In the wake of the murder of elementary school students and their teachers, as well as the mother of the shooter, Nancy Lanza, in Newtown, Connecticut on Friday, Hollywood has struggled to demonstrate sensitivity in its programming and premieres. The Weinstein Company cancelled the Los Angeles premiere of Quentin Tarantino’s characteristically violent revenge period drama Django Unchained, which ends with a bloody gun battle at a slaveholding plantation. Though its finale depicted an act of terrorism rather than gun violence (though such violence was threatened, but did not emerge), Homeland put up a title card before the episode began that warned that some images in the show might be disturbing in light of the Newtown massacre. And shows from Family Guy to Best Funeral Ever have postponed episodes until later dates. It’s one thing for networks and studios to observe a mourning period. But the more interesting question is whether the massacre will prompt longer-term changes in the kind of material Hollywood considers both marketable and appropriate.
In a series of Tweets, Time television critic James Poniewozik laid out the problem with these short-term measures. “THR: TLC delaying BEST FUNERAL EVER bc of Newtown shootings. Apparently becomes appropriate again Jan 6,” he wrote in a series of messages. “This recurrent thing, postponing shows bc of sensitivities–I get it. But resist the idea that something is ‘inappropriate’ for like 2 weeks…Either it’s inappropriate in general or it’s not.” There’s something sadly perceptive in the cynicism of that proscribed period of sensitivity. Hollywood’s acting on the recognition that after these increasingly-common tragedies, the members of their audience not directly affected by the deaths are hyper-cautious for a brief period, call for changes in all sorts of culture and policy, and then return to their preexisting level of sensitivity and allow those demands for a different path to peter out. The studios that have pulled or labeled programming or cancelled events are acting like savvy marketers, rather than like moral agents.
This is, of course, their prerogative and purpose as large companies. But just as it appears that President Obama and members of Congress are, for the first time in political memory, renewing the push for gun control legislation, I’m wondering whether some networks may decide to change where the line is for what they’re interested in airing.
It’s been a period of intense cruelty to children on television. On Sons of Anarchy, the children of the main character, Jax Teller, have been kidnapped and in car accidents. This season of Breaking Bad reached a turning point when Todd, a newcomer to the meth cooking operation run by Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, shot a young boy who happened upon the men in the aftermath of a train robbery, though there was little evidence that the child understood what little he had witnessed. When children aren’t the victims of extreme violence, they are often being enlisted in those acts themselves. On Game of Thrones, while Sansa Stark is beaten by grown men and threatened with sexual assault, her sister Arya, on the run and disguised as a boy, kills another child to escape from King’s Landing, and must fight in battle to protect herself. And this season on The Walking Dead, Carl Grimes both witnessed his mother’s own impromptu caesarean section and then killed her to prevent her from turning into a zombie.
Sometimes, this violence done to children can be extraordinary moral and moving. Breaking Bad‘s Jesse has exhibited a long-running and deep sensitivity to the question of child welfare, whether he’s witnessing the neglect two meth addicts display towards their child, worrying himself to the point of illness when his girlfriend’s child, Brock, is poisoned and torturing himself when he believes that he’s responsible (though in fact Walter poisoned Brock), and reacting with shock and horror to the shooting. This was a death that was presented as if it was a dreadful act, and that became a moral fulcrum for the show, as Walter sided with Todd in reacting instrumentally to the boy’s murder, rather than with Jesse in responding ethically and emotionally. But I’d be curious to see if showrunners and networks begin heightening their standards for the use of violence against or involving children in the wake of Newtown. It’s one thing to depict such violence because it’s permissible, another because it seems truly and deeply necessary to story momentum or character development.
I’d be happy to see popular culture reconsider the monotonous wave of violence that’s come to dominate both ratings and box office and on television, critical consensus. But I’d hoped, and will continue to hope, that they’d do that out of a desire to innovate, and on television to broaden the subject matter of the so-called Golden Age, rather than because what looked commercially viable a week ago looks less potentially profitable now.