Violence and story

Following the Aurora shooting, Gangster Squad’s release was delayed and a scene in which a shooting occurred in a movie theater was altered.

After the Newtown tragedy, Paramount delayed the premiere of Jack Reacher; and Showtime put warnings in front of Dexter and Homeland that warned: “In light of the tragedy that has occurred in Connecticut, the following program contains images that may be disturbing. Viewer discretion is advised.”

And now, in the wake of the horrible Boston bombing, NBC cancelled a particularly violent episode of the new show Hannibal.

I find it encouraging, actually, that TV and movie studios are sensitive to the public’s psyche after these kinds of terrible events. But I keep wondering, where is that sensitivity the rest of the time? Why is showing a violent show or movie two weeks after a shooting any better than showing it two days after?

I’m the last person who thinks there should be censorship in media. But sensitivity and restraint is another matter. Clearly, when studios hold back episodes and put up warnings on the most violent of their shows, it proves they are conscious that the material may be upsetting to viewers during the days following a tragedy. But what’s the cutoff? Can they really say that after a week or two, the public is back to normal and ready for a heaping dose of violence?

Because while these three events are among the most extreme and publicized in recent memory, shootings and violence and tragedy occur in our society every day. So shouldn’t the studios be sensitive to our collective psyche year-round?

I’m not advocating for banning violence from TV and the movies. I watch Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, both of which feature plenty of violent imagery which can often be disturbing. And I enjoy a good action movie as much as the next guy.

And I’m not just a consumer, I’m on the other side as well, making shows for TV. And both A:TLA and Korra depict or allude to very violent acts, such as genocide, child abuse, and a murder/suicide. These are heavy themes in an animated kid’s show, but they serve to tell a more uplifting story of love, sacrifice, and overcoming adversity. And in writing and drawing the show we are always sensitive to the fact that kids are watching.

In an interview following Newtown, Time Magazine TV critic James Poniewozik told NPR: “If something is actually inappropriate, then we should treat it as if it’s inappropriate at all times, not just inappropriate for two weeks and then suddenly becomes okay again.”

Absolutely. Of course, that’s where things get a little tricky. Inappropriate for whom? And who deems what is inappropriate and what’s not? My girlfriend is much more sensitive to on screen violence than I am, so I usually watch the more intense shows and movies on my own or with friends. It’s different for everybody. But as I’ve explored in some of my other posts, I do believe that what we read and watch affects our brains, so it can’t hurt to tone down the violence in TV and movies if we want to find a little more peace. At the very least, we can begin to explore how these violent stories affect us as people and as a culture. Just saying that on screen violence doesn’t affect us is no longer a valid argument. And based on the actions of the studios following these tragedies, they know it’s true too.

On a side note, welcome to the readers who have found this blog through the Freshly Pressed link. I’m still new to this whole blogging thing, so having WordPress spotlight the Zuko’s Mom post was a nice surprise. I appreciate everyone’s comments and feedback. Thanks for reading!


24 thoughts on “Violence and story

  1. I’m curious Mike, how did you guys deal with Amon and Tarlock’s fate in Korra? I was genuinely surprised that made it on Nickelodeon, but it really showed how mature the show had gotten.

  2. Alex’s question. That’s a very big question I had, both in terms of production AND how you made it fit thematically in the show. It really was a bit of a marvel.

  3. Most of my favorite stories involve acts of violence, but generally because said violence is used to illustrate the consequences that violence has on people. Dexter, for example, is a very violent show, and through its darkness it paints an extreme picture of how a person loses their humanity through violence. Using fiction to explore the potential consequences of such choices or actions is, for those of us who can separate fiction from reality, a safe way of reminding ourselves of WHY we choose to uphold the values we do, and what fate we are avoiding by staying true to those ideals.

    Something I thought was being built up to earlier on in Book 1 of Korra was this very theme of violence — Korra’s character herself relying on force and violence to solve problems. Unfortunately, Book 1 didn’t find resolution with this theme, so I hope to see it approached more in later episodes.

    While I adore the way the show creatively incorporates action and darker themes through implication, for Korra’s story I certainly hope to see that darker aspect of her character explored more.

    As Tenzin himself put it, ‘being the Avatar isn’t all about fighting.’

    1. Something I thought was being built up to earlier on in Book 1 of Korra was this very theme of violence — Korra’s character herself relying on force and violence to solve problems. Unfortunately, Book 1 didn’t find resolution with this theme, so I hope to see it approached more in later episodes.

      While I definitely agree about wanting to see this theme approached more later on, I feel like Korra’s violence is used in Book 1 more as a way of exploring its roots than finding a solution.

