do clas “Wandertag” at a cinema or an amusement park anymore), they’ll have to live with me showing them stuff (which at least part of them enjoy, especially when we go to the big classroom in the basement that has been done as a surround sound film room with beamer) that has men doing fun stuff and being decent at the same time.

    I had a lot of success with showing my 8th graders The Lion King (and another 8th grade Aladdin) in English (because most of them had seen it at least once in German when they were younger) and Wallace & Gromit always go over excellent (has the advantage of not a lot of talk, in comparison). I might get The Invincibles.

    My school being a boys school it’s always best when the heroes are men, of course. But at least they’re decent men who try to work out their mistakes – and who wouldn’t mind/don’t mind getting a girl.

    I am very picky about what media I consume these days and that nihilism stuff just gets avoided. That has the downside of me not experiencing trends myself but only seeing them reflected.

    I agree that violence is a part of life and if you are old enough you should be able to play what you want, as long as you don’t mistake game for reality. But that IS the sign of adulthood, that you have enough judgement and experience not to do so – and it doesn’t have anything to do with age. Like you, I want the violent heroes to have a moral compass though. I also want that moral compass to be rewarded at the end.

    • Cora says:

      I’ve had some success with showing Chuck, a US TV show about a geeky young man working in an electronics store who accidentally gets the contents of a government computer beamed into his brain and gets involved with various spy missions afterwards. Chuck is an everyman hero who is easy to identify with, he’s very brave and a good person who loves his sister and his friends, he’s insecure around women (which appeals to teen boys), he often solves the cases he gets involved in with the skills and knowledge he gained from playing videogames or working at an electronics store. There’s some violence, but it’s not excessive, and also a lot of humour, including physical humour. Plus – and this is important, since we are a mixed school – there are also some good woman characters. The ethnic/racial mix in the supporting cast is nicely diverse, too.

      Doctor Who also works well with students, particularly the earlier seasons of the new series (the last two seasons are too convoluted for ESL kids). There’s lots of humour, cool monsters and aliens and the Doctor is brave, smart and basically good (I don’t show those episodes, where the Doctor doesn’t behave well IMO). And particularly in the first and second season, the Doctor often acts as an inspirational figure for others. There are always good female characters, the cast is diverse and you even have a great gay (well, bisexual, but the gay part is what’s important given the rampant homophobia among teenagers) role model in Captain Jack Harkness. That’s also why I’m so angry about what they did to the character in the latter seasons of Torchwood. Because a positive non-straight role model is so important for kids.

      I’ve also shown Demons, a sort of gender-reversed British Buffy about the last descendant of the Van Helsing family of Dracula fame. But I’m not all that happy with that show, because it has race issues, a hugely problematic drink spiking scene and the mentor character sometimes shoots “monsters” in cold blood.

      For younger students, The Sarah Jane Adventures, a Doctor Who spin-off focusing on a few teenagers and an ex-companion dealing with aliens, can work, though I don’t think it’s available with subtitles. If I let the students bring a film of their own, I tell them that it has to be FSK 12 and something that was originally in English. We’ve had disaster films (Poseidon Adventure and the like), Jurassic Park and once James Bond. I wasn’t too happy with the Bond, but there were several huge fans in that class and I’d used their interest in James Bond to get them to read.

      Most of my students watch and play videogames that are not appropriate for their age. I don’t censure them for what they watch or play, even though I think that a lot of it is neither good nor appropriate. Nothing I can do or say is going to make them stop, if the parents aren’t on board. And I think it is more important that the students know they talk to me about what they’ve watched and played, particularly if something disturbed them. It’s also important that they know that movies don’t necessarily equal real life (particularly if they’ve taken a peek at online porn and many of them have) or that they know historical backgrounds, such as the eighth graders who watched The Baader Meinhof Complex as an action film.

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  8. Valerie says:

    Since no one else mentioned Breaking Bad in their comments I’ll go ahead even though the article is almost a year old.

    Breaking Bad isn’t appealing because of the violence. That show is all about the character development and what the two main players are losing (and gaining?) by doing what they are doing. I find the violence very real and necessary considering the profession Walter and Jesse have chosen. From episode one they are forced to deal with the brutal nature of dealing meth, which is violence. It isn’t meant to be funny, even in a dark way. It’s mentally jarring and highly disturbing. Plus, unlike some other violent shows I have seen, Jesse and Walter are damaged by their actions, not rewarded.

    And if you watch the series, instead of just YouTube clips which could never do it justice, I believe this would be just as apparent to you as it would be to its fans.

    Maybe Dexter would have been a better example of this.

    • Cora says:

      I’ve only seen maybe half an episode of Breaking Bad, because it aired in a horrible timeslot in Germany and I wasn’t interested enough to seek it out online or on DVD, because I’m not a great fan of drug or cancer narratives.

      But I agree that Dexter probably would have been a better example.

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