“Why do people – yourself included – find it so very attractive to look at depictions of violence and sex, and why does polite society have such a problem with actual violence and actual sex?”
I owe this post to The Was, who posed this question in a reaction to my recent blogpost about Outlander. Of course, the question, being both personal and very broad, is difficult to answer. But I’m not one to back down from a challenge.
Why do people find it so very attractive to look at depictions of violence and sex?
Let’s start with the easy part. I find it attractive to look at depictions of sex because I’m a sexual person. I like sex. Of course, sex is a very personal topic. Depending on your personality and cultural background, it can even be shameful. However, it’s not shameful for me. I partake of entertainment, such as television, film and books to be entertained, and sometimes a creator chooses to entertain me by appealing to my sexuality. I’m cool with that. I like character development and plot development mixed in with my sex scenes, but even if the rest of a story is crap I can still enjoy depictions of sex in and on themselves. The recent film High Rise, which starred Tom Hiddleston, was a great example of a movie being bad but the sex scenes being a nice distraction from the boredom of the rest of it. The header image of a near-naked Tom is from High Rise. Don’t bother with the movie, just gawk at that picture for a bit.
As for violence, that I find more difficult to explain. Of course, a lot of modern-day entertainment has a clear distinction between good and evil. We want Katniss to triumph, we want President Snow to to be defeated. We might even want to see him suffer.
But over the last few years, there’s been a definite shift in this distinction. For example, even though I think we can agree that Dexter, the serial killer from the eponymous TV show, is a bad guy, we do kind of like him. We disapprove of Dexter on moral grounds but we don’t want him to be found out or to die, because that would bring an end to the suspense of his story. Also, Dexter is a good partner to Rita and a father figure to her kids, and he’s something of a vigilante. So he’s in a grey area of morality, then.
When the Evil within a fictional world is clearly visible, it can be very satisfying for the audience to see them suffer. I was amongst the people who cheered when Joffrey died at the Red Wedding. And if you say you weren’t happy to see him die, then you’re a liar.
In cases where good and evil isn’t so black and white, this ambiguity is often created with or illustrated by acts of violence. They can be defining moments in character development and ways to propel the plot forward. When it’s done correctly, when it’s done in a way I can stomach, violence has a function within the narrative.
So that answers our first question.
Why does polite society have such a problem with actual violence and actual sex?
Polite society has a problem with actual violence because in the real world, when we act on our violent impulses, real people get hurt. We have a problem with it because in reality, situations are rarely as polarized as they are in fiction. Barely anyone is completely evil, and even those who are are difficult to spot.
As for sex, I’d say that polite society is increasingly getting over its problems with that. Any remaining awkwardness stems from the cultural and historical idea that sex is a private experience that one shouldn’t share with society at large. Issues of consent come into play here, as well. If you’re fine with people seeing you in your birthday suit, that’s cool, but those other people might have something to say about it, as well.
So, to conclude: fiction is a realm of the imagination, where even harmful actions do only a fraction of the harm they do in real life. I say a fraction because I just finished reading this article, which states that television has a positive effect on the self-esteem of white boys. Does that mean it simply doesn’t touch the self-esteem of people with other genders and ethnicities, or is this proof that what we show in our entertainment can actually cause the audience harm? Either way, I still think that creative minds behind entertainment should be aware of their awesome influence, and handle it responsibly.