Violence in American popular culture

Does American culture glorify violence and simplify issues into "good guys" and "bad guys?

Kevin Callahan-An Editorial Opinion

TV Week,com published an article asking "What's the most violent show on TV?" with the following results from the various studies: "The CW spy drama "Nikita" is the most deadly broadcast series, with nine dead bodies per episode. (The piece notes that the body count for vampires -- 18 per episode of “The Vampire Diaries” -- or zombies -- about 16 a week in “The Walking Dead” -- isn’t measured on equal terms with human deaths.)" Cable is even higher. "One series is by far the most violent show on television, counting an average of 25 dead bodies per episode, according to The Hollywood Reporter citing a study of 40 TV series. The show? The Starz drama "Spartacus: Vengeance."In a distant second place is HBO's "Game of Thrones," which has an average of 14 dead bodies per episode, the story notes, citing a study from funeral resource guide Funeralwise.com. The study found that the 40 television shows averaged 132 dead bodies in a single week."

I have 10 points to make about my perspective on why American popular culture seems to glorify violence and simplify things into "good guys" vs. "bad guys."

1. There is a very real difference between actual violence which is in reality horrible and not glorified in American culture and the ubiquitous fantasy or fictional violence which appears to glorify the quick, violent resolution of human conflict and the easy, quick simplification of people into black and white "good guys" and "bad guys." If you want to talk to a group of people who are against war, talk to combat veterans who were actually in one. There is nothing glorious about real war. Its not John Wayne and Hollywood.

2. In most American popular culture there is no Greek sense of tragedy, where two often good and honorable people do what they individually believe is right, come into violent conflict with each other doing what they believe is required from their individual perspectives or view of the world, and meet a tragic, usually violent end. It is also notably rare to see the nineteenth century view of humans, which came from a Biblical and Shakespearean background, where the same individual could live many lives and play many parts and be very, very good, and very, very bad. In nineteenth century experience and world view a person might lead many different lives and have the possibility of redemption after committing sins. The only popular movie that ever adopted that perspective that I can think of was "Little Big Man" where the main character, played by Dustin Hoffman, lived about seven different lives and was both good and bad during his life journey. Optimistic Americans prefer the Hero Tale. Today with the simplified story formulas for Westerns, Crime shows, Spy, and War dramas there are black and white "good guys" and "bad guys" and predictable obstacles and showdowns. The TV show Cops always shows police officers in a good light and the "bad boys" are referred to as the "bad guys." There are never bad cops or police brutality portrayed in the show. In the Roy Rogers' formula, someone got shot every 5 minutes and then they sang a song every 5 minutes. Then repeated that for half an hour. Fantasy violence and the Hero Tale permeates American popular culture in our TV, movies, and novels..

3. Part of this is due to evolutionary biology (why we dream) and part of this is due to storytelling culture that entertains and teaches. The training, formulas, and rules for fiction writers and storytellers and the rules about how to develop and tell a good story around a campfire, especially the hero tale go way back. The audience usually identifies with the successful hero like James Bond who overcomes obstacles--not the fearsome defeated villain. The movie setting with a darkened room is very much like a dream experience and then the lights come back on and everyone (hopefully) wakes back up to reality.

4. The dreams we have early in the night may have a lot to do with memory and retaining what was learned during a day. Short fiction stories are strikingly similar to the second type of dream that we have late in the night, and may have an understandable biological or evolutionary basis to them. (We are probably not the only animal to dream as you might guess from watching a dog having a dream where its paws are moving like it is running.)

5. The biological or evolutionary purpose for the second type of dream was explained in a recent NOVA program called "What are dreams?" Aired June 29, 2011 on PBS

"NARRATOR: ...[Nightmare] episodes are terrifying. But could it be we need them? Antti Revonsuo is convinced of it.

He's a Finnish scientist who collects nightmares. He has concluded that many of the bad dreams we have today are the same as those experienced by our ancient ancestors.

ANTII REVONSUO (University of Turku): Well, it's pretty certain that our ancestors did dream, because dreaming seems to be biologically programmed into our brain, and the brain that our ancestors had was pretty much identical with our brain. And we know that our ancestors lived in an environment which was full of all sorts of fatal dangers.

