Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Sex and Violence Debate and Double Standard

One of my favorite sites io9.com continues to have consistently interesting articles. Today's essay by Charlie Jane Anders tackles a topic that's been covered by the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the Huffington Post, and other media -- the abundant scenes of sex and violence in the highly rated HBO series Game of Thrones. The show itself has generated positive reviews (which it has earned) and terrific ratings. Pay network programs often tend to push the envelope on risque content that viewers wouldn't necessarily see on broadcast television, but has it all reached gratuitous territory? My question is, would we be hearing as much of an uproar if we were only talking about over-the-top violence?

I've written about the double standard in how our society treats depictions of sex versus depictions of violence. In 2002, I wrote in my entertainment newsgroup, "The rating system is a joke.  Kids can get in to see an R rated movie without a problem.  On the other hand, some films made for a mature adult audience get blackballed.  Sex for adults is a no-no, but sexual innuendo for teens seems to be acceptable.  Consentual and artful sex for adults gets slapped with an NC-17 rating, treated no differently than pornography, but graphic violence showing death, mayhem, and decapitations gets a mere R rating without a worry."

Anders acknowledges this double standard: "It's a truism that Americans are more upset by explicit sex than explicit violence." It's problematic when people who rate content (and lead to the censoring of that content) look upon portrayals of sexuality and violent content out of context.


The original Game of Thrones source material written by George R.R. Martin has plenty of sex and violence, but it usually serves to move the plot forward or flesh out the characters. As Anders writes, "An example of non-gratuitous sex would be Cersei and Jaime hooking up, in the show's first ever episode. An example of non-gratuitous violence would be the decapitation of Ned Stark." Both those examples served a purpose. There is also a difference between reading those scenes and seeing them unfold in live-action. On TV, there is a fine line between exposition and exploitation.

Sex is rarely depicted as an act of love between two adults in a committed, monogamous relationship. That's because one of the key elements of good storytelling is conflict, so delving into gratuitous titilation and shocking violence is more dramatic.

Is Game of Thrones abandoning good characterization and its intriguing storytelling themes in exchange for cheap and excessive portrayals of sex and gore? Let the debate continue.

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