      She starts off being kind of action hero about it, of course, but as the show goes on, we’re shown how it’s something that she resorts to out of fear, anger, and desperation, and with Tarrlok in particular, we get to see that she’s driven to hurt others because she herself is in deep emotional pain. Even if we don’t see her overcome it completely, Korra can help answer the question of how an otherwise-good person could be so quick to turn to violence, and she’s given an opportunity to deal with the pain of which it’s a symptom. That in itself is pretty interesting, I think.

  4. I think a lot of people have become desensitized to violence because of TV. I’m not saying it was flowers and sunshine back in the day. The medieval ages were brutal (just look at the original fairy tales), and children were probably well acquainted with death due to violence. Thing is, that sort of thing would have been encouraged. You needed foot soldiers, archers and knights who wouldn’t shy away from carnage. Now we don’t need that. The world isn’t a more peacefully place, but bombarding people with violent images won’t help us get there.

  5. I agree on how we should be more aware of the content of the media we absorb, that there should be greater visibility and transparency about the content of media, be it tv entertainment, movies, books, tv news, etc, but that’s also an argument to be made about the education system.

    What rubs me wrong, the most, about incidents like these, and the inevitable “cautious period” that comes after is the kind of violence that those periods follow. I do not mean to demean the tragedy that Boston was, or to derail discussion of it and the resulting frenzy, but the kind of media caution doesn’t happen when the news reports, for example, a rape trial. Game of Thrones doesn’t get postponed or cancelled. Criminal Minds, Law and Order: SVU, NCSI, and other police procedurals that regularly deal with sexual assault storylines don’t get held off. And while the magnitude of an incident like the Boston Marathon is different, well; for me it says something about what media, the people who control media, and the people who produce media, deem to be “acceptable” or at the very least tollerable violence for audiences to hear on the news frequently AND witness in fiction, and what deserves periods of sensitivity.

  6. You know, it’s interesting, after learning about what had happened in Boston, my mind went to the Legend of Korra “Turning the Tides” episode, and I wondered if had that been an episode intended to air just a day or so after this real world event if it would have resultantly been delayed. Obviously that episode couldn’t be omitted completely, nor really have the bombing scenes cut, since it was all so imperative to the storyline. Certainly there was no gore or anything in that Korra episode either, but the simple bombings alone could definitely be enough to make some people feel a bit unease, and so if the network thought it was too sensitive, who knows, maybe they would have delayed its airing?

    This sensitivity issue definitely isn’t foreign (and you don’t claim it to be either)! I know with Lilo and Stitch, they chose to rework a sequence that had already progressed quite a ways because it paralleled 9/11 too much in their minds.

    There are tons of examples that definitely show that studios are indeed sensitive for their viewers (as they should be), but you do bring up the interesting point in regards to how the timing of things can warp ones level of sensitivity, but what can you do, it’s just the way things pan out in such instances. I guess part of it is that, generally, people watch tv shows/movies to escape reality, and when that escape is mirroring what is currently happening around them in actuality, their sensitivity levels can’t help but be heightened.

  7. Of course, that’s where things get a little tricky. Inappropriate for whom? And who deems what is inappropriate and what’s not?

    This is where content warnings (of the year-round sort rather than the direct-response-to-tragedy sort) really seem like the best solution. People’s individual circumstances play a huge role in their reactions in ways that are impossible to predict if you don’t know them personally — to use Legend of Korra as an example, a child with an abusive father might be far more upset by Yakone than a child with loving parents — so letting people know what to expect ahead of time can help them make up their own minds about whether it’s likely to be inappropriate for them, personally.

    …then again, it seems kind of difficult to put into effect without resulting in unnecessary self-censorship, particularly on a kids’ network — I suspect Nickelodeon would be manifestly unlikely to allow the things you mentioned if they had to put a warning explicitly referencing genocide, child abuse, murder and suicide on the show because of it. =/

    And, on that note, I have to say that I think the way you handle the violence in Avatar: the Last Airbender and Legend of Korra is pretty much the ideal solution — it’s always important rather than gratuitous and it’s given the gravity it deserves instead of being glossed over even if what you can show is limited by your audience.

    When it’s handled that way, I’m inclined to think that its effect on our brains could actually be positive — fiction is the great sandbox of human experience, after all, and grappling with the more difficult parts of human nature is one of the reasons why it’s there in the first place. Confronting terrible things in a fictional context and seeking to understand why they happen can make us more able to recognize and interrupt those patterns in real life, if it’s done right.

    On the other hand, some fiction seems to use violence in ways that allow us to turn off our brains and avoid confronting those kinds of issues. If there’s any danger to be had with violence in fiction, I suspect that’s what it is — normalizing violence as no big deal, as opposed to simply portraying it in the first place.

    1. I agree completely. On one hand, it’s always great to see series producers be sensitive to difficult situations resulting from violence, but on the other I don’t like it when I fell self-censorship goes overboard.

