I got into a discussion recently about everyone’s favorite polarizing television series, Game of Thrones. I’ve been a fan of GoT, full disclosure, since reading the books way before the series. And that’s not my attempt at nerd-checking latecomers to the franchise, not at all. It’s my way of saying I was familiar with the problematic content from way back before HBO put up its panoply of sex scenes and 100% more brothels. I was ready then for the backlash coming when people discovered Martin’s fantasy world was hostile in every way to women, children, and pretty much any minority group.
But, I’ve stuck with the series, both in books and on television. Mostly because I believe you can like something and still criticize it for its startling problems (though man, did you challenge me a lot of the time with some of those egregious choices, HBO). And in my mind, that doggedness with the series has been rewarded ten fold by the choices the writers have made since deviating from Martin’s material. Since the new book has not come out, the writers simply had to expound on their own material to create an ending for the series. And since they deviated, the show has reached a new level of female equality, complicated writing for nuanced women characters, and a marked, nigh 100% drop in violence against women and rape in general (with one exception which highlights the murkiness and problems with anything besides enthusiastic consent).
Still, one has to look back at the past of Game of Thrones and recognize its flaws before this shift, and perhaps consider the reasons for the hackneyed use of violence against women, children, animals, and minority groups as a mainstay of the series. It’s made me think about the way in which people have pointed to media violence over the years and the commentaries made about ‘violence in media is harmful.’ While I don’t believe, as many conservatives did and do, that media is brainwashing people into being less empathetic, violence-driven human beings, I believe it may have had an impact on our storytelling techniques as time goes on.
Simply put: when violence is so prevalent in our media, how does one distinguish the everyday violence from the truly heinous?
How does one hallmark the true faces of evil?
I’ll continue to use Game of Thrones as an example, because truly it has some of the best cases to make about gradations of evil in a story. To be frank, Westeros is a place full of monsters. And I’m not talking about the White Walkers. You’ve got people of various degrees of moral degradation, from the everyday soldiers who find rape and mistreatment of women (and generally any peasants, etc) as okay, to the heinous actions of characters like King Joffery. Even gloriously heroic characters like Jon Snow are callously sexist, for example, and Ned Stark opens up the first book by executing a man who has run away from the Night’s Watch on the wall, which is pretty much the worst frozen place to spend your days. (Granted, Stark does show emotional depth for how he treats this killing, which marks him as one of the better characters of the series). There’s gradations of evil and it gets pretty blurry at times what characters you’re supposed to root for, when they do really problematic things. And while that’s part of having complex, flawed characters, a startling trend can be seen in the books of graduating examples of horror used as hallmarks of a villain’s… well, villainy.
When everyone is a murdering, sexist, awful murderer person, how do you know who is the worst murdering sexist murderer?
The answer, unfortunately, is peppering work with extensive use of the worst kinds of torture, mutilation, sexual violence, and sadism. After all, when everyone is already a murderer, you’ve got to do something to REALLY shock people to prove how one murderer is worse than another.
This isn’t a new issue. I’m a pretty big Shakespeare fan. And frankly, Shakespeare is full of some pretty gross stuff. We’ve got murderers aplenty, with some of the most intense examples of people examining the moral quandaries behind homicide, patricide, regicide, and more in some of history’s most well-known plays. From Hamlet and Macbeth to Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar, there’s deep, intense discussions about the rationalization behind murder, the depravity of the slide towards violence, and the guilt people feel. Those plays are hailed as explorations of violence in deep, character-driven ways.
And yet there are other Shakespeare plays which were criticized for their over-use of violence, such as the exceptionally bloody Titus Andronicus. Titus (famously translated to film by Julie Taymor) is chock full of murder, rape, cannibalism, mutilation, racism, child killing, and more. It goes from one depravity to another, carried on the backdrop of a plot which barely strings together because, frankly, nearly all the main characters are bloody, awful human beings. The main character himself sinks from one depravity to another while enabling awful things to happen around him without much credible reason why.
The play perhaps is attempting to show the escalation of violence and awfulness, but this theme is achieved so much better in other tragedies like Romeo and Juliet, which (while problematic on its own) explores how violence begets violence in a meaningful and better explored way. By comparison, Titus Andronicus feels salacious, sensualizing violence in a way we’re very familiar with today. In Andronicus, violence is so common-place among the characters of Rome that for villainy to truly seem horrific, it must be aggregious. The rape of Lavinia, orchestrated by Tamora and Aaron and undertaken by Tamora’s sons, is a clear example of escalating violence for the sake of showing ‘true depravity’ in a villain. After all, how can you show Tamora as truly awful in a play where the whole thing started OUT with the hero murdering one of his own sons for seemingly no reason? These guys make Caligula look tame, so it’s a giant game of bloody I Can Top That.
