TT: Sex and Violence

If you’re looking for the Wednesday Wandering, just spin the gears back for the question of clockwork, then come on back and join me and Alan on a controversial topic.

JANE: Alan, in the comments to my wandering of 11-23-11, you brought up

Sex and Violence

something really interesting about American versus  British attitudes towards sex versus violence.  Because it’s more fun, let’s start with sex.   Are you serious that a flash of a bare breast really doesn’t cause panic and public outrage on British TV?

ALAN: Of course it doesn’t. What’s scary about breasts? Generally speaking they are very beautiful. I remember being amazed the first time I saw some imported bit of American TV and all the ladies had square lumps on their chests because their breasts had been pixellated. It must be very hard to buy bras when your breasts are square…

JANE: When was this?  Wouldn’t the pixelation have been on the side of your broadcasters?

ALAN: I don’t remember when it was, but it would certainly have been in the original. Generally speaking, we don’t pixellate.

My first televised breast was probably some time in the mid 1960s. My father had just bought a colour TV because the BBC was about to start broadcasting a docudrama about the life and times of Casanova. The programme did cause something of a stir as I recall, mainly because everyone was very jealous of the actor who played Casanova. What a wonderful job he had!

JANE: I note that no one envied the women.  This does cast a doubt as to how wonderful this Casanova was…

ALAN: Good point!  Obviously the actor didn’t have a good point.   Now a question for you – are American bed sheets really L-shaped? If American TV is to be believed, after sex all men lie back and relax with their hairy chests in full view and all women lie back with the sheet pulled demurely up to their chin. Robin and I tried it once, just to see if we could make it work. We couldn’t. Our sheets are rectangular, they cover each of us equally.

JANE: No, they’re not L-shaped!  The men push the sheet down and the women get the slack.  This has nothing to do with prudery.  It has to do with staying warm.  As you noted, men have hairy chests.  Most women are not gifted with fur, so they need sheets. <grin>

ALAN: Hmmm. Perhaps I’d better buy Robin a shaving set for Christmas. Oh, sorry! That’s one of the cats. How did he get there…

When you go below the waist, things get even more peculiar. There’s a hugely popular stage show in Australia called “Puppetry Of The Penis” which demonstrates the ancient oriental martial art of genital origami to great effect. I’ve never seen the stage show, but I have seen excerpts from it on television (no pixellation) and the DVD is freely available in the shops. Anyone can buy it, there aren’t any age restrictions on it.

JANE: I’ve heard of this.  It sounds very silly to me – and a bit painful.  Since I’m not much of a television watcher, someone else will need to fill us in on whether this show is widely available in the U.S.

Since origami involves twisting and folding, one could argue that this puppetry combines sex and violence.   You were very eloquent on the subject of American televised violence.  Would you mind re-stating for those people who don’t read the Comments?

ALAN:  Certainly.  I’ve observed with some disquiet that over the last few years American prime time television (and, I suppose, by implication American culture in general) has tended more and more towards an everyday acceptance of the appallingly graphical depiction of ever more grotesque violence. Blood, guts, and dismembered body parts fill our screens night after night and they are presented to us in lovingly detailed and lingering close-ups.

I find programmes such as “CSI” and “Bones” and “NCIS” and all the rest of them almost impossible to watch. I’m not squeamish; I have a first aid certificate and I’ve seen real blood and I’ve treated real injuries. Nevertheless the glorification of violence on these programmes, the voyeuristically gleeful concentration on the details of hideous injuries, the lingering close ups of decomposing bodies (thank goodness we don’t have smell-o-vision yet), the casual acceptance of violent death, the assumption that might is right and all you need is a bigger gun or a bigger knife to win the day against any opposition, and the fact that this state of affairs is considered to be normal (even desirable) – all these things combine to sicken me and they send my fingers racing for the channel changer or the off switch.

Frankly, I’d much rather watch a naked couple making love. There’s more truth and beauty and magic and poetry in that than there is in any amount of blood, guts, and maggots.

JANE: I’ve wondered about the same thing.  The most common justification I’ve heard goes as follows:  If we don’t show violence in a graphic fashion, then viewers will think people die neatly and easily and don’t rot,  like in the old movies where someone would stagger a few steps and collapse dramatically, with minimal blood and guts.

Certainly, there’s some justification to that approach, but then, by the same logic, sex scenes should be as graphic as possible to encourage everyone to see how much fun sex can be.

ALAN: I completely agree.

