Dark Times in Pop Culture

As we gird ourselves for the return of Game of Thrones, recover from the joyless collisions of Batman and Superman, and persevere through the deaths of pretty much every lesbian on television, it’s time to pause and ask ourselves—why is pop culture so dark right now? And more importantly, is there any value in this unending dash toward being the Darkest and the Edgiest of all?

supermanisad

“I… sad.”

The easy answer is, of course, to lay the blame at George R. R. Martin and the copious bloodletting which reverberates throughout A Song of Ice and Fire. HBO generated a hit with his story when they put it on TV, and everyone else is trying to imitate him. If they got ratings with Ned Stark’s head on a pike, then goddamn it, the rest of us are going to keep putting heads on pikes until we get an Entertainment Weekly cover of our own.

Violence, death, and despair add a level of gravitas, which is clearly being craved in the newly-prestigious realms of television and superhero movies. But it’s increasingly little more than meaningless trend-following, with story and character sacrificed to appeal to some marketing executive’s belief of what audiences want. It’s destructive and it needs to end.

Look, death is capable of evoking deep emotional responses, and I’m glad that creators are comfortable going into the shadows of our minds. But like any other emotional art, that reaction has to be earned—it’s not difficult to make me sad, but it’s a real challenge to make me happy that you made me sad.

You want to feel sad? Get a tissue and watch this:

Yep. Six seconds, no dialog, no characters, not even any humans. Just a raccoon separated from his treat. I know. Oh, cheer up, he gets more:

Stories teach us empathy, and people who like stories get awfully good at it. Sometimes too good—we have these hair-triggers which give empathetic reactions to events which don’t really have larger meaning:

Connecting meaning and emotion gives us catharsis. Separating them breeds resentment—we’re being tricked into caring, and made to feel stupid for having the exact emotional reaction the author is creating. It’s insulting. I’m still pissed at Jeff Winger for making me sad about that stupid pencil.

In his (partial) defense, George R. R. Martin leans toward catharsis. The shock and horror that accompanies Ned’s death is, in fact, well-earned. His murder upsets comforting narrative conventions, and reverberates through the rest of the series. It’s surprising, and it’s a narrative twist, but it means more than that. Nobody is giggling at you for being upset by it; rather, you’re encouraged to dig deeper into just what this death means for the world. Martin doesn’t use the moment to blandly prove that Anyone Can Die; he uses it to show the anarchy that results in the aftermath of such transgressions of the moral order. It works because it does more than tell us that murder is scary. I already knew that!

nedstarkthislooksbad.png

Okay, this looks bad.

Meanwhile, when A Song of Ice and Fire came to HBO, this commitment to catharsis was dropped altogether, most egregiously in the brutal rape of Sansa Stark by Ramsey Bolton in Season 5. The scene stands for nothing other than the assertion that rape is upsetting—something that we all (hopefully) knew without the input of Benioff and Weiss. The scene punishes the viewer for caring about Sansa Stark at all, and the show scoffs at your pain with bland claims at historical realism: on the commentary track, writer Bryan Cogman claims, “we made the decision to not shy away from what would realistically would [sic] happen on that wedding night with these two characters.” It’s trauma for the sake of trauma.

happysansa

And then nothing else happened.

The result of this, then, is rage at Joffrey for killing Ned Stark, but rage at HBO for the rape of Sansa Stark. The plea of “why are you doing this to Ned?” is replaced with “why are you doing this to me?” When we’re robbed of the meaning of our emotional responses, we’re left with anger at the creators who elicited them. You can’t be proud that you made me feel bad; all you had to do was snap a pencil.

This all squanders the very real opportunities presented by audiences willing to follow art to darker and darker places. The world is, after all, an unhappy place, and this is a moment when people are unusually fearful about the future. It’s important to confront the reality that happy endings are never guaranteed, and that our societies are faced with choices where every outcome risks real harm to real people.

It’s not absurd to fear Superman and be discomfited by what he would mean for the world. But those reactions need to be earned by something more than spectacle, some hook to make Bruce Wayne’s thinking clear and relatable. Accidental and random deaths can have real emotional echoes—as long as the writers aren’t distracted by inflicting shock and horror on viewers and allow time to grieve, to panic, and to heal. Nobody is still impressed by the simple willingness to show death.

