When my daughter was four or five years old, we took her to a highly touted “children’s movie” animation having to do with the escapades of a pony finding its way through fraught circumstances. I remember neither the title nor anything else to do with the plot save this: at one point, the pony was tied to a stake and thrashing helplessly as foreboding music swelled and some evil force prepared to descend upon it.
The movie ended for us right then because my daughter began to sob uncontrollably, fear and sorrow etched full upon her face. After a few murmured soothings from her mother and me proved completely fruitless, we exited the theater.
I thought back to that episode recently when finally catching up to “The Sopranos,” the multi-award-winning television series that had critics of the time swooning, but which I completely missed during its 1999-2007 run. Parents will surely understand why—those dates coincided with my daughter’s first eight years of life, a time when my television viewing was pretty much limited to morning “Sesame Street” and “Blue’s Clues,” with an occasional evening peek at a “Seinfeld” rerun (if I could keep my eyes open).
So then this question presented itself: What is my role as a spectator and consumer of these depictions of horrific violence? Am I being complicit in the acceptance and normalization of this appalling violation of human dignity?
Having watched exactly five episodes of “The Sopranos,” I can well understand the critical acclaim for its powerful storytelling and character development. No argument from me there.
But I was also surprised at how easy it was to stop watching.
Actually, that’s not quite true. I grappled with the decision over the couple of weeks I watched. The inclination to carry on was simply due to the show’s stellar production values, its fine writing, acting, and in-depth presentation of multiple characters.
But upon due consideration, I said, “No más.”
I did so because I had been noticing a mounting sense of trepidation and turmoil seeping into my body whenever some particularly horrific (and lamentably, not infrequent) sequence of violence begetting great bodily harm began forming itself on the screen.
My dis-ease began with unsettledness in my gut as the violence was imminent, followed by a nearly audible wince and urge to look quickly away when the blows and kicks and shots commenced.
Not so very unlike what had overcome my daughter as she feared for the well-being of her pony in the long ago.
One of the great joys of having reached this age is getting to watch my nearly 20-month-old grandson gambol across his life with a relentless grin and chortle for all that is. Sure, he’s subject to the basic pains and frustrations that come with being a mortal and limited creature, but at this stage and in this part of the world, he lives in that blissful state of being wholly unfamiliar with great material want and the blackness that can overcome the human heart.
His mother was three years old when the destruction of the World Trade Center shook this country to its very foundations. As much as her mother and I felt compelled to glue ourselves to media in subsequent hours and days, we made an instant decision to completely avoid exposing her to the imagery of crashing buildings, grim faces and rubble.
But some two years later, we traipsed into a movie theater with her, holding our popcorn, care-less about the travesties of the world beyond, anticipating only the magic of the movies. What we got instead was her terror and concern for the animated pony on the screen, which completely overwhelmed her, body and soul.
Revulsion, after all, is never merely psychological—as goes psyche, so goes soma. Biofeedback taught us that decades ago, and modern CT scans can pinpoint exactly what happens when violent stimuli sends our entire biological apparatus into overdrive.
Except, of course, when we have become hardened to it through repeat exposure.
Whether we witness it on screen or become one of the depraved souls who act with wanton violence in real life, we are remarkably adaptive creatures. Sufficient exposure and/or basic propaganda that sees victims as subhuman can help us “grow out of” our natural revulsion to violence and simply shrug when it presents itself. That was true thousands of years ago, and it remains true today.
That adaptation is, actually, a requirement if we are to “stomach” (notable word there!) the violence that seems to dominate so much of modern media. And the curious thing is I seem less and less able to stomach it.
So I ask myself: Am I reverting to some version of a childish heart, an offshoot of Shakespeare’s famous “Seven Ages of Man,” its last age bent and small, trending back to the helpless thrashings of an infant?
Or maybe “growing out” of such an aversion isn’t quite what our own evolution, the creative force behind our flourishing selves, ever had in mind for us.
What are the consequences, after all, of quelling and deadening our natural revulsion to the battering and degradation of the human body?