      It all comes down to the expected effect the representation of violence has on viewers, both targeted or otherwise. Another insteresting case study is the ‘Beware the Batman’ series following the 2012 Aurora shooting. Batman series are always rather difficult to place in this regard because the gun is so central to the character; as the weapon that took his parents’ life, he will not resort to using it or ending a life. This was used to such great effect in ‘Batman: TAS’, which, in my opinion, only hammered the point home by having bad guys use firearms. ‘Batman Beyond’ also included the point of Bruce’s retirement being his realisation that he would actually need a gun just to survive his encounters with criminals. Such a brand of violence is therefire central to the character as the force he must oppose, and the series was all the more better for not shying away from this reality. Now ‘Beware the Batman’ already committed a mistake by having Alfred wield guns in promotional material (I doubt Batman would ever allow that), but I feel having guns reduced to unrealistic weapons would take away from the show’s brilliance by relegating its world to the stereotypical fantasical comicbook land.

      Basically, – while disclaimers should, perhaps, always be there for personal and/or parental guidance – I think you summed everything up here:

      “fiction is the great sandbox of human experience, after all, and grappling with the more difficult parts of human nature is one of the reasons why it’s there in the first place. Confronting terrible things in a fictional context and seeking to understand why they happen can make us more able to recognize and interrupt those patterns in real life, if it’s done right.

      On the other hand, some fiction seems to use violence in ways that allow us to turn off our brains and avoid confronting those kinds of issues. If there’s any danger to be had with violence in fiction, I suspect that’s what it is — normalizing violence as no big deal, as opposed to simply portraying it in the first place.”

  8. I’ll admit that I wouldn’t be the fan of Avatar or Korra that I am if it wasn’t for the exhilarating action sequences. You guys make the action really intense, and I love it! I don’t like action that tries to be overly gratuitous, like in some shoot-em-up- or hack-and-slash-type film and animation, but then again I’m not very picky, as long as it’s believable within the context of the world in which it is set. I doubt you engineered bending specifically for this purpose, but I love that you guys get away with as much as you do for a Y7FV show! Not only is your action intense, but it’s also believable. Even though, for example, blood is never shown dripping from wounds, I get the feeling that, if the occasion ever arose to depict such injuries, they wouldn’t seem out of place due to the realistic setting and thematic maturity of a show like Avatar. Frankly, the material you guys come up with is so good that I don’t see why it should be constrained to as strict a standard as Nickelodeon has regarding violence, because I do think it seems obvious at times that extra caution is being taken to avoid going “over the top.” I dislike bringing this up since I have no way of knowing if these considerations may have been deliberate on the part of the creative staff as opposed to being the product of censorship, but I do think S&P does play a major role regardless. Personally, they should give you much greater latitude as creator of a show aimed at general audiences, and not just kids. Hopefully this would help eliminate some of the minor gripes I have with Nick’s squeamishness, which you may or may not share (addressing why there are virtually no guns in a 20th-century environment, on-screen casualties, etc.)….Great article!

  9. I think it’s really great that the tv stations are showing sensitivity in troubled times. I do feel like in light of what’s been happening, they should keep these warnings up forever. I completely agree that if it’s inappropriate now, then it’s inappropriate later as well.

    I also feel that parents and adults have a responsibility to monitor their children and themselves.

  10. It’s a tricky one isn’t it? There’s violence ‘out there’ – and ‘in here’ too. My beautiful, gentle babies turned into boys who morphed sticks into guns when they didn’t have any toy ones to hand (they still have their gentle moments too!).

    Exposure to violence, whether it’s real, or for entertainment definitely does de-sensitise people: films and TV have got so much more violent over the years to the point where it makes me think of the last days of Rome and the bread and circuses they used to keep their people entertained while the empire tottered.

    I don’t really think that censorship, voluntary or otherwise is the issue, because unless the underlying issues are addressed, the cycle continues and de-sensitised people want just a little bit more blood splattering to get that thrill. The main underlying issues being, in my opinion, that from an early age, we are taught: cut off from one another; look out for number 1 and; your greatest rewards will be financial and material.

    So, we put our babies to sleep in other rooms and feed them 4 hourly even if they cry; at school we teach kids competition instead of co-operation; we demand social niceties from them instead of hearing what they really want to tell us; we educate them to chase money-making jobs instead of helping them develop each of their individual talents and passions (though obviously some manage to get a bit of both eh Mike?!)

    Many, many people live lives of quiet (and not so quiet) desperation, cut off from the ability to give their best and have it seen and honoured by society; cut off from a true sense of a themselves as part of nature and the natural world and cut off from a true sense of community and meaningful relationship.

    No wonder people are angry and want to see blood splattering.

    Hmmm – a bit on the deep side for a Tuesday lunchtime… I’m off for a sandwich!

