Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mainstream Media Violence And Women

Sometimes you see something so strange you think, heck, that must just be an isolated instance, a strange anomaly. But if what you saw took a lot of forethought and effort to create, it’s hard to dismiss it as passing weirdness. And if you see something very similar happen again, also the result of forethought and effort, it becomes harder still to ignore it as inconsequential weirdness.

However, some things are so strange that it’s difficult to imagine what else but random weirdness they can be.

Today’s post is about two such instances.

“The Faculty”

A long time ago—well, about ten years ago—a medium budget science fiction movie came out called “The Faculty.” It was an okay movie and the director, Robert Rodríguez, has become reasonably famous. Mostly I liked the movie because the young heroine was played by an actress named Jordana Brewster who at the time was my pick for the most beautiful young actress in Hollywood. I even mentioned her in a cartoon I drew.

But what stood out about the movie for me is the way the filmmakers decided to handle a couple of violent scenes.

The film is about evil aliens that look kind of like exotic goldfish. The aliens get into a human (somehow) and take control of that person’s mind and use the person as a human robot to further the alien invasion. Some high school kids discover what’s going on and decide to fight the aliens.

Toward the middle of the film, there’s a scene where the kids are gathered around the home laboratory one of the young kids has. They decide they’re going to let an alien infect a white rat and then dissect the rat to see what the aliens do inside a body. So they let an alien they’ve captured infect the kid’s pet white rat.

Then they have to kill the rat and dissect it.

When they kill the rat, the camera very discreetly pans away from the animal and does not show the animal being killed. Rather, the camera pans across the faces of the kids showing how disturbed they are at the creature’s death.

But toward the end of the movie the high school principal confronts the kids. The principal, an attractive middle-age woman, is played by the reasonably well-known actress Bebe Neuwirth. The kids suspect she is under the control of the aliens. So they shoot her in the head.

When the principal is killed, the camera not only doesn’t pan away, instead it holds the woman’s face in tight close up as the bullet hits her forehead and she falls over backward.

So, the filmmakers make the very conscious decision not to show a cute white rat getting killed. But they carefully frame a beautiful woman’s face in close up and show her getting killed.

What the hell?

Now, in this case it’s very easy to make a joke and say, well, it’s Bebe Neuwirth, all America wanted to see Lilith get shot in the head. That’s funny and it may be true but the larger question is still a good question: What they hell, they won’t show a rat getting killed but they will show a woman getting killed?


Just a couple of weeks ago, the TV show Smallville aired an unusually violent episode. The normally operatic violence was replaced by three scenes of dark, grotesque violence. First we see the villain, Lex Luthor, murder his own father. Then we see an unknown assassin murder Lex Luthor’s beautiful woman assistant. Then we see Lex Luthor murder an imaginary child that is the voice of his inner conscience.

Three deaths—an old man, a young woman and a child. Even before we look at the details of the deaths, it’s almost worth asking what the hell is going on, is the Manson Family taking script assignments nowadays? (Regular readers know Smallville may be my favorite TV show of all time. But since the third and fourth seasons the show has been a strange mixture of sometimes good episodes and sometimes awful episodes.)

The way Smallville handled the three death scenes was more interesting than the story of the episode.

When Lex killed his father by pushing him out of a forty-story window, the camera discreetly panned away from the falling body and showed the reflection of the body falling in Lex’s eyes so we could see Lex’s reaction rather than the actual death.

When Lex killed the young boy by dragging him down a flight of steps and throwing him into a fireplace (again, did the Manson Family consult on the scene?) the camera discreetly pulled back and showed the stairs with the boy struggling at a distance, then showed the fireplace from behind so we didn’t see the poor kid actually burning to death.

When the unknown assassin killed the beautiful young woman, however, the camera zoomed in for a tight close-up of the woman’s face as the assassin sprayed poison into her gasping mouth. Then the camera remained in tight close-up on the woman’s face as her eyes stayed wide and her breath slowed, stopped, and she eventually died.

What the hell?

They don’t show an old man dying. They don’t show a young boy dying. But a beautiful woman is shown in close up dying.

I don’t know what to make of stuff like this.

I don’t watch a lot of violent movies (other than monster films) and I watch almost no television so I don’t know how common such images are. But in Smallville discussions I’ve seen nobody even commented on the gruesome, grotesque handling of the murder of Lex’s assistant. Nobody seemed shocked so I’m guessing such images are fairly common.

This is pretty weird.

It’s not like this is fringe media that is selected for content built around violence against women. Smallville is the highest rated scripted show on the CW network and “The Faculty” was a medium budget film released to regular theaters.

I’ve wanted to do this post for a while, but I’ve hesitated because I don’t have any particular conclusion to draw.

I don’t believe there is some kind of coherent conspiracy at work. But I do believe there is a kind of generalized dehumanization at work, particularly regarding pop culture’s depictions of women. I’ll be writing more about this in the future, but for today I’m going to end simply with a link to an old post of mine:

The Other Way Of Making A Frankenstein’s Monster

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