Culture

Torture Porn: Diversion for Our Messed Up World

What else but social anxiety can explain this spike in TV brutality?

By Shannon Rupp 13 Jun 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

As the TV season winds down, capped off with the Game of Thrones finale on Sunday, there is one inescapable conclusion: torture porn has moved to the small screen.

If you've been following the annual kerfuffle over Game of Thrones -- no, not the millions of people downloading, the other kerfuffle, the one about damsel-in-distress Sansa Stark -- you know that the show is not nice to its viewers. In fact, it's a running joke in my circle to ask: who did they kill this week?

On that note, before we go any further: spoiler alert.

But it might be more interesting to ask who did they torture this week? An even more intriguing question might be why we're all so keen on seeing sadism in action?

Often the violence is directed at women, so we always have the old standby explanation: misogyny. But you've got to give credit to Game of Thrones for equal-opportunity cruelty: one of their most horrific events involved that psychopath Ramsay Bolton torturing captured enemy Theon Greyjoy as a major story line.

In keeping with the Bolton family crest featuring a flayed man -- flaying is the practise of skinning someone alive -- Ramsay likes to honour the old ways. Then he castrates Theon and sends his dick to his father to make it clear the Greyjoy line has ended. Then he gives the mad-and-broken Theon a slave-name, Reek, and keeps him around for the fun of casual humiliation.

Tell me again, why we call this entertainment?

In the case of Game of Thrones, there's a one-word answer: dragons! Seasoned with a little of Peter Dinklage's damn fine acting, particularly against the remarkable Lena Headey as Cersei. The production values are superb and the story is an adventurous treat most of the time. I'm in for the long haul, or at least until someone explains how Jon Snow managed to get that giant across the sea and back to Castle Black. (Was there a giant barge we didn't see? Did he swim? What? How?)

Outlandish violence

Because Game of Thrones’ TV incarnation has improved on George R.R. Martin's already vivid world, many of us are willing to fast-forward through the most horrific scenes, which are comparable to movies of the early 2000s like Saw and Hostel. The difference is that it was easy to avoid films that screen outside your home and remain part of the cultural conversation. It's not so easy to avoid small screen offerings like Game of Thrones. Or that other surprising salute to torture porn, the bodice-ripping Outlander.

This is perhaps the oddest TV show I've ever seen. And I'm not talking about the story, in which a British nurse on vacation in post-war Scotland visits some standing stones and the Druid magic transports her to the 18th century highlands, where the locals are plotting the Jacobite uprising.

I'm talking about all the brilliant talent that has gone into supporting a really dumb book.

It's perfectly cast -- Sam Heughan, Catriona Balfe and Tobias Menzies -- are all fine actors who look exactly as readers would imagine. The production values are just as superb as Game of Thrones, despite the lack of CGI. Or maybe because of it? Consider all the effort that went into one of the costumes, a wedding dress threaded with actual gold in the 18th century style, to give it that authentic glow under candlelight. As for the gorgeous cinematography, I just hope the producers got the Scottish tourism board to pony up some dough because the show doubles as an advert for the region.

Alas, the writers have decided to be faithful to the 24-year-old book that was the Twilight of its day: badly written and inexplicably popular. But it was also a bit of a pioneer in the romance field as porn for women. Or as one of my interviewees at the time put it: ''Books for women who like to move their hips when they read.''

Such a good line. Sadly, I can't remember who said it, as it was edited out of the copy at the time on the grounds that I was writing for a family newspaper. It's telling that my editor didn't bat an eye on seeing it today.

I remembered Outlander as badly plotted and tedious twaddle -- a series of increasingly dull incidents in which Claire almost gets raped. So I wasn't quite prepared for the TV version's lovingly crafted torture scenes involving Jamie, her 18th century Scottish laird.

Black Jack, the English officer overseeing those plotting Jacobites, is a bisexual sadist who is obsessed with the strapping, ginger-haired highlander in the books too. But on TV, we're treated to endless scenes of him lashing Jamie: we see strips of flesh hanging off his back and pools of blood at the foot of post he's tied to.

And if that doesn't make your stomach lurch, later there are scenes of him as Black Jack's prisoner, in a dungeon, being tortured. He smashes Jamie's hand with a mallet, beats him, brands him, and rapes him.

Or so the recaps tell me. I committed the ultimate sin for a critic: I shut it off midway through. I simply can't bear to watch that sort of thing.

Which leaves me fascinated as to why so many of us love to see what amounts to atrocities in our living rooms. Outlander is a hit, too, despite the repetitive plotting. I suspect that's a nod to the fine production. At least I hope so. Because I really hate to think the world is full of dullards who get off on violence.

That's entertainment?

In search of an answer to why torture porn is all the rage again, I went back to the controversy in film a few years ago, looking for insights.

The analysis was much what you might expect. Some critics point to the tradition of cruelty and torture as entertainment: Gladiators in ancient Rome; floggings in medieval times. The Puritans liked stocks and gave the audience the fun of tormenting the poor bastards in them. French revolutionaries turned the guillotine into Paris's blockbuster show in the 18th century. In the modern world, some might argue boxing fits this bill. And lest we be too smug, what is most reality TV but taking pleasure in the humiliation and suffering of others?

But the torture porn trend of the moment reminds me of nothing so much as the actual torture going on in the Middle East. Coincidentally, fan outrage over the fate of beloved character Sansa Stark, who was raped and brutalized by Westeros' number one sadist Ramsay Bolton, hit a crescendo around the time I was reading stories about how the Islamic State was brutalizing the women they kidnapped.

There was one particularly horrific account of ISIS thugs burning a sex slave alive that struck me as something straight out of Game of Thrones. In one episode, the show burned a little girl at the stake, which (mercifully) we don't see, but do hear her screams.

It raises another unpleasant question. Where was all the outrage over the suffering of those poor Yazidi women, I wondered? Where were their defenders? TV critics and the blog-o-sphere tell me that some sensitive souls believe they are ''triggered'' -- meaning they suffer from PTSD -- when imaginary characters are harmed.

I shuddered to think how they might be handling the daily horrors out of Syria.

Of course, it turns out, wailing over Sansa Stark may be exactly how they're handling it. One of the most persuasive ideas among the people who study these things is the notion that our enthusiasm for horror-as-entertainment is connected to the social anxiety sparked by real world chaos.

Bemoaning Sansa's fate is a relatively safe way of expressing feelings of distress without the pressure that comes with thinking you ought to do something to stop those real-life atrocities.

That's one of the theories for why horror movies sprang up during the Depression. Horror had another heyday in the 1950s during the Cold War when fear of the bomb also gave birth to Godzilla. A number of writers noted that the rise of torture porn in movies from the early 2000s coincided with controversies over military torture, waterboarding, and the prisoners abused at Abu Ghraib.

So it's probably not a coincidence that torture porn shifted from big screen to small following the collapse of the world economy and the rise of the Islamic State. For financial reasons, everyone was staying home more.

I find that theory oddly comforting. Because the alternative explanation -- that people are genuinely enjoying the sadistic imagery from beautifully shot and deeply unsettling shows -- is just too disturbing to contemplate.  [Tyee]

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