JANE: The reality is, however, that Americans aren’t as desensitized to graphic violence as it might seem – or at least this one isn’t.  I do worry about the impact on younger people.  Jim and I saw the first Spiderman movie in the theater.  Sitting behind us was a father and his young sons.  I can’t say precisely how old they were, but certainly no older than ten or eleven.

During the big fight between Spiderman and the Green Goblin, Spidey is trying not to hurt the man he knows is his best friend’s father (and someone who has been sympathetic to his own scientific dreams).  Consequently, Spidey is getting badly hurt.  Behind me, I heard one kid say in an agonized tone of voice, “Dad, why doesn’t Spiderman just hit him!”   Rather than seeing the conflicted emotional text, all this boy was learning was the need to hit harder.  That troubled me.

Another example: I know a young man who, from childhood, has been prone to nightmares.  His parents continue to let him watch whatever he wants, then wonder about their son’s suffering nightmares and sleepwalking.  If we’re going to have all this graphic violence, I wish there was some sense of what is and isn’t appropriate for young imaginations – and more willingness to moderate.

I could keep going, but I’ll stop here since otherwise I’m going to start seeming closed-minded.

ALAN:  It’s a question of degree. Perhaps TV violence has grown too extreme and TV sex is not extreme enough.

JANE: That’s  a thoughtful way to look at the question.   Perhaps we can discuss where to find the balance in the comments.

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11 Responses to “TT: Sex and Violence”

  1. Peter Says:

    The problem with Saxon violins on the boob tube (an ironic name, given that you aren’t allowed to broadcast them in the US) is that the rules are cultural and – especially to an outsider – totally arbitrary. Mannequins in women’s clothing stores in Saudi Arabia have nipples but no heads; in the US it’s generally the other way around.

    Even within a single country the rules can vary. I recall about twenty years ago the French- and English-language divisions of the CBC (Canadian national broadcaster, eh?) collaborated on a prime-time soap opera about the lives of a group of hockey players. The idea was that all the actors would speak in their preferred/native language (with optional subtitles) and the resulting show would be broadcast simultaneously on both networks, regardless of language. It was reasonably successful with two exceptions:

    – the subtleties of profanity don’t translate at all well, so the subtitling was often out of sync with the spoken dialogue (the French subtitles tended to be ruder than the spoken English, and the English subtitles tended to err on the side of “Gosh darn you” rather than a more accurate “You fucking asshole”),

    – all the bedroom and locker room scenes had to be shot twice, once looking like actual bed/locker rooms for broadcast on the French-language network and once with L-shaped sheets and strategically-placed towels and puffs of steam for the English-language network.

    You can see something similar on Spanish-language TV stations in the US that show uncut Latin American soap operas, many of which feature rectangular, rather than L-shaped, sheets in the bedroom.

  2. Katie Says:

    Although, Alan, I would argue that the point of television shows such as “CSI” and “Bones” is precisely the opposite of what you suggest. Rather than suggesting that “might is right and all you need is a bigger gun or a bigger knife to win the day against any opposition,” these shows show science, intelligence, and perseverence triumphing over those forces. The scientists impose order on the chaotic and dangerous world around them. It doesn’t matter how gruesome or violent or evil or misguided the criminal is–how big his gun is–law and order will triumph, the truth will out, and the criminal element will receive his just desserts.

    I mean, just look at middle-aged nerdy Grissom or the slight brainiac Bones. Those are the protagonists of these shows, and they are about as far from bigger gun, might is right, literal kick ass characters as you can get. Mental ass kicking, however, they have in abundance–they outwit the violent criminals, they don’t physically overpower them. In fact, Booth, Bones’ cop sidekick, is always getting shut down when he tries to take the…more direct route to justice?

    The best episodes of these shows, of course, confront the reality that right doesn’t always triumph, and each season usually has an episode or two where the protagonists can’t find enough evidence to convict and the killer walks free. But mostly these shows are like any fairytale with their comforting happy endings. We live in a chaotic and violent world, and we love to see shows that give us hope that the forces of good can triumph, that brains beat brawn, that victims and underdogs will beat bullies and criminals, etc., etc.

    This isn’t to say that I don’t think the producers go too far in some of graphic images they show–obviously those are for shock value, and catering to a certain segment of the audience that likes that sort of thing, and one could argue that it desensitizes people to that sort of violence. Personally, I’ve watched those shows since middle school age, at least, and those parts still gross me out, so I guess I have not been sufficiently desensitized. Blech.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      You may well be right; I so seldom watch the shows that I don’t feel I can comment meaningfully at that level of detail. However the broader point remains valid — American prime time network TV gives me too much exposure to the pornography of violence and not enough exposure (none at all in fact) to the pornography of pornography.


