I devoured The Walking Dead in two days. (Get it? Because it’s a show about zombies.) To be fair, the first season is only six episodes—and I’ve got the added incentive of catching up before Comic-Con. See also: my seemingly endless marathon of The Vampire Diaries. Having read the Walking Dead comics, I mostly knew what to expect. But holy crap, no one told me the series was going to be so violent.
Perhaps that sounds naïve: it’s a show about the zombie apocalypse. Exactly what did I expect? Still, it’s jarring to see so much blood and gore on television. And this is coming from someone who is pretty damn desensitized. (I own The Devil’s Rejects and The Human Centipede on Blu-ray. I’m not bragging.) What I mean is, I have no problem with violence, and I actually thought The Walking Dead handled it really well. In fact, the show offers some of the most stunning gore I have seen. Violence can be beautiful—if you don’t believe me, check out those glistening arcs of zombie blood when the walkers get shot in the head.
That having been said, I appreciate the affect violence can have on a person. I’m certainly not going to revert back to the very ’90s argument that media violence causes violent behavior in young people—it’s stupid and reductive and largely disproven. But as someone who takes in a lot of gloriously violent entertainment, I understand that it can have some sort of effect on one’s psyche. Desensitization. Nightmares. Boredom with movies that don’t contain viscera. And none of this is to say that we should censor our shows, but to point out that yes, I at least get where the argument to do so is coming from. But I say that only to draw attention to our ridiculous double standards. A zombie hacked into pieces? No problem. The glimpse of a woman’s nipple? WON’T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE CHILDREN.
The Walking Dead is the best example in recent memory of the incredible divide between our cultural perception of violence vs. sex and language. We embrace blood—even on networks that won’t allow the mere utterance of “shit,” we can see a character get both of his eyes gouged out. (The Vampire Diaries. Don’t worry, they grew back.) In a show that can’t reveal too much bare flesh, a character’s fingernail is ripped off. (Supernatural. It was a Christmas-themed episode, if you can believe that.) These moments of horror are what keep me up at night. So why do they get a free pass while sex and dirty words are kept under wraps?
There are plenty of actual reasons why we’re so squeamish about boobies and—oh, God, I can barely even say it—penises. And when it comes to language, naughty swears are one of the few things I think kids really do copy. (I don’t necessarily think that’s a problem, but we’ll save that for another blog post.) But instead of focusing on where these social mores come from, let’s chat a bit about changing them. Rest assured, nervous parents, I have no real control over the FCC.
Teenagers have sex, whether or not they see bare breasts on TV. They use a slew of four-letter words you’d never hear on ABC Family. But no matter how much torture porn you shove down their throats, teenagers (for the most part) don’t eviscerate their friends and family. If they do, there’s probably something else going on. What exactly are we shielding young people from, then? Whatever they can’t find on TV, they figure out on their own. Watching a cop show in which all the gritty characters say “friggin’” takes you out of the moment—and it’s not like we don’t know what they’d be saying in real life.
More nudity and cursing on TV! It’s a weird crusade, and I don’t think it’s exactly the most important cause I’ve taken on. But I’m interested in the implications of a media culture that exalts violence while denigrating sex and “bad” language. It’s not a matter of condoning violence—no one would argue that a series like The Walking Dead is suggesting we should get our bite on. Why the other restrictions, though? I’m not saying we should have porn on every channel (well, I’m not not saying it…), but what about some equal representation? If we’re going to show relentless brutality, is a little more explicit sexuality going to hurt? It’s ludicrous that The Walking Dead can show a squirming torso leaving a trail of slime behind it while Mad Men has to include a content warning before an episode featuring ONE tasteful nude photo.
OK, our censorship is arbitrary. But does it really matter? I think so. I look at a series like Twilight, in which vampires and werewolves do some serious damage, but which greatly suppresses sexuality. This is obviously an extreme example: Twilight is a parable of sexual repression. It is, however, a very popular one, and in the context of this cultural disparity, what does it teach young people? One baser urge is fodder for cheap thrills, while the other should be kept hidden at all costs. And let’s be real, sex and violence are natural urges—our job is to keep them in check as we see fit. So why, in entertainment, can’t we treat them the same? And hey, if someone drops the occasional F-bomb, that’s OK, too.
Nudity on TV won’t turn us all into sex-crazed perverts—no moreso than we already are. I’m as sure of that as I am that The Walking Dead‘s jaw-dropping violence won’t turn us into zombies.
Crossposted to Huffington Post Culture here.