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

Posted on June 24, 2013 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

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.

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