      -Alan

  3. heteromeles Says:

    My thought reading this was, “I guess that’s why there are so many people watching stuff on the internet, not on TV.” Because of course there’s as much nudity as one might wish for on the internet. Violence too. Both come with risks of viruses, but that’s quite like real life.

    There is one place where you see partial nudity on US TV: science shows from Papua New Guinea or parts of Amazonia where the missionaries haven’t won out yet. I always thought that making people cover up in the tropics was the acme of prejudice winning out over common sense. Then again, I’m not fervent about saving souls, or whatever it is the missionaries do.

  4. Dominique Says:

    I agree with Katie! I love the intellect versus brawn television shows…

  5. Tori Says:

    We Americans are quite desensitized to fictional graphic violence. Anything real (like on the news) tends to be blurred or explained without photos, or sheets covering gore. Real stuff happens off-screen. Or maybe it’s different now; I haven’t watched televised news since high school.

    Since sex is so taboo in general (thanks, Puritans or whoever) in the US parents have a lot of trouble talking about it with their kids. And TV is often a family activity. Therefore parents watching TV with their children feel uncomfortable when sexual content comes up. And then they complain that the content is too explicit for the kids. And the cycle continues.

  6. heteromeles Says:

    Thinking about it some more, I realized that the premise here is wrong, that television says something about our sensitivities.

    Here are some things I think I know.

    One is that porn used to be the #1 thing on the internet after non-porn spam. Not to long ago, tech geeks used to talk about how every new internet technology goes through a “porn phase,” where it’s adopted by the sex industry. Porn is in trouble only because there’s so much free content out there (pirated porn, front ends for bot nets, and people uploading) that it’s getting harder to make any money with it.

    Does this mean that America (or the world) is awash in promiscuity and sexual deviance? No more than it ever has been, which actually isn’t that much. Porn’s not the same as sex, and a film of a couple honestly making love isn’t as titillating as most of the other stuff out there (only partly my opinion. I defer to Rule 34). Personally, I’d rather have sex than watch sex.

    The second thing is about violence. Are we more jaded about violence, more ready to kill? Not according to the numbers of PTSD cases coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Even when the military spends a lot of money and effort desensitizing its soldiers to violence, it doesn’t work very well, and these are kids who have watched more TV and video than we did growing up. Yes, there’s a lot of stylized violence on TV, but in real life, violence makes the news because it’s unusual. Today, hunting is in decline, even when we need it for conservation (I’m thinking here about hunts of non-native feral animals, and PETA protests about them), and fewer people actually know how to handle a gun. Many modern parents think that the mere presence of a firearm in a home is a reason to keep their children away from that place, no matter how well it’s locked up (and let alone that cars are a bigger danger to kids than unsecured firearms are).

    Anyway, I agree that TV standards about sex and violence are annoying and arbitrary, but I think it’s as much about what ad companies think will sell as it is about social mores. Beyond that, I’m not sure what TV tells us about how any country handles sex or violence. At most, it tells us what a few people think we want to see.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      That’s an interesting comment about TV standards and what the ad companies choose to allow to be shown. The BBC, of course, isn’t answerable to anyone (no adverts) which probably accounts for its willingness to push the boundaries. And the commercial TV companies in England (which are funded by advertising) have to compete on the same level or they risk losing their audience share. So perhaps the advertisers are more willing to go further than their American counterparts. I also suspect they are inherently less conservative as well — some of the adverts on British TV would almost certainly never be shown in America.


      -Alan

  7. janelindskold Says:

    Very thoughtful comments… I know I think about how much to show the violence in my writing. If it needs to be detailed blood drop by blood drop to get the point across, I’ll write it that way gladly. Ditto sex scenes.

    However, if the end result is more important than the process, that’s where my focus will be.

    One of the fascinating elements about writing Firekeeper is that she didn’t have human attitudes toward either nudity or violence.

    And sex out of season really puzzled her.

  8. janelindskold Says:

    Oh! I forgot to mention. I chose that book jacket as an illustration not only because the picture was perfect, but because my story “The Drifter” is in it. It’s a story where I had to ramp up the violence because that was essential to the emotional impact of the story.

  9. Paul Says:

    There was a time when U.S. television couldn’t show someone being shot during “family viewing time” early in the evening, and a time when it couldn’t show even a married couple like Lucy and Desi in the same bed. Times have changed considerably since then. I tend to agree with Alan about the depiction of graphic violence hardening our reactions to the real stuff, and with heteromeles about the sex (rather do than watch). But even American TV has plenty of nudity and such these days, what with all the non-network channels out there now. Times have indeed changed.

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