ABC took out ads promoting its new drama “Wicked City” during “American Horror Story: Hotel” on FX. And in terms of linking programs that risk glamorizing a troubling mix of sexuality with violence, it felt like birds of a feather flocking together.
Sex and violence are often awkwardly thrown together in discussions of content excesses on television and in movies, which is questionable. But research has shown that some of the most potentially harmful media imagery – certainly in terms of sexual aggression – is when the two are combined in ways designed to titillate.
“American Horror Story” frequently plays like the poster child for that particular practice. Granted, the anthology program is hardly alone in pouring this rather toxic blend, but at times the show seems to exist for that purpose, as evidenced by this month’s premiere, in which every sex scene incorporated a grisly death.
Based on the pilot, “Wicked City,” which premieres Oct. 27, comes across like an attempt to emulate basic cable fare in pushing that rather dubious envelope. Built around a suave serial killer who seduces women before murdering them, it’s only the latest in a string of series where “No” might mean “no,” but “Yes” has an unsettling way of meaning “Dying in a spreading pool of blood.”
Neil Malamuth, a communications professor at UCLA, has extensively researched the effects of mass media, as well as causes of sexual aggression. Notably, studies have found that rapists or those prone to sexual violence are more likely to be aroused by violence than, he says, “men in general, who would tend to be turned off by violent pornography if they’re not predisposed to sexual aggression.”
While discussing the impact of pornography might seem like a stretch in this context, as Malamuth notes, “Gradually, the lines between pornography and mainstream entertainment are going to become fuzzy and blurred.” And while the research doesn’t prove causality, various studies have indicated that excessive exposure to such material can influence attitudes in how people react to and perceive real-world violence. “Over time, people become desensitized to it,” Malamuth says.
With the proliferation of premium series – many unfettered by concerns about sponsors who might shy away from racier fare – pressure has grown for ad-supported networks to be “edgy” enough to compete. Yet something like “Wicked City” appears to reflect drawing unfortunate conclusions from a program like “American Horror Story’s” success, predicated on the hope that a cocktail of sex and violence – with “Gossip Girl’s” Ed Westwick as the garnish – will somehow feel hip and cool for, what, demographically desirable women with fantasies about being stabbed to death in a car?
“Game of Thrones” again caused a stir in its most recent season due to an act of sexual violence within the show, which was certainly upsetting. Still, one can argue that the brutality on that fantasy series is organic to the story and its fictional world, while in the case of programs like “American Horror Story” and “Wicked City,” there’s a disheartening sense that those elements actually are the story.
Put another way, the “Thrones” rape was disturbing because it happened to a character in which the show’s audience was invested. That can hardly be said for the poor, mostly anonymous souls being skewered, filleted and otherwise violated in “Horror Story’s” season premiere, or “Wicked City’s” pilot.
From that perspective, one needn’t be a prude or especially squeamish to be alarmed by the steady drip of sexual violence into mainstream entertainment. Because in the same way people don’t watch porn for the acting or story, when violence becomes the defining feature of a piece of popular entertainment — as opposed to a tool in telling the story — it’s worth asking what that says not only about those dishing it out, but also those viewers who actually have the stomach and appetite for it.