Recently (actually yesterday and today), I’ve been in a Facebook argument with a friend (I hope he’s still a friend – maybe not so much now…) about the first episode of Season 7 of AMC’s The Walking Dead. He pissed me off by using the phrase “torture porn” and I went for the jugular. Overnight, he countered and this morning I wrote him a (very!) long reply. And I thought I’d share it with you (cause I thought parts of it had merit). Feel free to comment below.
To back up his points, my friend sent me two articles which backed up his position. I shall link to them now:
Sam Adams, “In its season premiere, The Walking Dead‘s brutal violence finally went to far” in Slate.
Melissa Leon, “The Walking Dead just isn’t fun anymore”in The Daily Beast.
Here is what I wrote to him:
Let me say outright: I am not defending the show. I feel that episode moved into an area of discomfort for me that I wasn’t happy with. I have contemplated not watching it anymore, but, as a show I’ve enjoyed for six years so far, I’m not prepared to write it off based on one episode. But, and I think this is quite interesting in itself, the sequence which disgusted me wasn’t either of those sequences everybody is running around like Chicken Little decrying as “torture porn”.
“Torture porn” is NOT what many people think it is. Just because Melissa Leon says it is, does not make it so. Just because a blog like The Daily Beast says this is “torture porn” does not make it so either. It’s a journalistic shorthand (a sloppy shorthand at that) used indiscriminately to cover a wide range of cinematic and televisual offenses. I am not defending any so-called “torture porn” films. Nor am I defending this episode of TWD; I was deeply (and, to serve the ball back to you, spiritually) disturbed by certain cards the episode played.
You make a few assumptions here which need disabusing.
1. That if a source you trust, or a writer you trust, says something, it must, therefore, be truth writ large. I’d never suggest you don’t critically read an issue of Screen. Or Sight & Sound. Or even the great scholars, some of whom we both deeply respect. I was at a conference last year with Richard Dyer and he disagreed with me on a particular point; I in-turn disagreed with him on his interpretation of my point (perhaps, I just didn’t make it clear enough at the time). But no harm. No foul. This is what we do. We read critically. You do like your pantheon of unassailable authorities. Accepting something as true because it was in The Daily Beast does not prove your point, it merely points out what you’ve been reading. And that’s no disrespect to The Daily Beast. It does not claim to be the word of God. Nor should it be treated as such.
2. The articles you sent reveal deeply problematic assumptions about fan-culture. The assumption is that the authors (both authors in this case), as cultural gatekeepers, can read this episode better than the drooling hordes of cretins who watch this show baying for more blood. I find it odd that this particular canard is still circulating (but then again, “torture porn” is also such a canard). While I don’t doubt there are some people who may “get off” on these images, they are in such a minority as to be unworthy of consideration. I also know that you put me in their ranks, which is rather unkind, and speaks of an essentialist elitism that has always perplexed me coming from you. But that’s by the by. Read Matt Hills‘ work on Fan Cultures, and the distinction between Fan-Academics and Academic-Fans. The horror fans I’ve hung out with, and studied as a good quasi-anthropologist, do not get off on superficial images of carnage. In fact, most of them have a better and more well-rounded film education than either you or I. They can speak appreciatively of Chaplin or Welles as they can of Cronenberg or Romero. Their (mine as well) interests in the genre have to do with a wide assortment of concerns ranging from the social-political to the religious-spiritual. They are not going to “get off” on a guy getting his head based in with a barbed-wire baseball bat. Descend from the pulpit and talk to the parishioners. Don’t assume they’re too stupid or unsophisticated to understand what you’re saying.
3. I agree, there are lots of fans leaving the show, and as I said above, I may be one too (but we’ll see). This is not due to the gore-factor – the show has always been gruesome. It has to do with killing off one of the most likable characters and is a violation of the relationship one has with a television show. Since (almost) the beginning, there has been a warning from certain fans that if the show kills off Darryl, they walk. I’ve never really understood the affection for Darryl, but it’s there and I don’t judge. The gore factor may be what’s more easily expressed, but we, as cultural scholars of many ilks, cannot be grasping for any superficial straw to hang our emotions on. Like I said above, this is a canard, and we need to stop using them to justify our own-and-personal reactions to the series.
3. Aesthetically, yes, Nicotero overstepped his joyful glee at making more and more outlandish practical effects. It is what Stephen King calls the gross-out, or the “wanna-see-my-chewed-up-food” factor. And even King, who also readily admits to using this factor himself, admits that it’s not big and its not clever. It is juvenile, immature, and (under the right circumstance) fun. By “fun” I do not mean it is fun to imagine bludgeoning to death actor Steven Yuen, or to imagine such violence on a much loved character, or even on imagined empathy by the televisual audience. The fun is pushing the envelope. Of seeing how far you can go before someone (the responsible adult) reels you back in. And in a show like TWD, which is so successful, no one reeled Nicotero in. Maybe they should have. Maybe not. This is not up to me to decide or judge, beyond switching off if it offends.
4. What I found interesting in the episode, and for whatever reason neither Leon nor Adams really explore (perhaps it is too soon and too frightening to touch on), is that Tegan represents the new brutality sweeping the States. I’ve always been perplexed by the ideology of TWD (although I’ve not done close textual analysis on the series – and I know I should – so I recognize that my reading of the show is – at present – superficial). There seems to be a Republican variety solipsism to the show; that we can only trust our nearest and dearest, and assume everyone else out there is our enemy. Maybe it isn’t even GOP, but outright Libertarian in its politics. Like I said, much more textual analysis needs to be done on the show for any kind of distinct perspective to be ascertained. But that TWD may resist such such interpretation is also the point – exploitation cinema, like horror movies (and zombie movies in particular) play with a politics of ambivalence. They resist both liberal and conservative conclusions as totalities. NotLD is a great example: there are just as many arguments for the film’s progressiveness as to its conservatism. Although knowing, or reading about, George Romero’s politics kind of nips that in the bud. The point still stands: exploitation cinema plays with ideological ambivalence. And I’ve seen (again probably superficially) TWD doing the same thing. But “that episode” struck me as different: here we see a violent, psychotic demigod and his pack of drooling thugs destroying any chance of a meaningful dialogue between different factions. Rick may often have to shoot his way out of precarious situations, and you can’t reason with zombies, but under Tegan there is no room for discussion. His is a fascist way of life. A brutal dictatorship. (Although, at the end of the episode, when Rick and remaining company are released to collect goods for Tegan for his return in a few weeks, reminded me more of A Bug’s Life or Seven Samurai). Tegan’s brutality (and perhaps Nicotero’s excess in bringing that brutality out in the episode) is fully in keeping with the brutality I’m seeing in the American elections and on the streets of your cities.
What horror cinema can do at its best, is not to terrify or confound the emotions, but to turn its distorting mirror back on society and show you what you refuse to see for yourself: you may want to be Rick (and Darryl), but you’re quickly becoming Tegan.