So by all means: be dark. Take us to uncomfortable places. Let us feel negative emotions. But do it with more purpose than a raccoon at the county fair.


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63 thoughts on “Dark Times in Pop Culture

  1. You make a very valid and important observation here. All this ‘darkness’, death and evil in fantasy in films, games and so on….it is all just greedy humans out to make as much money as they can, no matter what the consequences. Sensationalism makes money.
    There is a world of evil in the real world…you name it… tortures, persecutions, mutilations, killings, ……you name it, it is out there for real. I wonder how many of the wimps in their little plastic money towers, busy making up their horror stories; how many of them can stomach the realities?! My guess, they wouldn’t even be able to watch one video of a real slaughter.

  2. GoT is a very dark and grim show, but I think there is light in the darkness – shows like Grimm, whilst superficially, er, grim, are actually quite creative and bright, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe deliberately keeps things quite optimistic and fun. The dark side of the Force will not prevail!

    • My thoughts exactly- I always felt The Dark Knight was really quite dark for a film about a man dressing up like a bat. The 1960s Batman with Adam West nicely reflected the light-hearted and ludicrous nature of the superhero genre.

    • I agree that The Dark Knight really pushed things along. After all, outside of comic book fans, your average cinema-goer’s probably not going to watch a film about a man fighting crime in a rubber bat costume unless he’s been told that it’s not really about the rubber bat costume.

  3. Game of Thrones, ia a very dark but wonderful show. I got home late, so I didnt get to see the 1st run of the premiere but it comes on again in a few hours. Bet your bottom line I will be watching it, so that I can do a recap on it. “You know nothing, Jon Snow!”

  4. nice read.
    but personally i’d rate christopher nolans dark knight trilogy, that popularized the concept.
    GOT was and is popular just till the GOT fans
    TDK is highly rated overall

  5. I think you made some very valid points that can be applied to a lot of examples. I immediately thought of the Hunger Games trilogy when you talked about art manipulating our emotion by invoking death. So few times were the deaths earned, meaningful, or symbolic. There was no transcendence. It was realism without a point. Lonesome Dove (the book) is a great example of realism for a point. The author used deaths and dissonance t underscore the blue notes of existing during the pioneer era. The emptiness you felt was a visceral symbol of the emptiness of the land. The Revenant is another great example. There was death and revenge, but it was a short of catharsis for the bereaved main character. Great think piece!

  6. I agree with a lot of what you say, but I don’t think GoT is the only reason film and TV are going darker: I think Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy has had a considerable influence as well. Those films took the previously whimsical-no-matter-how-serious-it-is comic book film and made it dark, realistic, Oscar-worthy. I think that’s a major cause for this darker trend.

    • I’m glad others agree with me. It’s interesting to note Tim Burton’s Batman, that while it’s not fully dark, was stylistically dark. Definitely no industry-wide change until TDK.

      • Tim Burton’s Batman was also comic book-ish. It had elements that made viewers think, “Oh, this could never happen in our world. It’s so silly. The 40’s clothing and technology from different ages, the Prince music and comical master plan. It’s definitely a comic book.” TDK trilogy made us believe a Batman and his enemies could exist in our world, and I think that’s the major difference between the two films.

        • Totally. I meant more the tone compared to Batman’s previous iteration as camp. It definitely wasn’t real enough. TDK basically took all the humor out (which isn’t totally bad), kept in the tone, and added more suspended believability. We can probably thank Heath Ledger for his insane role as the Joker, because without it and without his death the movie might not have hit such a chord of acceptance with the general public and the industry.

  7. I agree. I’m getting tired of seeing movies and books that only focus on the dark. Sometimes, we need to see the dark because we need to realize that life isn’t all sunshine and roses. But I think it causes more harm than good when we dwell on it for too long.
    I wrote a post a few months ago about being careful what you watch. My main point was that what you watch, listen to, or read will get inside your head after a while. If all we’re seeing is darkness, then soon that will be all we’re thinking. It’s dangerous, honestly.