NARRATOR: The same dangers, Revonsuo says, often show up in nightmares today, particularly in those of children. .. .

NARRATOR: According to Revonsuo, our ancestors had such dreams [such as being chased by an animal like a wolf], and bequeathed them to us, because they were indispensable rehearsals in the struggle to survive.

ANTII REVONSUO: The nature of bad dreams and nightmares is that they contain threatening events and they force us to go through those simulated threatening events in order that in the waking world we encounter similar or different kinds of threatening events, and then we are more prepared to survive those when we have been training for them in our dreams.

NARRATOR: Revonsuo believes this mechanism for rehearsing stressful events stays with us for all our lives, but as we grow up, dreams about wild animals are replaced by modern horrors. . . .

ANTII REVONSUO: Adults have very modern types of nightmares and bad dreams, like losing your wallet, crashing you car or something like that. So it seems our brain is capable of adjusting itself and including more modern threats.

NARRATOR: According to Revonsuo, we should be thankful for these fearsome visions, which may exist to help us survive.

ANTII REVONSUO: Bad dreams and nightmares are a good thing. They force us to be prepared for similar events in the waking world. Without nightmares and bad dreams, there is a good chance that humanity wouldn't be here.

NARRATOR: But if dreams are so important to our waking lives, what if one day they just stopped? Would we lose our capacity to learn, prepare, anticipate?

Could such a thing happen? According to this man [MARK SOLMS (University of Cape Town)]it does."

6. If the second kind of dream is all about preparing and rehearsing for dangerous, stressful encounters, its no wonder PTSD victims have nightmares every night. They know all about encountering real dangers. There is a striking similarity between these type of dreams, which helped humans mentally anticipate and prepare for encountering new dangers and how writers are trained to develop fictional short stories in our culture. Short stories and most good fiction, as we all know, should have a certain constellation of characteristics to be satisfying and make us go "Wow!"

7. Good short stories need the following characteristics: First, a title that will intrigue the reader. Second, a "Hook," or an interesting setting, character, problem, or question that grabs the reader in the first sentence or paragraph, Third, creation of suspense (anxiety and adrenaline, a fight or flight responses) using: a) an obstacle or conflict (sometimes but not always violent), b) "high stakes" for failure, c) escalation, d) a complication, or series of obstacles, e) a climax or showdown and f) a resolution; Fourth, in the short story genre, above all the "surprise" or unexpected "plot twist," (the "I gotcha"), is necessary, and Fifth, a practical lesson, moral, thought provoking point or new understanding or perspective from having undergone the journey and faced and overcome the previously unencountered danger or problem.. If the setting is unusual this process or journey should tell us something new and prepare us if we ever encountered the new place or danger that we were previously unfamiliar with, e.g., The Academy Award Best Picture often explores different worlds from our everyday existence, e.g., Wings, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, Patton, Silence of the Lambs, The Hurt Locker, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, etc.

The Short story genre requires a certain cleverness akin to the surprise of humor. Plot twists give Gothic stories their chill and comedies their humor. Westerns and crime stories have very good guys and very bad guys. Tragedies have two good guys (in some sense at least they are usually identifiably "human" and are are vulnerable, and often mistaken). Good storytelling is recognizably successful when readers want to repeat the story to others or recommend the story.

8. As H.C. Scweikert pointed out, "Someone has said . . . that plot is nothing more than getting characters into trouble, and then getting them out again." A plot has a struggle and a complication. The struggle can be external or internal. There is often a "Showdown."

9. Freud's insight was that that dreams are about two subjects: death and sex. Sometimes in more recent novels and movies, the publication formulas expected by the audience required that sex always be thrown into the film or book even if it seemed totally gratuitous and irrelevant and had nothing really to do with the death and danger.

10. Dreams are more like formula short stories rather than a long feature film or well nuanced novel and the short story formulas underpin our 30 minute pop culture. Short stories can be written as reality based tales, Gothic horror stories, science fiction, satires, humorous stories, dramatic incidents, children's stories, detective stories, animal stories, etc. so the subject matter and "atmosphere" like dreams are quite variable. The genre however follows certain basic patterns with the basic components listed above.. A short story is designed to be read in one sitting, entertain, and provide what Edgar Allan Poe described as "a single effect to which everything else is subordinate."

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