Rant of the week: it’s time for more realistic violence on TV

Violence is ever present – on our TV screens and on our cinema screens in particular. This is true particularly in the US, where the accidental sight of a nipple during a Super Bowl halftime show will get a TV network a heavy fine but you can have people shot to death, tortured and more during primetime and no one will care.

Some people believe there is a causative link between violence in the media and real-life violence, with proponents seeing violence on TV as creating an environment that makes violence in real-life acceptable to some, perhaps even encouraging them to do it in real-life or to have ideas.

Evidence for this is largely anecdotal and there are counter-studies that indicate, for example, that screen violence can even reduce violence in those who watch it. A more nuanced argument is put out by others, including DB Weiss, one of the show runners of Game of Thrones, which has been criticised for its gore:

“Violence in the real world is awful to witness. But it’s the sanitized versions of violence on TV that are worse because they’re letting kids watch. On network TV, people die in droves in a way that’s clean and easy to watch and fun. It’s more like an old video game.”

The argument here is that showing violence without consequences is the bad idea since it gives people the idea that there’s no issue with violence. So, after the jump, let’s go watch some Banshee. Warning: it’ll turn your stomach. Hopefully.

So, just for background, Banshee is about a criminal who’s been in jail for 15 years and who comes out a somewhat changed man. He then assumes the identity of the town of Banshee’s new sheriff and ends up enforcing the law but using criminal methods. The question then becomes does the end justify the means – if the ‘good guy’ in a traditional US action show ‘bent’ the law, the viewer would be expected to give him latitude because he’s the good guy; in this case, it’s not a good guy who bends the law, or even a good guy gone bad, he’s just a criminal, so should we extend him the same latitude?

In this particular scene, he’s actually trying to arrest an MMA champion who’s also a serial rapist – the guy gets paid by these small towns to have fights so as to attract sports fans, but he takes advantage of his importance to the local economies to rape women with impunity while he’s in the town (cf Steubenville). Before the scene starts, the female deputy accosts Hood (the hero) and basically says he’s just like everyone else and isn’t going to arrest a rapist because it’ll be inconvenient to the town. The episode is called The New Boss, because it plays on her accusation that her new boss is just like the old, corrupt boss he’s replacing. He shows he’s different and is in a sense imposing the criminal prison code (that rapists get the shit kicked out of them) on the town.

Here’s the scene – next I’ll explain both why it works in context and why there need to be more scenes like this when violence is depicted, not fewer:

So, this is a brutal demonstration of what violence actually is. With a touch of the OTT, admittedly.

For all that people tend to critique US TV for being wary of showing sex but happy to show violence, US TV censors violence that is just too nasty. Yet violence is nasty and people view action and martial arts fight scenes as aesthetic entertainment. Look at the shiny moves, look at the nice techniques: isn’t fighting cool? Everyone gets beaten up, but there’s rarely any blood, no one ends up beaten and broken, and the fight goes on for too long: as Bruce Lee said, a real-life martial arts fight is usually over in just 10 seconds.

The Banshee scene echoes one of the show’s constant themes, something said in the first episode:

“You’re upset that our new sheriff knows how to fight?”

“What I saw wasn’t fighting. It was brutal. It was… combat.”

It emphasises that there’s a big difference between the cosmetic violence we normally see on TV and actual violence. In this case, it shows the difference between MMA fighting and actual fighting; it shows you why a flashy MMA move like juji gatame is a bad idea in the real world (they’ll either smash your balls or bite your femoral artery if they have any sense).

I did jiu jitsu for 14 years and there’s absolutely nothing in this scene that I didn’t learn how do before even my orange belt (apart from a few silly moves that wouldn’t work in practice) – I learnt the correct way to ram your fingers into someone’s eyes so that you don’t break your fingers on the back of the eye socket in my second ever session (you get to see that in a prison scene later in the series), how to do the armlock that breaks MMA guy’s arms (that’s actually quite a brute force breakage and we have one that uses more torsion that’s easier to do that we nickname ‘the chicken wing’, because it’s like snapping a wing off a roast chicken) and I’ve taught the biting in that scene on women’s self defence courses.

But you don’t see any of that on TV because it’s unpleasant and because the fights would be over too quickly for the audience. Ironically, despite being slightly voyeuristic, it’s evoking the correct reaction in the audience: that violence you like? Well, it’s disgusting and you should be sickened by it.

Violence is repellent and it has consequences. If we had more scenes like this, maybe more people would realise it and realise that that there’s always someone tougher and more unpleasant out there than them – and that it is in fact very very easy for somewhat to inflict quite serious, potentially permanent injuries on someone.

And then, either they’d stop being violent – or nothing at all would happen because screen violence has no causative effects on real-life violence.

  • Craig Grannell

    For the most part, I agree, at least for TV that's not designed for kids. One of the things I liked about Dredd was the violence was sickening. Compare that to the 'playing soldiers' cannon fodder in most movies.

    (I don't know if you read comics, but The Invisibles tackles that particular problem in a fantastic manner.)

  • GYAD

    I disagree.

    No matter how repellent it is made, violence will still turn some people on — as with the torture porn genre.

    It can also easily become exploitative, with increasing levels of brutality and bloodiness mistaken for realism.

    There are also instances where 'realistic' combat is inappropriate, as in children's stories (film/book/TV).

    Anyway, would we really apply the same 'realistic' standards to all aspects of life shown on TV?

    Almost all dramas simplify, romanticise and amplify life.

    Undoubtedly there is a lot of slick, easy violence that is unpleasant in how it is packaged simply as entertainment.

    Also, it is worrying that some people take their main understanding of violence from TV/films.

    However, there is no reason for every show to have bloody, brutal combat like BANSHEE.