  11. The entertainment industry changes their mindset right after a newsed (new word) act of violence but so does the public. When something to violent happens in society we are more guiltily concerned about watching a violent sow we love.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head here. It maybe more the guilty consciences of the audience than that of the networks. I may be overcritical of the financial nature of tv, but I think the delaying or removal of certain content after highly publicized tragedies has more to do with money and ratings than sensitivity. Imagine how many more people would switch channels or turn of the show. And then imagine all the bad press they would get for being insensitive in these difficult times. On the other note, if they change something, and especially if the public “somehow” finds out how sensitive they were being, wouldn’t that be a positive thing for them?

  12. I just wonder where exactly to draw the line when it’s still too soon and which events are getting this treatment.
    I mean terrible things happen all the time everywhere on the world so if one would go just for the “there was a recent event similar to that of my story so I should wait or not use that” then there would never be an appropriate time at all.

    I don’t know much about that Hannibal show but I also don’t think that it’ s necessary to not show something for a certain time just because it has very violent content when it’s not something that resembles the recent event.

    In general I think using violence or even extreme violence isn’t a bad thing by itself, just like everything in a story it should have a purpose and add to the entire plot.
    I think if it’s appropriately displayed it could even be ok if it’ s similar to recent events.

    Then again there are also people who don’t want to see violent events in media in a “don’t-want-to-be-reminded-terrible-things-happen”-way. Depending on what a story tells a certain amount is necessary to get the point across.

    1. The line as it stands seems to be, “it’s too early if it’s likely to remind people of a specific event in public consciousness,” which means different amounts of time for different things. Showing an airplane crash into a building is questionable even twelve years later; showing a bombing at a public event will probably be normal by the next time Nicktoons gets around to airing And The Winner Is….

      What the networks care about, I think, are public associations. Private associations can be just as damaging, of course, but they’re impossible to predict. Violence that’s not linked to an event in public consciousness is unimportant except insofar as the public blames media violence for real life violence (I suspect that the Hannibal thing may have been a choice by the network to wash their hands of the inevitable accusations more than anything if there was no particular link).

      I’m not sure this is the right way to go, necessarily – I feel like private associations ought to be given more weight – but I don’t think “does our audience at large still associate this act of violence to current events?” is a bad way to go when dealing with public associations. (Trying to duck out of a conversation on media violence by canceling the most violent episode of an inherently violent show, on the other hand, seems pretty irresponsible)

      1. I was actually not thinking about private associations compared to public ones but more about the difference alone the country you live in can make and where you get the news about something that happened.
        Just as an example of media being selective:
        the Steubenville rape seemed to have been all over the news in the us but outside of the Internet I haven’t heard of it at all, while there was another case I had heard over the news several times I hadn’t seen a single mention about.

        Through the Internet this gets more complicated because we can know about more recent events and it’s more likely that people having actually witnessed them seeing the work using a similar violence. The possible audience has become much larger.
        Of course it’s impossible to make it appropriate for everyone.

  13. As artists/ writers etc, we ABSOLUTELY have a responsibility to be honest with our content, as well as honest with ourselves. Most sex and violence in media is used as selling point, and demonstrates the creators inability to tell a compelling enough story on it’s own merit. Even depictions of tragic, violent events (which are all around us) are needlessly gratutitous more so to titillate, rather than present an honest depiction.

  14. wow, this actually answers the question regarding violence I made on a previous post. Neat.

    In regards to TV violence, i hear new TV ratings are in the works to cover more specific types of violence so as to warn people who are sensitive to particular acts of violence (such as gun or sexual violence).

    As for the lasting intervals of inappropriateness, after a while, most people eventually forget or get desensitized to to major events that happen in history; many specifics or the feelings of the certain events in history fade with time, especially with new and growing generations.

    Storywise, I believe violence and death in story should exist as a symbolic/driving factor that motivates characters. If violence is overused and carries very little meaning to the characters/story, it tends to be over the top or pointless (unless story’s not the main focus of the work.)

  15. In regards to the cancelled Hannibal episode, it looks like NBC decided to rework it into a web series instead of removing it from continuity completely. That’s not the act of a network that feels like it’s more responsible for the content it airs in the aftermath of a tragedy; that’s the act of a network who’s afraid of backlash in the aftermath of a tragedy and is trying to protect its public image. =/

    I feel like choosing to air less violence to respect the victims of real-life violence and choosing to defend one’s violence as necessary and vital to the story being told are both valid decisions (which each have their pros and cons)… but making it clear that the violence is vital and necessary to the story while hiding it away in a non-broadcast form to feign respect for the victims is rather disingenuous, to say the least.

    I’m not sure where I’m going with this, except that the networks really don’t seem to be as interested in having this conversation as they’d like us to think they are, and I’d take their actions with a grain of salt.

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