thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Violently Inclined: On TV’s Obsession with White Male Violence

In race, Television, violence on August 7, 2014 at 1:20 pm

Phoebe B.

It turns out the more televised violence you watch, the more fear of crime you develop—even if that fear is not specific to your life, family, neighborhood. Recently, the Annenberg School (USC) released the results of a study on TV violence. The study, as reported by Deadline Hollywood, “confirm[s] the effects of TV on people’s fear, but do not support the idea that people think there is actually more crime in their neighborhood.”

The study’s release was perfectly timed with Emily Nussbaum’s wonderful essay on FX’s television adaptation of Fargo. “How good does a violent drama need to be to make the pain of watching worth it?” Nussbam asks. She concludes, ultimately, that Fargo is not quite good enough to endure the violence it showcases. In a TV landscape where depictions of violence are replicating like zombies on The Walking Dead, Nussbaum’s question and the Annenberg study results are particularly pressing.

The problem is not, though, just the prevalence of violence on TV. Rather, it is the kinds of violence and victimhood that are emphasized: programming revels in white male violence, exploring it in excruciating detail, while other forms of violence and their consequences are dismissed or ignored. I wonder, not about the cause and effect of violent white male TV depictions, but rather about the culture revealed in contemporary violent shows and in our fascination with fantasies of white masculinist violence propped up, too often, by both the protection and murder of white women.

It is not, then, simply that viewers experience increased levels of fear, but the ways in which that fear is framed, narrated, and told is of particular importance. The first time I remember the effect of violent media narratives was during the child abduction scare of the 1990s, initiated at least where I lived by the gruesome disappearance and murder of Polly Klaas.

Klaas’ abduction out of her Bay Area bedroom window and subsequent murder made national headlines and evoked terror in then-pre-teen me. Her abduction incited a media circus and a nationwide hunt; ultimately, her murder played a role in the passing of California’s controversial three-strikes law.

The media narrative surrounding Klaas’ abduction drew on age-old scripts of the white “Dead Girl,” whose murder usually both incites a narrative and serves as the justification for violence. The dead girl plot is not, however, inherently a bad thing, Sady Doyle suggests, because when the dead girls talk back, when they are allowed their own voice, they become complex and active characters rather than ghostly projections of male fantasy.

These girls, however, are always figured along the exact same lines: white, blonde, beautiful, and youthful. These stories and their already in place victims, framed as innocent, serve as a constant reminder of who we, as a culture, appear to value the most (i.e. white girls). By that logic, everyone else—and many people more likely to sustain violence—are left out, pushed to the margins, and deemed unworthy of victimization. The latter is a truly dangerous consequence.

The repeated use of the “dead white girl” as narrative device arrives on-screen most often as a means to prop up, reiterate, and reaffirm the power of whiteness and often masculinity. We see this in the current cavalcade of white male dominated shows and white male violence: True Detective, Hannibal, Dexter, The Following, to name just a few. These shows and their attendant criticism reveal a deep-seated desire to explore that violence as if it is not pathological, not misogynistic, and not racially inflected. These explorations only reiterate the distinct privilege of being white, male, and violent.

Few characters of color are allowed to intellectualize their violence in the way mainstream media and television reserves for white men—in TV perhaps only Rowan Pope (Olivia’s Dad/Command), Omar Little, and Stringer Bell even come close to the complex depictions of white male violence. Of course, this should come as no surprise in a culture of white supremacy that long ago worked (and continues to work) tirelessly to attach violence to blackness, as if they were synonymous.

This framework has real world consequences, wherein black bodies are framed as already aggressive, preemptively violent. We see this in the media narratives about the murders of Renisha McBride, Trayvon Martin, and Jonathon Ferrell, among far too many others, in which white murderers attempt to justify their killings by foregrounding their racist fears, trotting out defenses rooted in white supremacy.

If depictions of violence make us—broadly speaking viewers, consumers of TV—more fearful then, by extension, the kinds of violence we see matters. The murders of young black people and the surrounding media circus, which questions their victimhood and attempts to discredit their person, blaming them for their own death, reiterates narratives that de-value black life.

Conversely, every time a white woman’s murder initiates a narrative, so too are white women’s lives—and murders—deemed the most valuable and worthy of our empathy. These fictional deaths, too, historically and currently too often serve as impetus for violence against bodies of color. This murderous framework affirms divisions and too often means that solidarity stays just for white women.

There are alternatives to shows that fetishize and intellectualize white male violence. Female-centered mysteries like Top of the Lake, Scandal, The Fall, Veronica Mars, Bletchley Circle, Pretty Little Liars, and many more re-center narratives on the endemic violence of patriarchy and its victims.

In these kinds of shows, as Alice Bolin writes in LARB, “the female protagonist is both trying to solve the mystery presented by a Dead (or missing) Girl” and, for instance in Top of the Lake and Veronica Mars, trying “to solve her own rape.”

