If you’ve watched TV over the last decade, you’ve probably noticed an uptick in scenes of violence. And while there are certain types of people it’s still not okay to kill on TV (nuns, kids, presidents of the United States), there is a growing list of people you can kill so long as you make them into non-people first. Television non-people include zombies, Nazis, robots, cylons, cultists, and (if we’re to believe 24) corrupt government officials.
To illustrate this process of turning a person into a non-person, consider the pilot of AMC’s most recent series, The Walking Dead, which opens with a startling scene. Sheriff Rick Grimes (the show’s main protagonist and “good guy”) picks his way through a car wreck and sees a little girl carrying a doll. At first she looks like a victim of the crash, but as the camera pans up to show her face, tell-tale signs of zombietude become apparent. Rick draws his .357 revolver and shoots the little girl in the head. Opening credits roll.
I would like to think that the creators of the show had more than mere shock value in mind here, that they wanted to do something more than suck the viewer in via the incongruities of the scene. They might be signaling to the viewer, perhaps, that this show is not just another in a surprisingly long list of recent zombie films/video games/TV shows/comics, and that it might have something to say about why zombies have become such a cultural touchstone. Time will tell.
In any case, this opening scene reminded me of a discussion I had regarding the Quentin Tarantino film, Inglorious Bastards. I contended, in short, that Tarantino made a film in which the viewers themselves were directly implicated in its gratuitous violence, and that Tarantino was asking serious question about violence-as-entertainment–questions that, ironically, only a violence auteur such as Tarantino could ask. Like zombies, Tarantino directs his cinematic violence at a type of human that one can beat, blow up, and shoot bloodily in the back while they are trapped in a burning building without moral compunction. Yes, Nazis.
The “implication of the viewer” is artfully accomplished via Tarantino’s use of meta narrative in the film. Ultimately, Inglorious Bastards is a film about film (this is, after all, Tarantino). The latter part of the film takes place in a theater where Hitler and key members of the Nazi party have gathered to view a propaganda film about a German sharp-shooter. Tarantino shows Hitler laughing at (taking pleasure in) a black and white film of a Nazi shooting Americans from a bell tower, an elevated vantage point that allows the shooter to kill with impunity. But while Hitler chortles at his propaganda film, two American assassins (the titular “inglorious bastards”) bolt the main theater doors and then sneak into Hitler’s private balcony. They shoot Hitler, and then turn automatic weapons on the now panicked crowed of high ranking (and high class) Nazis below. If you have the chance to watch this film, take a moment here and spy the reaction to this scene of those around you. In the theater where I first saw the film, people cheered and laughed as the helpless Nazis were shot in the back while the theater burned around them. They (we) had become Hitler.
In this playful mirroring, Tarantino not only points the critical finger back at the viewer, but he also makes us ask, made me ask, what is it about these particular people that allows me to take pleasure in their violent assassination sans moral compunction? How is it that the sign of Nazi makes it okay for me to laugh as a bullet passes through the bone and hair of a woman’s skull? Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not trying to defend Nazis here, nor is Taranino. But notice how quickly the sign of the victim went from “American” to “Nazi,” and how radically that shifting sign changed the way the theater goers perceived the act of violence. The instability and “slippage” of those signifiers is worth thinking about because of how quickly the meaning of violence is able to realign itself along an almost antithetical tact: violence is cowardice when enacted upon Americans by a Nazi, entertainment when reversed.
Violence in film/TV/books is certainly nothing new. But what does it say that these non-people people (zombies, cylons, Nazis) now litter the media landscape as victimless victims of violence? I don’t have the answer, but I think it might have something to do with what Baudrillard called “the era of events without consequences.” He talks of television spectacles, but in today’s world we might more easily think of this phenomenon in terms of video games. As far as consequntiality is concerned, a video game is a closed system. The avatars of the game are, like those described above, non-people people, and as such when I nail an opponent with a head shot, I am entertained, not racked by guilt for having killed someone. My act of violence has no consequences only because I can separate in my mind the object on the screen that acts and looks like a human, from an actual living human. The video game avatar, then, becomes the quintessential non-person person precisely because killing it is an “event without consequences.” Where my violence against a computer avatar to have physical-world consequences, then I could not continue “playing” without moral compunction (i.e., Ender’s Game).
My point here isn’t to condemn video game violence, nor am I suggesting that video game violence is responsible for physical-world violence. What I am saying, however, is that if we want to understand the proliferation in film and TV of non-people people who can be beaten, shot, or burned with moral impunity, then video game violence and the particular ways in which violence against avatars can be entertaining are the places to start looking.