Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How much is too much in visual media

I watched the movie Compliance over the weekend, which is a very disturbing film (but not one I regret watching), and it kind of fit into some things I've been thinking about since the release of the movie Trade. I remember when that movie came out, people who actually work to fight against human trafficking couldn't endorse it, because they felt like it fed into the very mentality that perpetuates human trafficking. So in trying to show how awful and brutal the world of human trafficking is, a film was actually made that feeds into people's darker desires.

This dilemma with visual media is something I think about a lot. When I watched Cabin in the Woods, I couldn't help but be disappointed that even while the film seemed to mock certain horror film tropes and critique an audience hungry for certain things, it also fed that audience exactly what they wanted. I think of this mostly with "the whore" taking off her shirt, but also all of the blood and fighting. In the end, it almost seems like a way of saying "hey we know there's something wrong with this, but here have it anyway."

Some might argue Sucker Punch (woe is me, I feel this movie is misunderstood even though I don't think a lot of the critique is actually wrong, I just don't think some of it is relevant) does the same thing. It promises a movie of girls scantily clad fighting, but actually delivers a somber tale of women fighting to free themselves from the patriarchy. I do think the movie did a good job of never showing anything sexual and not filming the girls in tittilating ways, but you can't argue about the way they were dressed. So yeah, I think this discussion can be had about Sucker Punch as well.

Recently, I've been mulling it over with regards to The Americans, though in a slightly different way. I really like this show. I love Phillip and Elizabeth both and their relationship (which reminds me a little of Peeta and Katniss!). Elizabeth is one of those female characters I love coming across because she's not being forced by the show into any traditional gender role, she's allowed to be complex and interesting and ambitious and a mother who loves her children all at the same time. And it kills me that the show can write her so well and yet also depict acts of violence, including sexual violence, against her character in a way they have not with Phillip. It's not so much that these things happen as that the show shows them. It's just sad to try to reconcile that they can give me this awesome female character, but also be just like everyone else in depicting graphic violence against women.

But Compliance made me think of it more than anything else. This movie is...sort of unbelievable. It's based on a true story of a really awful prank call where this guy called fast food restaurants and pretended to be a police officer investigating a theft. He claims one of the young girls stole some money and he needs to investigate it. And (spoiler alert) he takes it really far and gets the managers to strip search the girls and in some cases he got men in there and all manner of bad things happen. I watched this all unfold in the movie with fascinated horror. Of course most people would like to think it's ridiculous such a thing could ever happen but it did happen in over 70 restaurants!! And you know, the thing I think the film got really right was depicting the various psychological states people are in and how a far a little flattery will go or how an otherwise normal person will give into their darker impulses if given the chance. ("There's a police officer on the phone telling me to spank this naked girl? Okay then!") It's awful of course, to watch this young teen girl be so degraded. But at the same time, I was fascinated by the psychology at play. Compliance works as a horror film in so many ways because it's about the scariest truth of all--our apathy, our blind adherence to authority, out willingness to give in to our darker natures. I think this movie could have achieved its same objectives without showing the actress naked. But in so doing, they are almost forcing the viewer to participate. Am I just as complicit as everyone else for watching such a thing (fictionalized though it may be). This is what is so troubling to think about. Can visual media ever truly depict the horror without also issuing an invitation to arouse our dark desires?

I don't watch Girls but I read Jace Lacob's piece on this past week's episode with interest. (How is this show a comedy??) I thought his reading of the scene was interesting, but I suppose it's another instance of showing female debasement on screen. Even if it's meant for a greater purpose.

I think a lot about Elizabeth Brundage's book, Somebody Else's Daughter a book about the affect of the pornography industry on the lives of all different kinds of people. Years later I still think about how one of the characters, a teenage boy, felt his attitude towards women change (against his will!) after watching some pornographic videos. He began having thoughts about them laced with contempt and a desire to dominate. I'm not trying to argue that pornography or visual media is some sort of instant poison or anything, but I do think it's powerful and worth talking about the consequences of what we put on screen. There's a reason that The Americans shows Elizabeth in more sexually explicit scenes, and more violent ones--it's not only because this kind of violence happens more to women, but also because it's more acceptable to show women this way.

I don't really have any conclusions beyond what I've stated---that I find this tension interesting and always worth exploring and talking about when it's done right and maybe when it fails us. I could say so much more about's really so fascinating so for anyone else who has watched I'd like to talk about it. (it's on Netflix) Does anyone else have any examples to add or times they've thought about this as well?


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