Whereas masculine-centric detective shows often focus on male character development at the expense of female victims, these shows exhibit women working out their own experiences with patriarchal violence. In so doing, they protect other women, enshrouding them with love and creating safe reliable and trustworthy spaces. In Top of the Lake, for example, male violence is not a psychological aberration nor is it an intellectual position to be explored. Rather the narrative figures it as a horrific and logical result of men’s feelings of entitlement towards female bodies.

In the meantime, I’ve sought solace in female-centered shows, where women occupy the center, periphery, and drive the narrative. I’ve begun a list (below) of alternate shows to watch starring and about women as antidote to ongoing trends that champion violent aesthetics and masculinity. These shows aren’t perfect but instead of inciting fear, they make me feel powerful, excited, and whip smart like their many awesome protagonists.

List of  TV Shows with lady protagonists.

The list is both incomplete and in no particular order (yet!). Also, I haven’t seen all the shows on it as it is sort of an aspirational list for me. So, please add on, as you see fit!


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  1. I wanted to add Orphan Black to your list, but it is “view only”. I’d also love to read GLG’s thoughts on the show.

    • Thank you for the heads up! And for suggesting Orphan Black. I just changed the list so anyone can add and promptly added Orphan Black. I haven’t watched it yet … But, have heard nothing but amazing things about it, so it’s at the top of my personal “to watch” list!

  2. LOVING Orphan Black (recently finished season 1) and love this post. I totally agree with your racial criticism, particularly in that this violence against pretty, young, white women does suggest that their deaths are those most worthy of mourning. That said, I also feel that this trope reinforces the cultural narrative that women are prey, no matter how strong or smart or self-actualized or successful, and I find that a really troubling narrative to see as so prominent lately. (That’s my concern/issue with Pretty Little Liars actually.)

    • Thanks, Sarah! And, yes! I concur. In an earlier draft I talked more about how the recurrence of this kind of representation creates that culture of fear (and specifically for me dating that back to the coverage of the Polly Klass kidnapping) … But, then I also was interested in how that is figured really specifically in TV along raced lines. In PLL it’s interesting too … because part of the narrative is the way the girls band together in the face of that violence. What do you think?

  3. I dunno, particularly since I’m only up to season 3 (I think, I lost steam). I was actually picking Mellesque’s brain about this, including what you and Sarah T. saw in it. I was compelled by the argument so I started watching with that in mind and then was struck even more by how much “A” is always separating the girls and emphasizing their powerlessness, together or solo. So on one hand, there could be a case about female friendship supporting women even within an inherently violent patriarchal world but, on the other, I so far don’t see that support as being effective in pushing back against that patriarchal violence. PLL seems to posit that at least the girls recognize their powerlessness and innate victimhood and objectification through their relationship with each other, but that’s still pretty bleak if you break it down. Not everything has to be “ra, ra, girl power!” of course but PLL seemed to be feeding into this voyeuristic delight in watching the suffering of pretty white women.

  4. Reblogged this on Phoebe Bronstein and commented:

    New GLG post!

  5. P, have you seen “The Killing,” a Netflix series? Similar plot and themes but a female showrunner and female lead. I’m only a few episodes in but I’m intrigued.

    • I have! Well, I watched Season 1 & 2 when it was on AMC. I loved the first season but then didn’t love the second. I’ve heard, though, that seasons 3 and 4 (on Netflix) are the BEST.

  6. My only thought would be that Dexter, Hannibal, The Following all focus on serial killers. Serial killers are overwhelmingly predominantly white males. So if they are trying to capture that group then that may have some bearing.

  7. A spot on side by side comparison. I think…no, I believe more shows that depict women trying to solve cases of violence are needed,so more women can be inspired like you are. Honestly,prior to reading this,I was oblivious to most facts that your masterpiece houses. The ‘Dead white girl’ has been used so many times,it still is being used,that a lot of people are Immune to circumstances that had to take place in order for it to be used. And one thing I found very disturbing is what you stated about the killing of black youth and how people generally react to them. We(black people) are viewed as genetically belligerent, and violent by most races. And so,whenever one dies at the hands of law enforcers,for example,most assume that we posed a threat,and for that,we got killed. But if it’s someone white,or of another race that isn’t black,They get defended and people think objectively. This needs to change. It’s essential for humans to be gender and color blind.

  8. Great post. However, I would remove reality shows like “Real Housewives” and “Honey Boo Boo” which actually have a damaging effect on the image of girls/women (in my opinion).

  9. I often bemoan the fact that so few programs on TV today have truly admirable characters. Thanks for writing and posting this article.
    Here’s to Your Health!

  10. The Big C was a powerful show that starred Laura Linney. Nurse Jackie and Weeds also have strong female characters, although one can question some of their choices. Madam Secretary seems headed in the right direction. And while the women aren’t the stars, I’ve appreciated the way they are depicted on NCIS and the new NCIS: New Orleans.

    What ruins Scandal for me is that it’s morally repugnant and the characters are all despicable. Rhimes’ new show, How To Get Away With Murder, seems to be more of the same.

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