‘WHEN serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk . . . culture-death is a clear possibility’. Neil Postman’s words are often true these days. Entertainment offers the worst example of it: the kind of extreme violence which would once have been scandalous is now lapped up and praised for being ‘edgy’.
Now, I may be a hypocrite here. I grew up on a diet of a lot of this sort of media; a combination of Rockstar video games, heavy metal music and violent movies, Alien and Hellraiser being some of my favourites. That being noted, such art used its violence for a specific purpose, not just sadism for sadism’s sake. It was to tell a story, to excite and engage and in some cases (such as Rockstar’s Manhunt) to provide social commentary.
How is any of the new media doing any of that? Look at the most popular culture of modern times. On TV, we have Killing Eve, a show in which sadistic violence is the norm, and the unlikeable anti-hero is celebrated as being ‘empowering’ to women. At the cinema, adult entertainment is made up of increasingly unpleasant pictures or whatever trash Tarantino is making nowadays. Or listen to pop music, the lyrics of which which can be as violent as rap. They’re not trying to be provocative, tell a story or provide meaning, but instead be grim for the sake of it. Extreme violence has lost all meaning when used in art, and is at a point where it is more mainstream and popular than ever.
That’s not even going into some of the most undesirable elements of this new extreme violence. Take the reliance on killing children, once deemed so horrific that any art that used it would be frowned upon. In 2018’s Hereditary, a child being decapitated is noted as a dramatic turn of events, not tasteless violence. And in an episode of Killing Eve, a child having his neck snapped was hailed by one critic as being as ‘fresh as a new pair of knickers’.
This highlights the worrying way the mainstream is accepting this stuff when it used to call for it to be banned, right or wrongly. Why is that? Firstly, certain crazes that have ravaged culture, from the ‘torture porn’ explosion of the mid-2000s to the overt violence of shows such as Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead have desensitised viewers to it, allowing it to become more mainstream. The inevitable race to the bottom for ratings that followed inevitably led to being more extreme and being quick to produce.
Secondly, society has been persuaded that certain forms of art are high culture and therefore acceptable and even worthy. That’s why while people sneered at the aforementioned Manhunt, they happily enjoyed the sadistic violence of the Kill Bill movies and the torture of 24. That’s why while the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) cut and banned The Evil Dead and Maniac for their violence, they happily allowed the pro-crime Natural Born Killers and the pro-paedophilia Lolita to be passed uncut.
An ugly culture produces an ugly society and while there is room for that, its dominance and increasing lack of meaning is not only a depressing sign of our culture, but a telling one as well.