There’s something deeply disturbing to me, then, by how commonplace murder and extreme violence has become to narratives, not because of any particular moral outrage. The fictions of the world have been strewn with bodies both harmed and robbed of life for as long as there have been stories. But its the callousness by which we treat that violence that I believe lies at the escalation of a lot of stories into torture-porn territory. If media has made murder commonplace and violence as expected as breathing and exposition, then we’ve set the bar already so high in our threshold for the truly awful that a creator must reach further into the bag of horrors to truly distinguish the truly dastardly in their pieces. And it has made, in my mind, for worse storytelling, as characters sink from complicated human beings into almost parodies of the worst humanity has to offer.
And really, I think the trope does us no service in providing us with rich characters in fiction too. It strips away a lot of the moral dilemmas we have in aligning ourselves with conflicting characters when they go to the extremes of behavior. Can you really say you can emotionally side with a character who has gone past murder into child killing, animal torture, rape, or worse? I find it truly hard to align with characters who excuse the actions of villains who are so egregious in their actions. Characters like Jaime Lannister in GoT are charming, to be sure, but he pushed a kid out a window. Cersei Lannister as a villain is written very compellingly but it’s nigh impossible to ignore the things she’s done until she almost becomes a parody of evil.
King Joffery, the evil child king, almost at once stepped over that line on a regular basis, going from a petulant child to a nigh unbelievable cardboard cut-out villain. His truly evil actions were made almost a mockery by how over-the-top they had to make them. He wasn’t evil enough when he was a cruel king, he had to also be a sexual sadist who murders sex workers with crossbows. Because sure, how else are you going to show he’s REALLY bad when everyone around him is just the worst too. You’ve got to make him even hatable by the bad people, so have him murder some innocent women and order the execution of puppies. Sure, why not.
Murder and violence are no longer the standard line in the sand for villainy. And so with the line moved, what comes next? The truly awful and exploitative. And frankly, the accepting of this as the new line in the sand alienates consumers who find that kind of exploitation distasteful and takes away the possibilities for emotional depth and empathetic alignment. There is no more Lady Macbeth, washing off the blood and thinking deeply about what she’s done, not really. Now the line is heroes trying to justify the murder of thousands, or witnessing acts of cruelty and walking on by without a comment, forget an intervention.
It’s become so commonplace that when a character actually DOES step in and do something (such as when Wonder Woman in the recent film risks her life to cross the No Man’s Land to free a tormented town in WWI) we see it as an act of above and beyond empathy and courage, rather than the basis of what heroic characters used to be. The small kindnesses, the opportunities for empathy, become so few and far between that it robs us of complicated villains too, turning them into cardboard cutouts, almost too heinous to believe. The face of evil then isn’t the relatable, rationalizing villain, but the person in a race to be The Most Racy And Depraved.
Going forward, I think a challenge for telling better stories in all mediums is to recapture the horror of violence. Not just the horror of murder, but step it back even further. The horror of violence itself is nearly lost. The idea of how monumental it is to pick up a weapon to harm another person has been stripped away by how everyday it has become, how accepted. When TV shows drop dead bodies by the hundreds, it is infrequent for the media in question to highlight that each person in that scene is a person whose life has been snuffed out. “Killing someone changes you” is something often said, but barely ever explored, when in fact the act of taking up arms to do violence is a fundamental shift in the human psyche all but lost in most mediums now. Violence is accepted as a norm, so why explore it further? And so, we lose vital depth to our stories and accept instead new depravities as our rubric for the face of evil.
I’ll admit that as a creator both in fiction and in games, I’m mired in the same cycle of creation which is part of this ever-evolving zeitgeist about the horrors of violence and its relationship to us as human beings. But I’m challenging myself to reconsider a lot of the ways in which the stories I create face violence, and attempt to rethink the casualness by which its included in my work. In a time when criticism about exploitation in media is so high, and rightly so, I think looking at this as a fundamental issue pressing exploitation forward can only help us address this issue and help us perhaps find new ways to tell stories about evil without falling into depths even Caligula wouldn’t easily embrace. Maybe then we might have just a little less rape on television and a little more depth of character.