Today’s movies and TV shows have more violent and sexual content than ever before. Does this point to a more accepting viewership, or to a more desensitized culture?
Shows like Game of Thrones and movies like Deadpool have started a trend by taking a genre to the next level, and inserting more graphic violence and/or sex where an audience previously wasn’t expecting to see it. HBO and Netflix’s rise in prominence has also contributed to a greater presence of shows that dare to be bolder and bolder. At this point, it’s almost more surprising to see no R-rated content in a show or movie than it is to see it.
It seems there’s an urge to ramp up the ratings in everything — or find loopholes to get around them — in order to stay relevant. Whether or not it’s good that networks and studios are less afraid to show more explicit scenes, it’s clear that they often overuse it, and violent or sexual content is displayed more for shock value than for the sake of the story itself.
What do you choose to show?
(Mild spoilers for Wonder Woman below.)
Matthew Jensen, director of photography for Wonder Woman, had some interesting things to say about the decision to not show what Doctor Maru and General Ludendorff’s gas had done to the town of Veld. Instead of showing us the full extent of the catastrophe that had taken place, the camera remains on Diana as she wanders into the orange haze — a color specifically designed to hide the horrors of her surroundings.
“We had to adhere to a PG-13 rating, so we had to be very judicious with images of death. And there was a moral responsibility that we felt. You can suggest so much more than by showing something directly… Because you can show everything now doesn’t mean that you should.”
It’s not often that you hear such a perspective behind a major Hollywood blockbuster. For a story focused on war, it wouldn’t be out of place to include some more instances of that horror — and they could certainly have gotten away with more than they ultimately chose to show.
But in general, it is true that ‘less is more.’ Less sexual content makes the few instances of romance more meaningful. Less violent scenes makes the few instances of violence hit the audience harder. These moments are given an importance that spans beyond the adrenaline they bring: they’re central to the development of the characters and the story.
In Wonder Woman, the camera’s focus on Diana’s anguish at the sight of the destruction around her drew us in nonetheless, and ultimately Jensen and director Patty Jenkins made the right decision: it isn’t necessary to show us death in detail. The implication of it is already horrible enough… especially when more current instances of the wartime gassing of cities are still in the news.
The new PG-13
Ultimately, it’s very likely that Wonder Woman could have included a few more images of death and kept its PG-13 rating (after all, they did get away with showing us an almost-completely naked Chris Pine). But outside of the creative or moral decisions of filmmakers, ratings have been steadily changing over the years.
It’s natural that audiences become more lenient about what is acceptable with time. What a few decades ago might have been ‘too much’ is now almost too little. People’s expectations of what they’ll see on screen have changed. Our very perception of what constitutes as excessive violence, or excessive sexual content, is different.
And while this comes naturally as a result of a more tolerant world (an interracial or LGBTQ+ couple would have been considered absolutely inappropriate at another moment in history), which is a victory for society and media in general, it also brings along a worrisome aspect, especially when it comes to violence.
Watching violent scenes as frequently as today’s blockbusters produce them has an undeniable impact on our worldview. As good as our intentions might be, regular exposure to violent scenes is bound to make us more resistant to shock. It’s now easier to become bored by fight sequences, because we’ve seen so many of them that they all start to blend together.
More insidiously, it may eventually take away from our ability to fully understand the extent of horror surrounding real-life violence. It’s not to say that violent scenes have a life-altering effect, but desensitization can affect how we read the news, or interpret subtle signs of aggression between others. Most of all, it can affect how we react when we see very real footage of violence in front of us.
Restriction still isn’t the answer
A Song of Ice and Fire writer George R. R. Martin famously said:
“I can describe an axe entering a human skull in great explicit detail and no one will blink twice at it. I provide a similar description, just as detailed, of a penis entering a vagina, and I get letters about it and people swearing off. To my mind this is kind of frustrating, it’s madness.”
Setting rules about what is acceptable and what isn’t tends to lead to double standards, which are dangerous in their own way. As a rule, violent scenes are viewed as less shocking than sex scenes, although the first is criminal behavior and the second is a natural part of human life. There are also double standards when it comes to nudity: while female nakedness is often highlighted in film, to the point of objectification, male nakedness is scarcely ever deemed necessary.
The solution is not to force people to adhere to some set standard of what is appropriate. A willingness to explore deeply intimate and sometimes maybe even disturbing concepts is what makes art impactful.
So we must ask ourselves, why are we okay with seeing certain types of violence, or the nudity of only certain types of characters? What makes a scene go from meaningful to degrading?
It’s not necessarily a problem that has to do with ratings at all; it’s usually more subtle than that. Nudity and sex, for example, can be wielded as a tool to attract more viewers and ultimately objectify characters… or, like shows such as Jessica Jones and Sense8, convey their vulnerability and their humanity. In the case of Westworld, that objectification is consciously harnessed to make characters less than human.
And when it comes to violence, meaningful scenes like the one in 13 Reasons Why’s shocking finale, Orange is the New Black’s accurate depiction of systemic corruption and violence, and Logan’s painfully graphic fights help us feel the full blow of what the characters are feeling and empathize with them. It makes us feel the brutality of violence and its destructive power, and treats violence the way violent displays in general should be treated in society: with somber aversion.
While Jensen’s comments on Wonder Woman may seem needlessly moralizing at first glance, his awareness about the ‘moral responsibility’ of movies deserves praise.
Not only do his remarks show a clear understanding of how films influence our perception of the world around us, for better or for worse, but they’re also the sign of a good storyteller. The viewing experience is heightened by highlighting the real emotions behind what’s taking place: something that’s much more powerful than the amount of blood oozing from someone, or how many nude humans are on screen at the same time.
It’s a thin line that’s easy to cross, and hard to discern clearly outside of a case-by-case basis. In a way, Wonder Woman might have benefited from being a bit more daring with the scenes of destruction, but the movie doesn’t suffer without it. That same line could have been crossed in small but very significant ways when it came to Diana herself — the way a character is filmed says everything about whether or not she is being empowered or objectified.
At the end of the day, it’s about the purpose of being graphic. Is it being done for shock value, or to truly communicate something meaningful?
Like Jensen says, just because it’s now possible to show more, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should.