A salient point, I think: Seeing rockets launched at targets thousands of miles away, or dropping bombs from 30,000 feet, even if we’re seeing explosions below, allows for a psychological distance that is closed off to us if the violence is done with, say, a rifle from 30 yards.
Less again with a handgun fired across a room, still less with a gun in a victim’s mouth, a knife sinking into flesh, and the relentless kicking and pounding of heads into tables and cement that is so popular in mobster media like “The Sopranos.”
The closer violence gets to actual human flesh within our touching distance, the more our natural response is to wince and groan and avert our gaze along with the victim, covering up in a protective crouch that fairly screams, “Enough! Stop, Now!”
And one thing I noticed in the few “Sopranos” episodes I subjected myself to was how “Enough!” was never enough for the perpetrators in a rage over some mob family slight or fear they were being cut out of a deal. One, two, six, 10 pistol whips or savage kicks to the ribs, head and groin, the victim helpless and damaged beyond all reason, and still the blows came, violating something deep within the human psyche that the perps had long since overcome in their absolute denial of empathy or moral restraint.
So then this question presents itself, not completely new, but persistent and perhaps more urgent than it has been in the past: What is my role as a spectator and consumer of these depictions of horrific violence?
Begetting more questions: Am I being complicit in the acceptance and normalization of this appalling violation of human dignity?
Have I fallen for the lure of this artfully depicted assault on what I truly do believe to be the sanctity of the human body, by giving it my attention and likely some of my dollars?
And perhaps most grievously: Have I forsaken some deep sensibility that I have had to quash or explain away in a bargain with myself so I could bear what I have chosen to sit in front of?
Contrary arguments abound, I know. I have had them with myself for many years.
One person’s “Too violent for me” can be another’s “No biggie,” or, “It’s just a movie.”
“Violence is part of our nature, seeing its true impact can help us better understand and perhaps curtail it.”
From a creator’s standpoint: “I’m just making movies here, about a basic human phenomenon, keeping it real.”
But that’s not really the matter at hand, is it? It’s not so much about violence per se, which even abounds in fairy tales, and is, as the one-time Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown put it back in the ’60s, “as American as cherry pie.”
What it’s actually about, I think, is the unmoored explicitness and extravagance modern media violence foists upon its consumers, with zero left to the imagination. (One could say much the same about depictions of sex, but let us leave that for another post…)
It’s not enough that we well know a character is being shot or beaten. No, no, no…we have to see the bullet enter, the skin tear, the blood spurt, the brains splatter on walls. The assault is particularly egregious in visual media, which enters the consciousness unmediated, mainlining its way into the brain with a power that reading words on a page doesn’t, and which makes such imagery far more difficult to “unsee.”
So there I shall leave it, with but one additional note: My original headline that got me going on this post was: “Why I’m Quitting The Sopranos (I Think…). The “I Think” reflected a continuing ambivalence about forsaking, no doubt about it, a well-executed and compelling series that revolves around the seemingly inexhaustible allure of mobster movies.
But that ambivalence was then.
Having now weighed these issues through the hours this post required (and for which I thank you for getting this far), I’m certain I have thought my way out of ever returning to “The Sopranos.”
My body won’t have it otherwise.
Not much going on here visually, all the better to close your eyes and enter a world…
Comments? Questions? Suggestions, Objections, Attaboys? Just scroll on down to the Comments section below. No minimum or maximum word counts!
Check out this blog’s public page on Facebook for 1-minute snippets of wisdom and other musings from the world’s great thinkers and artists, accompanied by lovely photography.
Deep appreciation to the photographers! Unless otherwise stated, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing.
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Pony by Nick Kenrick, Wirral, UK https://www.flickr.com/photos/zedzap/
Woman with head in hands by Melanie Waser https://unsplash.com/@melwasser
Young girl by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/
Seven Ages of Man and wicked witch from the public domain
Navy bomber from historical archives website Picryl https://picryl.com/media/