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.

While there is far more violence in Predator than in A Clockwork Orange, Schwarzenegger's film puts violence in a context that cannot be missed. That context, shared with most violent films, is a question: What is the response to the violence in the world? Schwarzenegger's Dutch uses violence reluctantly; he even chastises his co-star, Carl Weathers, who in one scene is too eager to confront violence with violence. But at film's end, it is Dutch against the alien, only one of them will survive, and only the most intentionally perverse viewer would root for the alien. Dutch hews to a reasonably clear moral line about violence, using it either when it will accomplish justice (the script's inciting incident is an attempt to rescue innocent people who went down in the plane and are being held hostage) or ultimately for self- preservation. In the world the movie presents, Dutch or others would die if he were not violent. People living in South-Central L.A. might understand that world view; Korean grocers do.

Some movies do focus obsessively and crassly on violence. And some of these movies make it to TV, or at least cable. Predator could have been made with fewer explosions, less blood, less explicitness. But it is here that the argument against violence on television breaks down most seriously. No one can deny that young children or even turbulent adolescents or vulnerable adults might stumble on such a movie and become transfixed. The question is, Why? The American Family Association is right that over the years we can see thousands and thousands of individual acts of violence on television. But anyone who sees a televised movie that exploits violence and who then decides violence is "cool" has to reject the thousands upon thousands of hours of television's moral lessons to the contrary, has to be entirely immune to the context in which cautious producers present even excessive violence time after time after time.

Even the strongest emotional argument used by violence's critics loses its force if context is seriously considered. Assuming that too many children are raised by parents who do not teach them a clear rejection of violence, what forces would cause even the most vulnerable viewers to reject the repeated message from television that violence is at best a necessary but questionable solution, but is more often outright wrong? The power of violence must be so overwhelming that moral lessons to the contrary are irrelevant.

And maybe that's true. Anyone with any historical perspective knows that violence appears to be an eternal theme, from Homer and the Bible right up to Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Despite millennia of moral teachings to the contrary, some people are going to murder, rape, mutilate, and torture others, and there seems to be no certain way to predict who will, or to prevent them from doing so. But violence continues to be a story—both on the news and in drama—because it is unusual, something the vast majority of people do not engage in.

The drawing power of violence is not television's fault, any more than it is the Bible's. Anyone who has actually read the Bible is well aware of the grisly, explicit, and hideous scenes of violence that are sometimes recounted there, acts even the crassest producer would never dream of presenting on television. Yet the Bible is known for its moral teachings, while television's moral teachings about violence, which are wholly consistent with much of the Bible, are viewed as nonexistent, no matter how often and regularly they are repeated. Those people who engage in violent acts in real life have ignored what they have seen on television, not given it too much credence.

What politicians and activists are now demanding from fiction is something law and religion have been unable to accomplish in centuries of trying: moral instruction that people will uniformly follow. While moral condemnations of art go back for centuries, the stakes have now grown because of the pervasiveness of television. In the present debate, Janet Reno has given dark but unmistakable hints that if artists don't voluntarily do something to stop this "national epidemic of violence," Washington will have to step in. In this Reno follows Plato, who long ago concluded: "Both poets and prose-writers tell bad tales about men in most important matters; they say that many unjust men are happy and many just men wretched, that injustice is profitable if it escapes notice, that justice is another's good and one's own punishment. I think we will forbid these tales and order them to compose the opposite kind of poetry and tell the opposite kind of tales."

Two premises underlie this desire to regulate art. First is the assumption that audiences are incapable of serious reflection and will mindlessly imitate what is presented to them. Second is that they will imitate good actions only when no bad actions are presented to the contrary. These assumptions may be an appropriate way to deal with young children. As some recent studies have confirmed, the sappy happiness of the purple dinosaur Barney, while cloying to many adults, provides very young children with a needed center. But such premises make no sense when dealing with adults.

