Why Are Stories Violent?

author: David Thorburn, Literature at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Kevin Sandler, Film and Media Studies, Arizona State University
author: Maria Tatar, Program in Folklore and Mythology, Harvard University
published: June 10, 2010,   recorded: May 2005,   views: 4808
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Note: Due to copyright restrictions, this video does not include the film clips screened by Professor Sandler. His presentation includes sufficient description and context to make the argument clear.

You wouldn’t ordinarily expect to find Euripides, Snow White, Bruno Bettelheim, and Rambo discussed at the same event. But they share the limelight in this session. Is violence an intrinsic part of human art and experience? A device exploited by cynical producers to lure consumers? A threat to healthy child development, or a natural means of teaching and learning? There is no consensus here, but plenty of provocative examples and scholarly insight. David Thorburn sets the stage, evoking the relentless tradition of violence in the Western literary canon from the eras of the Bible and Greek tragedy.

Kevin Sandler, who dubs himself a “political media economist,” fills out the contemporary end of the continuum, with an analysis of ratings handed out by the film industry board. Using “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Collateral Damage” as evidence, Sandler argues that major studios have positioned violence as an entertainment vehicle safely within the “cultural function” we expect movies to fulfill.

What about Snow White’s poisoned apple, or the cruelties Willy Wonka inflicts on chocolate factory visitors? Literary scholar Maria Tatar lays out three possible functions of violence in stories for children: stimulating their imagination through surreal depictions of “what might be;” teaching them how to behave through fear; and giving them a therapeutic outlet for primitive emotions. A series of lively questioners try to penetrate what Tatar calls the “mystery of cultural effects,” speculating on the psychological, social, and political consequences of so much violence in children’s media.

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