  8. Great post – everything should have a point and a purpose. Personally, I prefer it when shows and movies have a little hope left in Pandora’s box for the good guys and the viewers. (Yes, Person of Interest reference.)

  9. I agree with the majority of this article. However, I am irked by the complaints about the rape of Sansa Stark. When Ramsay married in the books, he raped his bride (Jeyne Poole, forcibly disguised as Arya Stark). While this was upsetting, it didn’t draw the same sort of criticism as the show does for what is basically the same thing: Ramsay raping his bride. The only difference being that the victimized character was changed; Jeyne Poole isn’t in the show, after all. This honestly makes me wonder if viewers of the show would have been nearly so upset if the victim had been a character that they weren’t so familiar with.
    If you want to discuss gratuitous rape in Game of Thrones, a much better example would be Jamie raping Cersei next to the corpse of their recently murdered son. The equivalent scene in the books was an act of consensual sex. The show changed it to rape for no real reason. It added nothing to the narrative and had no effect on either character. It was an act of rape for no other reason than that the showrunners wanted it to be rape. All in all, the rape of Cersei Lannister is a much better example of gratuitous rape, and gratuitous grimness, than the rape of Sansa Stark.

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  12. Nice post, these types of scenes (where people are slaughtered and tortured) make the most money. Although I would like to see a lesbian couple live and a better SVB movie I am so looking forward to Game Of Thrones even though I know its going to be a bunch of people having sex and getting slaughtered.

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  14. These are some really good points. I would like to add shows like The Sheild, SOA, and Dexter to this conversation (more so the first two). There has been a lot of dark content on TV over the past decade. GOT just made it into something your parents would watch.

  15. I enjoyed reading this. I do think Hollywood gets stuck on formulas. It was refreshing to see (and read) The Martian. No bad guys, no “bet you didn’t see that coming” twists. But for the first half of the article, I got the sense that the consumer is viewed as a helpless victim. Sheep to the slaughter. There aren’t many markets that I can think of that don’t respond to demand. The movies, with their dark themes and tones, are obviously popular. I spend less on movies these days because I do think they’re all overly formulaic. The same conspiracy driven plots with the big reveal that an apparent good guy or friend is the Big Bad.

  16. I like that the Game of Thrones is different. We were always used to the fact that we get happy endings in every film and on every TV Series. But GOT changed that and I like that it is, because despite its cruelty it shows the reality of a situation and of course with that comes emotion. They create scenes like that so that you relate to the character. If there was no relation to the characters, people wouldn’t watch. So I guess they figured out that “dark time” is something people want to see to relate to it.
    Nicely written🙂

  17. But isn’t it who we truly are?
    You check out the front page of your newspaper,it will all be dressed with corruption charges,rapes,crimes?
    They know what attracts the attention and hereby the term ‘hard news’.
    We would dig deep to find the darker side of anything.
    No one wants a happy ending anymore,its more about bloodshed and a haunt down your worst nightmares.

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  19. Dark pop culture mirrors a dark world. You asked if there was any value in the mad dash to be the edgiest, the darkest. I would say yes, but not in the works themselves. The value comes in distracting the audience from the bleak reality of the wars and terrorism taking place in our own world. *shrug* sometimes the dark is so dark you need a story. And what is better than a story that makes your own darkness seem a little lighter?

    Lovely article, really enjoyed your writing style and inserted videos =D

  20. Who cares? Why does pop culture has to be one thing or the other? I don’t care if it is a light, spirited fantasy or a dark and angsty story. I don’t care if Hollywood gets stuck on the occasional formula. As long as I enjoy the writing, direction and acting of any particular movie or television series, I’m happy.

  21. Very true, themes across most visual media tends to waiver more towards the negative, not just fantasy though. Even Disney is using its prowess to extend this feel into their themes with films such as Bug hero 6 showing how to overcome depression brought on from death of a family member, Inside Out signifying the emotional roller coaster of Riley moving house but realising sadness is really the hero, Zootroplois regarding the idea of xenophobia and staying within your class! But I agree it isn’t all hearts and smiles so contrast is good….but a few more smiles would be good.

