Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
I have recently found myself thinking a lot about violence. After seeing Mercury Fur last week and spending the weekend talking about works like Games of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Silent Hill, I was struck by the way we talk about violence on screen. It’s seen as authentic and edgy. It’s “real” in a way kindness or joy is not.
When Josh McLucas ‘15 and I spoke about Mercury Fur, I bluntly asked what attracted him to violent texts (he also directed the bloody Titus Andronicus last spring). He said that violence (along with love and beauty) was an equalizing force, something all audiences could understand. A visceral reaction was an honest one, felt across the board. His view was something I struggled with: if love and beauty could bring the same reaction, why always filter them through violence? What is so exciting about screening the best parts of humanity through the worst?
I kept returning to this question as I watched The Walking Dead and watched my roommate work her way through its video game adaptation for a paper (academia can be strange). Both tell stories about what it is like to try and preserve your humanity amidst destruction. Both, in my view, ultimately land on the conclusion that most people will lose it. The fight against savagery is impossible to win.
The same negative sentiment overwhelmed me as I sat down for the fifth season premiere of Game of Thrones. In both Dead and Thrones, good things seem to happen solely to set up characters for more pain down the line. Everything has been grim-ified. Even storylines that were hopeful (or, at least as hopeful as Thrones can be) in the novels have been shifted, adding more violence where there was already plenty. Sansa Stark, who in A Dance of Dragons is living in the (relatively) safe shelter of the Vale and preparing for a (relatively) good marriage, has been instead moved into the role of Jeyne Poole on screen. It’s a role that will heap more trauma on her: torture, rape, emotional abuse. I’m quite protective of Sansa, so the change angered me more than others. She has always seemed to be proof that pain doesn’t need to rob people of their humanity. She was proof that trauma could be turned into a drive to build a better world. Instead of love — for family, for goodness — being Sansa’s driving force, her motivation is now vengeance.
In Thrones, Dead, and Fur, violence is immediate and visceral, but it’s also a code for authenticity. These works, with varying degrees of success, suggest that cruelty is the most realistic reaction one would have to extraordinary circumstances. In these worlds, any sign of kindness is a sign of weakness, and loving people is a sign of ignorance. A kind heart will get you killed, so people harden themselves against them.
Not all violent shows have taken this route. Look at the CW’s poorly-titled but surprisingly enjoyable iZombie. From the creators of Veronica Mars, it centers on Liv Moore, a former med student whose promising career was thrown off when she went to a party, got scratched, and developed an appetite for brains. As the series has moved on, Liv has grown from a shell of her former self to a capable investigator, using her newfound abilities to help solve murders. At the end of this week’s episode, Liv finally admitted to herself that she can’t focus on who she was before the change: “I can’t get back what I’ve lost,” she said, “but I still have reasons to go on.” The show has its share of gore (Liv, as I said, subsists on human brains while solving grisly murders) but it’s not a grim fest. Its dead protagonist, ironically, is pretty affirming of human life.
I suppose my question isn’t what is so attractive about violence and cynicism. Rather, I should be asking what is so repulsive about kindness and hope. Laughing at the optimism of Sansa Stark doesn’t make you more realistic. Mocking the life lessons of Carrie Bradshaw doesn’t make you more authentic. Cynicism is easy. Love is harder.
Featured image courtesy of the CW.