On 'entertainment'

In his excellent essay "The Myth of Redemptive Violence", Walter Wink draws our attention to the fact that we are taught from a very early age to accept and embrace the use of violence as a means. This is done by the stories ("fairy tales", "myths", "sagas", tv/movie scripts) we repeat to ourselves and our children, in which conflicts and problems are constantly being fixed by the use of violence, as everything else is shown not to work, to the extent those options are explored at all (as they are mostly treated as pipe dreams). And while most people today blame our casual attitude toward violence on 'modern media', this is something that has been true since long before the age of television. Nevertheless, given that watching television and film is something people do a lot, and given that these media certainly "make violence come alive" by presenting it as fun or exciting, I think it's important to talk about this, as it seems to me that this isn't something we shouldn't be learning to accept, especially not from infancy.

Consider how many "PG"-rated TV shows and movies there are in which 'heroes' are 'forced' to 'defend' themselves from -- and attack -- 'enemies' who tend to come out of nowhere. This pattern is most obvious in childhood cartoons, as well as their "adult" versions. For examples of this, watch any entry from the Marvel and DC Comic book universes. That said, the same logic informs just about any action movie or TV series, from cop shows and detectives to westerns and sci-fi or fantasy series like Farscape or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to 'friendlier' shows like the A-Team (in which there is no blood but lots of "convincing" by way of violence, plus kidnapping, extortion, fraud, and the like), to highly polished or "gritty" series like the Sopranos, Westworld, Rome, Game of Thrones and so on. In nearly every instance, though most famously in westerns and "comic books", these 'enemies' are not to be reasoned with, as they attack the protagonist simply because, without the story ever exploring what could motivate such hatred. In the more sophisticated and interesting of these shows, the antagonists will be more fleshed out, and more creative, although their 'lack of respect for life' will be the same. That said, let's stick to superhero movies for now, as here the gap between what the protagonists do, and what they could do but never even consider is greatest.

As David Graeber has observed, such 'superheroes' tend to only react, as they barely do anything with their powers and imagination beyond undoing their adversaries' evil schemes. Meanwhile, it's the latter who have grand (if violent) visions, and it's the latter who always take the initiative. This in fact is a decent part of what makes such stories interesting, aside from the fact that most of these stories -- watch any episode of Dragonball-Z or Popeye for a crude example of this structure -- create tension by having the protagonist be resoundingly trashed during the first half of the episode. 

Such a reactive stance is of course understandable or acceptable when viewed in isolation, as there of course are times when you are forced to play catch-up. But why is this basically the only kind of story we are told, when it comes to what people with extraordinary powers do with their lives? Secondarily and overlapping with this, why is it that, say, the so-called 'Justice League', only ever concerns itself with fighting this form of injustice -- violent crime -- and never other forms?

Speaking to the first issue: I cannot think of a single widely known 'superhero' story in which the superhuman protagonist opts to use use their powers to address systemic forms of injustice other than violent crime. When has Superman or Batman ever bothered to help others to realize social change activists, such as fighting bad landlords and employers, fighting against colonization and for indigenous rights, fighting institutional theft and discrimination such as red-lining, and so on? This isn't to say that nobody has ever written such a story, of course: I'm sure people have done so. It's simply to point out that these types of stories have all been marginalized or forgotten, because those who own and control the distribution channels don't want to encourage people to think about these things.

One attempt to justify the selective attention to violent crime alone is made by the Batman story, in which the event of Batman's parents'* -- supposedly accidental -- murder at the hands of a petty criminal serves as an explanation/excuse as to why Batman is quite happy being a capitalist rentier who funds his "crime fighting" business by extracting surplus value from the people who work in the factories he owns courtesy of his parents, as well as those who protect his property claims and holdings. And he will only go after his capitalist peers when they happen to engage in "illegal" behavior (as determined by the people who also make the laws), but never to help workers organize against shitty workplace safety or abuse, forced overtime, theft of minutes, and so on, even though this affects people's lives at least as much as the crime that does worry him. Being robbed is a lot easier to bear, after all, when you earn a decent wage, than when you only make the minimum they can get away with, even as your landlord squeezes you, and so on. And that's leaving aside that people 'choose' a 'life of crime' much less frequently when there are other ways to earn a decent living.

And again, this wouldn't be so bad if we also saw other stories being told. But we don't, really. And this doesn't just affect how we think about the use and definition of violence. It also affects how we think about other people and organizations. This also affects how we think about minorities (who are basically always stereotyped, including often as mindless enemies, see Rambo), about unions (which are basically never cast in a positive light), about corporations (about which few negative stories are told, certainly not stories that expose structural problems such as worker abuse, environmental pollution, genocide of indigenous groups who protest expansion into new countries), and so on.

These and related issues are discussed in detail by Parenti in the talk I've embedded, which is from his excellent analysis of the 'entertainment' media in Make-Believe Media. This book is the sister volume to Inventing Reality (talk here), in which he's analyzed the news media industry. While many people may be wary of this topic (due to those who normally speak on it being rather selective in their outrage), I would strongly urge folks to listen to what he has to say, and to read the book if you see . Because while individual shows or movies having reactionary premises or story lines wouldn't be too much of an issue, the cumulative effect of the fact that nearly all movies and TV are this way, because they are produced by for-profit corporations, which are owned and run by people who share this world view, while the same thing applies to the distribution channels, is that most of what we watch on a daily basis builds on and presents meritocratic values as normal to have, as well as 'the norm'. And this is something that strongly affects how we think about others as well as ourselves, even as it never comes up, because "it's only entertainment". (But: if those who own and control the media felt this way, why would they only allow these kinds of stories to be told?)

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* Who are presented as having made an attempt to "save Gotham", even if it was in the usual top-down fashion.

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Tags: Video Culture Parenti Category: Lecture