    Personally I prefer the technique of a TV show like LONESOME DOVE – which I recently watched – which emphasises the emotional consequences of violence.

    Women are raped, children are murdered and people are killed — but largely off-screen and relatively bloodlessly.

    However, the emotional consequences are huge and the use of violence has a major impact on the characters.

    The result is a show that is neither exploitative nor gruesome nor flippant but which deals with violence seriously.

  • JustStark

    as Bruce Lee said, a real-life martial arts fight is usually over in just 10 seconds

    I don't know much about unarmed combat, it seeming a little vulgar (though I've just discovered the Trinity Centre gym on the Science Park is now hosting Krav Maga lessons, so I might give that a try), but I'm guessing that if both combatants are good it will actually involve several minutes of moving back and forth as they try to find the right timing, followed by ten seconds in which one attacks and the fight ends when either that lands, or the first counter does.

    Which gaining of distance/time is intensely boring to watch if you don't know what they are doing, as it just looks like they are shuffling back and forward a bit. Fascinating if you do know what's going on, though.

    What annoys me is lightsabre fights: it's got a point, people. While you're swinging it around your head your opponent should be thrusting it through your ribcage, leaving a smoking hole where your heart used to be and on to the next.

    Ahem. Anyway. I agree with your main point that violence on TV should be more realistic. Yes, of course some sick people will be turned on by it, but they are sick and can't be helped.

    However, I think the issue of violence-on-TV affecting violence-in-real-life is wider than just how individual acts of violence are portrayed: it's more to do with the place violence plays in the value system of the narrative. Basically, is violence seen as the go-to solution to all problems — if there's something wrong, is the first response to fin someone to punch? Or is it the last resort (and I mean really, if lip service is paid to it being the last resort but actually that 'last resort' is reached every episode the actual message is rather different)?
    Is violence the domain of the heroes or the villains? Take something like Due South were if someone is violent, they are a baddie, whereas if they are clever and loyal, they are a goodie. I think those kinds of distinction are more important in making violence unattractive than whether bones crunch realistically, because they go right to the heart of, 'What sort of person do I want to be?'

    People like to think of themselves as heroes, so if the heroes they think of themselves as use violence as their first response to any problem, that's the message that will be internalised. Regardless of how realistic it is.

    (Stupid system won't let me be SK any more)

  • My point was more that if you're going to have violence, you shouldn't try to make it 'pretty' and/or consequence-less rather than unpleasant, unless you have a good reason, like it being for kids or it's supposed to be 'cartoon violence'.

  • I nearly did Krav Maga in Cambridge, although it wasn't on the Science Park at the time. Good art – very much oriented to fighting, knife defences and so on. Human Weapon did a good episode on it:

    As for sizing up and so on, it depends on the art and it depends what's going on around the people involved and other factors. But I largely agree.

    RE: SK Might just be the email address you were using, since that was a generic address.

  • I do read comics but not The Invisibles. Another one to add to the list.

    And Dredd was great.

  • GYAD

    I can certainly agree with that. The way in which violence is increasingly being shot like pornography, for titillation, is disturbing.

  • JustStark

    It was the e-mail address. Someone else must have stolen it. I tried another generic one that didn't work either and then gave in to avoid having to switch every time. I hate signing up to things, especially on the internet. Appreciate that you're worth it.

    One thing that appeals about Krav Maga is that it doesn't come with all this quasi-mystical baggage that tends to accumulate around the oriental martial arts. Can't be having with any of that.

    Regarding the movement that's mainly from experience as a foilist, where picking the right moment to attack can be the decisive factor. Not as much as épée, of course, which can be won or lost on timing alone. But I assume it's the same even unarmed, though being in the middle of a brawl (how uncouth!) will of course limit one's options and possibly mean having to just take whatever opportunity presents itself rather than waiting for the perfect opening.

  • Mark Carroll

    It's exactly this consequences-of-violence thing, both on the direct victim and those who know/knew them, that has me allowing the children to watch some adult shows while discouraging some cartoony kids' shows. So, I guess that I subscribe to the theory.

  • The trick if you want to avoid mysticism – at least with Japanese arts – is to pick the ones that end with jitsu (eg kenjitsu, ju jitsu, iaijitsu) rather than do (eg kendo, judo, iaido). It's historical thing, designed to clean up the image of the martial arts in Japanese eyes and promote them as ways of developing a person instead of a way of fighting. You still have to be slightly choosy – aikijitsu is almost as mystical as aikido – and it's obviously no help as a guide with other Asian arts, but it's a good rule of thumb.

    As for the set-up for an opening, to a certain extent it depends on the art's philosophy. Most arts have a range at which they're effective, so will pick an appropriate distance at which they're comfortable at operating. Karate and taekwondo people will tend to stay their distance where they can punch or kick, for example, but something like jiu jitsu or judo is far more effective close up, so a jiu jitsu person is more likely to move in quickly, accepting that he or she might get hit along the way, but then grapple the karate person to the floor where they're not at all comfortable because they can't kick or punch so easily, but a jiu jitsu person is far happier.

  • JustStark

    I didn't know that tip about the Japanese endings; thanks, I'll bear it in mind.

    I must admit I hadn't been thinking about cross-discipline fights, just about general principles like you want to attack when the other person is advancing, not when they are standing still or retreating, because then they will just step out of range. But I can see that getting hit is less of an issue in unarmed combat than when there's steel involved.

  • Like I said – depends on the art. As the name suggests, Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee's style) or 'Way of the Intercepting Fist' is largely about stopping someone else's attack by intercepting it. Krav Maga equally believes in attacking at the same time as someone else is attacking – the attack is the defence.