And particularly when television is concerned, there is no rational way to separate adult audiences from younger audiences. There is no way to ensure that all parents will have their young children in bed by 9 or 10 p.m., and since children might be exposed to television accidentally at any given moment (and a moment is all it takes, at least the way this debate is shaping up), television must be wiped clean of all violence, of any bad action someone might imitate. There's no telling which child will be the one to imitate some fleeting image. Those on the P.C. watch will note that in this argument the culture of victimization reaches its nadir: Because of the vulnerability of a few, everybody must be treated like a child. In this scenario, everyone is a victim—a victim of art.

What Reno, like Plato, wants from artists is not art, it is edification. Art, by its nature, deals with complexity. The raw material of great drama is not answers but questions. Human interactions are fascinating precisely because they are enigmatic. The scene in Disney's film The Program in which young men lie down in the middle of the road was compelling because every adolescent male understands testing the limits, taking the dare. In this, the scene fits into a long tradition: Rebel Without a Cause's game of chicken, for example, or Stand By Me's bridge-crossing scene. It is tragic that boys died by imitating the scene from Disney's film. But the reason they imitated it is the same reason it was presented—because it was fascinating.

Such reasons are located deep within human nature. The illogic of violence has been a theme in literature from its beginnings with Homer, was exploited to great effect in Greek tragedy, brought explicitly to life in the hundreds of revenge plays that peppered the English Renaissance, and continues to fascinate in works as varied as Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, and the recent television movie, A Mother's Revenge, which, while fictional, reverberates with the story of Ellie Nessler, who, frustrated with the justice system, shot and killed the man who had molested her child. We know that violence is wrong, everything around us reinforces that conviction, and yet sometimes we become violent. Why do humans act irrationally? That was Mr. Spock's eternal question in Star Trek, it is the question that lurks in every romantic comedy or murder mystery, and it is the grain of sand that irritates and motivates those of us who make up stories. If everyone acted logically, if everyone followed the rules, we wouldn't need fiction, and Orwell's 1984 would make no sense. It is the defiance in us that fascinates, not the compliance.

What is really at issue here is the war within human nature, the conflicts between what we know to be the law and what we feel. That theme has been explicit at least since Antigone. Sometimes the law is wrong, or does not adequately address an individual situation. And sometimes an individual feels compelled to go outside the law, even though objectively doing so is harmful. Thus, when the mother shoots her child's rapist in A Mother's Revenge, the script clearly portrays that deed as wrong, and yet it is an action the audience can understand. The question, "What would you do?" was prominent in the advertising for that movie. The point of the film was not to "answer" the question of revenge but to pose it, explore it. The story does not promote violence, glorify violence, or condemn violence. It is merely about violence.

Violence and danger are among the tools I have as a fiction maker, alongside sex, religion, truth, authority, honor, and every other human characteristic—strengths and weaknesses alike. Individually and in combination these characteristics can have tremendous effect, can lead people to laughter, outrage, understanding, compassion. But as tools, they have no value until they are used. Homer and Shakespeare, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese have used the tool of violence well to tell us some fundamental truths about ourselves. Many more have used violence poorly.

Aristotle said centuries ago that tragedy seeks to evoke pity and terror in the audience. This is as true now as it ever was. And something inside us wants pity and terror from more than just drama. Political campaigns are regularly about pity and terror, the daily news is about pity and terror, gossip is about pity and terror, gross-out contests among 10-year-olds are about pity and terror. Whatever the source of that need, it is fundamental to human nature, and somehow human nature always provides abundant stories, real or imagined, to supply the need.

The answer to television violence is not to treat adults like children but to recognize that children are capable of learning the lessons they will need as adults. Parents must teach their children at an early age that they are supposed to read television the same way they read a book—with care for the meaning. None of us is simple, so you must constantly read between the lines, verify what we say against your values and truths. Only then can you decide how to take what we say, to believe us, follow us, or condemn us.

Unless we learn to read the stories we are told better than we have been, we will continue to argue over nothing and to blame artists for problems that reside at the heart of human nature. If we use the recent, unfortunate incidents involving children and reckless adolescents to justify artistic regulation, we risk taking the beauty and greatness out of art. We will have to forbid artists to write about human beings. What we will leave behind is a tepid trail of catechisms for simpletons, bloodless tales no one would have any desire to watch in the first place, much less imitate.

David Link is a writer living in Los Angeles.