Facts About Fiction

In defense of TV violence

As the debate over violence on television plods forward, TV's critics seem to have achieved a decided advantage--they have virtually no opposition. Everybody decries TV violence. Nobody even plays devil's advocate. Some people have tangentially answered the critics by bringing up the First Amendment and censorship. But that's as far as it's gone. No one defends violence on television. And when Americans all line up on one side of an issue, you know something is terribly, terribly wrong.

I write fiction. While the focus of my dramatic writing has been theater and movies, like most Americans I watch television. And I think television violence can and should be defended. The problem isn't that people pay too much attention to the violence that appears on television; the problem is they pay too little.

To begin, this is a debate about fiction. We are far too much in love with the real-life violence on television to want to do anything about it. Televised football, boxing, and hockey not only depict violence, they have physical conflict as their primary purpose. And real-life violence dominates TV news: Murder, robbery, drive-by shootings, fires, death, injury accidents on the freeway--all are guaranteed their place on the news whenever they occur, and the more horrendous the circumstances, the more heated the coverage. Whether or not the news actually shows the bullet pass through the body, as occurred earlier this year when the Telemundo network's cameras captured a man murdering his ex-wife at a cemetery, is irrelevant. The thing that draws us to these stories time after time is the fact of violence, violence's explicit or implicit presence. When Phil or Oprah or 60 Minutes or PrimeTime Live tells us about Lorena Bobbitt cutting off her husband's genitals, we lean a little closer to the set and toy with the images being conjured.

This is not necessarily bad. It is hard to argue that we shouldn't know or talk about the real violence that occurs in society, its causes, and its consequences. And the drawing power of violent sports speaks for itself. That leaves only fictional violence as the target of this debate. It's much easier to maintain that fiction writers, who by definition make things up, should make up less that includes the depiction of violence.

But what is it everyone's getting so exercised about? Of all the popular dramatic forms, television is by far the least violent. It is not just top-rated comedies like Roseanne, Home Improvement, Seinfeld, or Coach that lack violence. Even the hour-long dramas are more like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman or Northern Exposure than The Terminator. Even Murder, She Wrote, L.A. Law, and Matlock--which purport to be about criminal behavior--involve no more blood than a cozy Agatha Christie novel. The only violence in television drama is found in the few remaining cop shows, such as NYPD Blue, and in movies, whether or not made for television. On the whole, television today is less violent than it has been in more than a quarter of a century.

Television is the subject of the current controversy not because it is the most violent medium but because it is the most vulnerable. In 1978, the Supreme Court held in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation that broadcast media that come into the home are not entitled to the same First Amendment protection other art forms enjoy. While the reasoning in that case has undergone some serious erosion in recent years (and, in the thinking of some, wasn't too steady to begin with), it remains the vehicle that Attorney General Janet Reno and others ride in their crusade. And it is a vehicle that is seriously overloaded.

The problem is that we assume televised, fictional violence is the same as the implicit or explicit violence that is the subject of nonfiction news. But there is a critical difference between the two. When television journalists report the latest carjacking or the murder of a 6-year-old, the report is singular, disjointed, one report among others that bear no relation to one another except that for that day someone has decided that they constitute "news." Even on a magazine show such as 20/20, stories can be given only 10 or 12 minutes of air time, not enough to tell them in a fully developed context. Compare this to fiction, where every event, including every act of violence, is presented as part of a whole story. There is a beginning to the story, a middle to it, and an end.

That fact, almost always left out of this debate, has consequences. When we see a complete story, we are given the material to make judgments about the characters and their actions. Every story has some message, every writer has an intention, and most reasonable fiction writers expect their audiences to make judgments. While such judgments are possible with nonfiction, we also know that a news report is not complete, that the news crew could only capture a certain amount of the story's context for presentation in a restricted forum with next to no time for elaboration.

In the debate over television violence, too many people are ripping fictional acts of violence from the context their stories provide, as though viewers were watching those acts as isolated incidents on the 6 o'clock news. A recent ad by the American Family Association laments that by the time a child has finished elementary school, he or she will have witnessed 8,000 murders and more than 100,000 acts of violence on television. These figures appear to indicate that a lot of fictional acts of violence have appeared on television, at least in the past. (Or that the definition of "act of violence" is so broad it is almost meaningless, but that's another argument.) What the figures leave out is the context in which those acts occurred.

Consider the argument, brought out like a trusty musket, that fiction too often "glorifies" violence. The truth is that it does not. On television in particular, the overwhelming number of violent acts are committed by someone clearly identifiable as an antagonist. In cases where a protagonist engages in violence, that violence is either legitimized by justice or righteousness, or it is a necessary response to a violent provocation. In every one of those three situations--antagonist violence; protagonist violence to accomplish justice; or protagonist violence in defense of self or others, and to which there is no reasonable alternative--the act falls well short of "glorification."

It is hard even in motion pictures and theater to find examples in which violence is glorified. The touchstone is probably Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. In that film, the most brutal violence is accompanied by seductive, humorous, or lush music; it is choreographed like a ballet. More important, when the state removes the violent impulses of Alex, the main character, the audience is lured into rooting for the procedure to fail. At the end, when it does fail, there is a sense of relief that Alex has returned to normal.

This turns conventional morality about violence upside-down, the very point of the film. For purposes of the present debate, though, A Clockwork Orange illustrates an attitude toward violence that is so rare as to be almost non-existent, especially on television. Television violence is nearly always presented in the conventional moral framework. When an antagonist commits an act of violence, it is clear that it is wrong. When a protagonist commits an act of violence, it is either morally good, because it accomplishes justice, or it is morally questionable, regrettable but, as a defensive act, necessary to preserve some greater good. There are no Alexes on television.

Even on Beavis and Butt-head, any fair reading is that their violent acts are committed by vacuous losers, Dead-End Kids for the '90s, and in that context violence is not "glorified" or intended to be a model for behavior. Beavis and Butt-head may be violent, but they are also terminally bored, Samuel Beckett meets Hanna-Barbera. Boredom is their entire context. Compare Beavis and Butt-head to The Itchy & Scratchy Show, which occasionally appears on The Simpsons. Itchy & Scratchy is a macabre, ghastly look at the way we used to present violence to children, but its violence is so far over the top that it is impossible to miss the satire. Beavis and Butt-head don't revel in their violence the way Itchy and Scratchy do; they don't revel in anything. That's the point. While Beavis and Butt-head involves a more attenuated morality than the obvious satire of Itchy & Scratchy, if viewers see any of these characters as role models, they are thoroughly misreading the shows.

Even in the movies shown on television, conventional attitudes about violence predominate. There are a number of movies that are over-full of violence; teen slasher movies and martial arts films are the most obvious examples. But far more often than not, movies do not stray too far from the conventional moral framework that condemns rather than exalts any act of violence. Movies that do violate the expected moral framework about violence, or that come close to the line (Bad Lieutenant), will generally not make it to television.

A good example of the violence that does make it to television is the 1987 feature film, Predator, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It was recently shown on a Sunday afternoon, a time when young children would likely be watching. By any measure, there is a tremendous amount of violence in this film, in which Schwarzenegger is called for duty to rescue a VIP whose plane has gone down in a hostile jungle and winds up having to fend off one of the most disagreeable aliens ever to hit the screen.

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