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.