Housewives and Death – Ritual Violence onscreen

5 04 2012

The L.A. Times recently ran an article on the lawsuit former cast member Nicollete Sheridan is bringing against the producers of Desperate Housewives.  There’s lots to culturally unpack about that whole situation, but what struck me was that the article noted that in course of the show’s eight seasons, 49 characters have been killed off.  Forty-nine! This isn’t a police procedural, or a show that takes place in a combat zone or a deadly meat-packing plant; in fact, it’s supposed to be a white, upper-middle class neighborhood.  Housewives takes place in a tough neighborhood – according to LAPD statistics, there have been just eleven actual homicides in the past six years in all of West L.A. (the 405 to the ocean, and the 10 north to Sunset blvd).  Can you imagine if a similar upper middle-class neighborhood in L.A. to the one depicted on the show actually had that crime rate?  It’d be in the news every day (and then, imagine if a predominantly poor or ethnic neighborhood had the same rate; would the coverage be as extensive?)

anthropology of Hollywood

Map showing locations of L.A. county homicides (bigger circles indicate more murders per area)

Not that anyone expects TV to depict reality; certainly not with an explicitly escapist show like Desperate Housewives.  Violence, especially ritualized violence, is a common subject for anthropologists to focus on.  “Rituals” to anthropologists are almost any behavior that occurs over and over, according to certain social rules (sometimes written, but often oral or even unspoken).  So yes, your Quinceanera or Bar Mitzvah were rituals, but so are the dance of studio contract negotiations, or the Academy Awards.  “Ritualized violence” is violence enacted in a specific, rule-driven way.  Examples could be a blood vendetta in which both sides are trapped by social rules that keep the an endless cycle of violence going; or the “jumping in” ritual for a gang, where current members beat on prospective ones.

In a sense, most of the violence we see on TV, and to some degree in movies, appears in a ritualized way.  Almost all police procedurals are like this, in which the pursuit of the crime unfolds the same way every week.  On a show like Castle, the ritual is followed with almost robotic devotion: each episode opens with a murder, the cops bring in exactly one wrong suspect, then after a flash of intuition bring in the right one.  This isn’t a critique; I enjoy and appreciate genre conventions, and the writers there do an excellent job of following them.

anthropology of Hollywood

Duels are an extremely ritualized form of violence (this one is illustrating a scene in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin)

Violence-wise, even individual fights in movies and on TV to some sense follow a cultural script: in a well-choreographed fight scene, certain things will occur every time – a flurry of blows, a moment where the adversary gets the upper hand and things look grim for Our Hero, and then a final bold/desperate/lucky move that results in triumph.  This script has been followed from the days when Errol Flynn dueled sword-to-sword with Basil Rathbone to modern times, when Matt Damon throws everything he has (literally) at his opponents in the Bourne movies.  You can trust me on this one not because I’m not just an anthropologist, but a fight choreographer, too – well, that’s my single IMDB credit, anyway.

One final note about onscreen violence: a 2008 study by economists Gordon B. Dahl and Stefano DellaVigna  (“Does Movie Violence Increase Violent Crime?”) showed that on weekends when violent action movies get released, violent crime actually decreases.  They propose a number of reasons for this: the primary one is that people who are likely to commit violent acts like to go see violent movies.  Since those people are in movie theatres, they’re a)not out and about, committing crimes, and b)not drinking, which is positively correlated with increased violence.  In fact, Dahl and DellaVigna speculate that the release of a big, violence-oriented action movie results in 1,000 fewer assaults on opening weekend.  And people say movies aren’t good for you…

— Scott Frank

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3 responses

5 04 2012
aviatrixkim

There simply are not enough Eugene Onegin references in popular culture these days. Thank you for this one!

25 06 2012
Murray Kobbe

Thanks for giving your ideas. I would also like to express that video games have been actually evolving. Modern technology and revolutions have aided create reasonable and interactive games. All these entertainment games were not really sensible when the concept was first of all being tried. Just like other forms of know-how, video games also have had to develop by many many years. This is testimony for the fast development of video games.

19 05 2015
irgendein

Spot on with this write-up, I truly believe that this site needs far
more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks
for the info!

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