Last week, after a stressful day, I thought to myself, “I’ll put on some Law & Order: SVU to cheer myself up.” I didn’t mean it in the perverse sense that I would watch the show and be reassured because minor stress doesn’t compare to the horrors that people experience in any given 44-minute episode. I meant it because I think of a show that’s solely focused on “especially heinous” crimes, mostly against women, as comfort television. Not for the first time, it occurred to me how odd that is.
I know I’m not alone. How many of us have talked to women we’ve met recently and heard that confessional moment about watching the show as a guilty pleasure, or the more enthusiastic, full-throated embrace of it. SVU stands out in its own category due to its reliability and the sheer volume of episodes, but I often gravitate toward entertainment that is focused on violent crime: Dexter, Wire in the Blood, The Fall, The Killing, Red Riding Trilogy, True Detective, Luther, and on and on. They vary widely in quality, format, and approach, but they share a common theme.
S.E. Smith writes at Bitch about why people love dark, violent TV and looks at it as a reaction to the times we live in.
Washington Post critic Alyssa Rosenberg told me that yes, there is, noting that the phenomenon in film and television started on cable, where sex and violence rule the roost. She also points out the somewhat ironic origins of the violence against women that so characterizes the grimdark genre. “I think the feminist successes of a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit led some people to believe that simply depicting violence against women was meaningful,” she says. “Violence against women is supposed to be sophisticated in some way, proof of an aesthetic perspective or some sort of finer sensibility.”
The 2000s have been marked by hard times, especially for the lower and working classes. As wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of a few, the economy tailspins, the cost of living rises, and we continue to be involved in devastating wars in the Middle East, we’re also seeing acts of violence and horror across the world – mass shootings, other violent terrorist acts, kidnappings, assaults on girls trying to go to school, attacks on the most vulnerable in our society. Even as grimdark rises, Bill Cosby appears to be an unrepentant rapist, Anders Behring Brievik kills 77 people in Norway, Malala Yousafzi is shot for going to school, Boko Haram kidnaps 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria and later slaughters hundreds and possibly thousands in a massacre, Ebola rages in West Africa, France is rocked by terrorist attacks, and nations like Haiti and Japan are torn apart by earthquakes. The world is both a grim and dark place—an environment where, one might imagine, people might prefer to turn to lighter media for entertainment to pull themselves out of the real world…
…When confronted with the random violence and cruelty of the world, not everyone wants to read about a sweet and just fictional reality. Perhaps some of us want to see worlds that mirror our own or to see characters coping with darkness. While grimdark works, especially those in works-in-progress like television shows, the plots don’t necessarily tie up into neat resolutions, but they can provide hope; Walter White achieves redemption, in his own strange way, Game of Thrones is full of violence but Tyrion Lannister comes out on top even in terrible situations, Black Mirror oddly offers the suggestion that humanity can turn back before it’s too late, Katniss overthrows an oppressive government despite severe personal losses. Oddly, there is a powerful sense of hope in grimdark, even as the genre feels bleak and horrific on the surface.
Smith notes that people making television are also noticing that it resonates with women more than they might have thought before. I don’t think this translates into an overall tolerance–everyone has their lines. I can’t deal with horror and gore. Some of these shows use violence to tell a compelling story, some use it gratuitously. Sometimes it’s incidental, sometimes it’s integral to the story. I might get creeped out or disturbed by an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but I know everything is more or less going to work out within an hour, and I’m not usually going to be surprised. But I can be on edge through a whole Game of Thrones episode, just waiting for something unnecessarily gross to happen (and that show is more likely to revel in violence against women that doesn’t do anything for the plot).
Why do you think women gravitate toward this kind of show? Is it because we like to see violence against women neatly resolved in an hour (often by a kickass woman)? Is it just because crime and violence are inherently dramatic and make for good television? I don’t know if we’ll completely figure it out, but in the meantime, I’ll sit back and wait for all of television to turn into this parody from Kroll Show called “Dead Girl Town,” which I would most definitely watch if it were real.