Jeff Farrell: Nothing new about dark themes in pop culture

Feb. 15, 2014 @ 11:33 PM

For what seems like most of my life, I’ve been having variations of the same conversation: people complaining about violence, vulgarity and profanity portrayed in our culture, whether it’s on television, music or video games.

Heavy metal albums with backmasking of Satanic verses, gangster rap encouraging kids to act like thugs, first-person-shooters causing school shooting – seemingly every social ill has been blamed on some part of popular culture.

Most recently, it was specifically about “Black Sails,” a Michael Bay-produced TV show about pirates at the end of their golden age, and ahead of the story of “Treasure Island.” The show mixes gritty realism and historical figures with Robert Louis Stevenson’s fictional characters. Bay couldn’t resist. It’s on Starz, a premium network, and is presented as adult fare.

The complaints cited the abundance of nudity, casual sex and casual violence. The nudity and sex involves, for the most part, a brothel. The violence…well, just think in your best Captain Jack Sparrow voice, “pirate.”

The person doing the complaining reasoned that the gratuitous nudity and violence weren’t necessary. There were (in his words, and he’s that age) ladies of the night on “Gunsmoke,” and they weren’t running around naked. Gunfights, too, but they didn’t have so much blood and gore. Things have gone bad, he said, when we show people things like that. We’re being desensitized to these things.

To a degree, I get that. When I was a kid, my heroes, on TV’s “The A-Team,” were a band of mercenary Vietnam vets who managed to never kill or even really injure anybody despite copious use of ammo and explosives.

We also had three channels, all network, all subject to some strict regulations for what could be seen on prime time.

Which wasn’t to say there weren’t plenty of all those things if you knew where to look, even then. My mom’s favorite soap opera, “General Hospital,” was big news over a wedding between a woman and the man who, a few seasons earlier, had raped her.

The movies in the Rambo series stand as some of the most violent action films I can remember, 1980s screwball comedies made a point of working in a few naked supermodels, and that leaves out the combination of both that went into the decade’s horror movies.

Or take the longer view. Before gangster rap, we had John Lee Hooker singing about being bad like Jesse James, and Johnny Cash singing about Delia.

We’ve become used to the Disney version of fairy tales. The real stories were much gorier, and violent.

A lot of people get downright sick at the idea of a televised execution. They were once a form of public entertainment.

That’s long before we get to the point of, say, gladiatorial arenas and the time when being thrown to the lions wasn’t a metaphor.

I’ll never forget a professor at UT telling us about one of the main rivals Shakespeare faced in getting an audience — bear baiting, where a bear staked to a pole was left to fight a pack of dogs as a packed arena cheered the spectacle.

We’re not that far removed from a time when violence in our own cities was a real, constant threat for every citizen. Not something we’re aware might happen in theory, but something that happened regularly. In some parts of the country, that’s still the reality. In much of the world, it’s still the reality.

Americans are coming off a brief time where, with only limited options, television networks censored themselves, and movies were willing to, well, Disneyize fairy tales (ironic when you consider who owns the character of Jack Sparrow).

What many remember nostalgically was the exception, not the rule.

As much as people don’t like acknowledging it, we aren’t becoming desensitized to these things.

The fact that so many object, shows that many of us are sensitized to it.

If you’re one of them, take comfort in the fact that there are still many options, in movies and on television, to find the fare you seek. People know it’s a product you seek, so they’ll provide it as long as they profit from doing so.

But I wouldn’t count on them being the only options again on either medium. I’m pretty sure that period was the exception, not the rule some make it out to be.

Jeff Farrell is a reporter for The Mountain Press. Call 428-0748, ext. 216, or e-mail to jfarrell@themountainpress.com. Twitter: @jeffmtnpress.