  22. I’m kind of repeating what you’ve already said, but there’s an argument to be made that most of the darker, edgier developments in TV are purely aesthetic. By this I mean that they’re all happening on the surface, whilst underneath not much has really changed. People who watch more TV than I do can maybe clarify how much this is or is not true. But as one definite example, you only have to look at AMC’s on-screen treatment of events in The Walking Dead comic books, comic books which are notoriously violent and difficult to read, and much of which is simply not translatable to mainstream US TV. Think as one example of Lori’s death, which in the comics is shockingly violent and pointless (perhaps unnecessarily gratuitous, but that’s another argument), but which on TV is re-configured as a mother’s sacrifice to save her child. Lori even starts appearing to Rick after her death, literally looking down on him from above, dressed in shimmering, angelic white, for God’s sake.

    If you look at the increase of on-screen violence, and then consider the point you’re making here in this blog — that essentially TV has become about shock for shock’s sake — you have to wonder how much the dark, edgy (and violent) aesthetics are merely proxies for dark, edgy (and violent) qualities. In other words, that they’re distracting audiences from the fact that there’s not much in them apart from the sort of melodrama you’d find in any average soap opera. And don’t forget the attention it all gets in the (inter)national news. I don’t know about the US, but here in the UK the distributors of much of this stuff also happen to be the owners of national news programmes and newspapers. I contend that this is not a coincidence.

  23. I agree. And I don’t why i like this trends. It gives me a beat in my heart. I guess the world is changing, start from me!.

  24. I think people are becoming darker, more negative and the idea of someone having it worse feeds their souls. Nowadays, shock gets attention and that is why pop culture has started competing in who can have a higher shock value. Happy endings have been assassinated.

  25. I love the dark shows coming out these days. American Horror Story is my favorite, even though it seems that Ryan Murphy is kind of just throwing in anything and everything to the point where shock value outranks a feasible storyline. But I love the disturbing shocks used in pop culture because it allows you to experience a ridiculous high intensity situation without any of the consequences.

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  27. You make some well-expressed points here, and I don’t disagree with you entirely. That said, culture doesn’t exist independently of society, so I do wonder if these darker themes aren’t ‘meaningless trend-following’ but do reflect our generation in some way.

    (Also, re. Sansa Stark, bit inaccurate when people accuse HBO of divergence from the books for sensationalism’s sake with regard to her rape. All HBO did was to give her the storyline of another girl her age, who was married to and raped by Ramsay; so then it’s not a big deal if it’s a minor character, but it’s a big deal if it’s Sansa…?)

  28. Great article, I wonder if I can be just put down to game of thrones or just a general trend in what tone of media people enjoy. For instance horror has always been an overwhelmingly popular genre since baaaaack in the day….maybe everything else is just catching up?

  29. I’m not a fan of shock for shocks sake or believe that people actually are entertained by all the evil and negativity in these shows. I believe that people enjoy watching in the hope that their favourite characters can overcome evil and come out on top. However I feel some shows in some cases have almost completely thrown hope out of the window. What I mean by this is that in some shows there are getting to be fewer and fewer characters that I would actually wish to see survive.

    One example of this is Rick Grimes in The Walking Dead. To be perfectly honest there is nothing I would like to see better than a zombie chewing his leg off. He is not a character that I like or particularly care much for because I think at the end of the day the guy is just a power hungry psychopath. For me he lost any semblance of humanity a long time ago in the show.

    Another example would be Game of Thrones. The amount of characters that remain who people must surely despise and hate seeing on a weekly basis outnumber the good 10-1. Characters such as Cersei Lanister, Alliser Thorne, The Boltons, Melisandre, Arya Stark, Petyr Baelish et al. I despair having to watch them on screen because to see any of them succeed in their endeavours is unpleasant at best.

  30. There is truth to this, however there are other forms of media that are very light-hearted and fun. TV can be dark, as long as it matches the characters.

  31. @Steve I agree, I think people like edgy stuff and enjoy stuff like that. From the gladiators of ancient times to football or UFC of today’s modern times, people LOVE violence, it’s always been that way.

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