Violence in Stories

One of the egroups I’m on (Worlds of Fantasy) got into a debate yesterday about violence in entertainment and in society. Whether or not violence in entertainment has increased was poked around as a notion. We were able to agree that on the whole, humans in western civilizations are not as violent as they used to be.

The vast majority of stories are driven, to some degree, by sex, death, or a combination thereof. These are subjects around which it is possible to weave vast, complex, meaningful tales. Just look at Shakespeare. Humans respond to sex and death and all the things those two activities create, in all kinds of ways. In seeking, and avoiding them, justifying them, punishing and rewarding people for them… all the many facets of the human condition can be played out.

It may be fair to say that modern entertainment focuses more on the details of the sexual and lethal activities than older stories did. That in itself doesn’t have to be a problem. Good stories can be told around detailed depictions. Go back to ancient writing and what you find is very light on description, heavy on telling, light on showing. Classic myths don’t spend pages establishing characters or pondering motivation. Preferences and styles change. But there’s no shortage of sex and violence. I read Ovid’s Metamorphosis last year, and the single most frequently occurring plot element was rape.

The more I think about it, the more I feel that modern story telling is doing some very similar things to that classic Greek story telling. It’s become very focused on the sex and violence. There are films now whose sole purpose seems to be to shock, frighten and disgust audiences. There are Ovid stories that caught me very much the same way – it’s just about revelling in the ick. Our modern world is far tamer and safer than the ones the Greeks inhabited though. So why are doing this? I don’t know.

The context for sex and violence in the story is important I think. Sex and violence happening in the context of good story telling is very different from entertainment that is mostly depictions, with very little narrative reasoning. It’s the reasonlessness that bothers me most. When the ‘story’ is all about surface and immediate thrills and offers nothing deeper, then the violence and sex come through in very different ways. They aren’t just driving forces, they become the entirety, and that reduces everything down. Sex and death might underpin human experience, but they are not the sum and total of what we are.

Stories, like everything else, have their cycles and seasons. Currently people seem partial to immediacy, and intensity. Fast paced, in your face action, plenty of bare skin and a high death toll quite often makes for a successful film or book. Slower, more elaborate and involved story telling that isn’t a ‘page turner’ or ‘edge of the seat’ is out of fashion. The collective hunger is for thrills, not for thinking. There are, however, plenty of people who want to experience their stories in different ways.

The ways in which we tell each other stories (be those spoken, in books, films or computer games) informs our sense of what is normal. Most of us are not going to go out and emulate what we read or see. However, the entertainment we imbibe does affect how we perceive the world, how we understand our own lives, and what expectations we have. That makes me wonder where we are going with this, and what we might unwittingly be doing to ourselves.

5 thoughts on “Violence in Stories”

  1. Our modern world is far tamer and safer than the ones the Greeks inhabited though. So why are [we] doing this? I don’t know.

    Our modern world still has wars, bigger and deadlier than those the Greeks fought; and tyrannies within living memory at least as as awful.

    The Holocaust and other genocides have shown us what human nature can commit, and such avowed political movements still openly exist among us.

    I would feel safer about the US government if it hadn’t adopted a policy of extrajudical assassination of even its own citizens overseas on the President’s mere say-so (a policy still current under Obama), and safer about the UK government if it weren’t busily terminating hot meals for the elderly. (Next up: ice floes?)

    On the private level we have serial killers like Ted Bundy and my own city’s Jeffrey Dahmer, so monsters still walk the earth.

    “Our modern world is far tamer and safer”? Not so much.

    Stieg Larsson, a Swedish journalist who reported on antidemocratic right-wing extremist and Nazi organizations before his death in 2004, was well aware of the dangers that still exist. He created a hero and heroine to fight them, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist and the goth hacker Lisbeth Salander, in his novel, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

    Larsson lived only long enough to finish the next two books of the series (it was not meant to be only a trilogy): The Girl who Played with Fire; The Girl who Kicked Over the Hornet’s Nest. All three have been made into films.

    You might well think of the first film as one example of “ick” because it’s notorious for the terrible scene in which Lisbeth is raped by her probation officer. (The story’s alternate title was “Men Who Hate Women”.) What is heroic is Lisbeth’s response… a revenge even the Greeks would respect… but something I think some people did not stay around in the theatre to see.

    Great heroes require terrible monsters. That’s how stories work.


  2. I read the first Larsson book. I totally agree about great heroes needing terrible monsters, but that’s very much about good story telling. It’s the torture pornography out there that bothers me, the ‘ick’ with no content, no narative. Lisbeth’s rape made me cry, and her revenge made me cheer. That’s good story telling.

    As for the violence, I think most of us are less likely to experience it first hand than the ancients were. There’s still far too much of it out there, but for western world folk, it’s not part of ‘normal’ for many.


  3. “As for the violence, I think most of us are less likely to experience it first hand than the ancients were.”

    No doubt the students at Kent State University in Ohio thought so 40 years ago.

    No doubt the students currently occupying university buildings in Bristol, Manchester, and London are equally confident.

    I certainly hope their confidence is better placed.

    No civilised government would open fire on its own citizens, to be sure; but no civilised government would have stopped feeding its elderly, either.


  4. But at the same time we don’t expose unwanted children as normal practice. We don’t put entire cities to the sword as ‘normal’ either. We don’t have a wealthy elite who are legally entitled to do anything they want to the poor. At least when they try there is some kind of system for protest and come back. We don’t consider other human beings to be property with no rights of their own. The poor don’t die in the streets on any kind of regular basis. There are hideous exceptions, but most people never see anyone dying of anything other than illness and old age.


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