Is It Always Best to Look?

Is It Always Best to Look?


Portrayals of violence in art and popular media provoke different reactions in each of us, from fear to elation to moral outrage. Whether representations of violence can help to rectify the unjust treatment of the oppressed is a familiar topic of debate, but our discussions focus too much on the intention of the creator and not enough on the effect on viewers. When violence in films and other media depicts exploitation, we commonly justify the portrayal as in service of social commentary, but it also painfully reiterates the trauma of the oppressed. It isn’t wrong to show or look at violence if it raises awareness about the fragility of and discrimination against others; the problem is that those who suffer from said violence are forced to relive their pain through another’s expression. When the portrayal is not accurate, the media trivializes its own influence, shrinking from the responsibility of historical precision. As apparent in James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, violence attacks not only the body but the mind, and it creates and nurtures emotions that often reveal specific truths about one’s role in society.  We’ve seen violence through multiple lenses, yet racial violence seems to hold a particularly profound psychological message that impacts not just the oppressed but also the oppressor. In showing violence that focuses the racialized body, artists need to offer a story sensitive to the identity of those it affects, which makes its correct interpretation necessary.

The representation of racial violence through art and media is important and must not be ignored or misrepresented. It is sensitive and painful to force any person to watch themselves through a lens that attacks their self-concept, and it is also disorienting to see oneself portrayed through the racial bias of another. It often frightens others who have never seen such a person. To be introduced through the lens of a narrator who does not provide an accurate projection of the subject can be misleading in what is understood about the people who live this reality beyond art and film. Often in art, especially in film, we see dramatization used to misrepresent the reality of the other, which creates a division between what is real and what the audience feels. For example, in the movie Peppermint (2018), we witness a white mother (whose family has been murdered) on a quest for vengeance against the drug cartel responsible for her family’s death. All the members are of Latinx heritage which plays into the demonization of people of color. This limits the film’s ability to entertain because it plays on the fear of the audience in order to gain sympathy. This narrative is cliché in that it makes the villain out of a specific group of people, further perpetuating the familiar story of people of color as savage and heartless. By representing Latinx characters as one-dimensional villains in a violent narrative, they silence Latinx people and provoke the audience’s fear. If the audience doesn’t have relationships with Latinx people in real life, the film risks coloring their perceptions. The most important aspect of the representation of racialized violence, especially in America, is its ability to ground the identity of an individual to the violence known about and projected onto them. This becomes a problem because it often restricts the audience’s ability to empathize with character that is impacted beyond this narration of violence. In Scenes of Subjection, Hartman asks some important questions:

Are we witnesses who confirm the truth of what happened in the face of the world destroying capacities of pain, the distortions of torture, the sheer unrepresentability of terror, and the repression of the dominant accounts? Or are we voyeurs fascinated with and repelled by exhibitions of terror and sufferance? What does the exposure of the violated body yield?1

Hartman poses these questions with regard to Frederick Douglass’s written account of watching Aunt Hesther being whipped by a slaveholder, but applied more broadly, Hartman’s thinking suggests that if the medium is dishonest in its representation of violence, it validates the victimization of the subject by forcing the audience to become complicit to the narrative. Which may not take into account the actuality of the racialized violence that is displayed. This makes it easy for the audience to romanticize this story instead of understanding beyond the biases that are displayed. Because of this it is really important that we acknowledge “the capacities of pain” and the way they separate the torturer from the tortured. When art is dishonesty, we should not rely on its interpretation to represent the stories of marginalized people for our entertainment. To look at something that negates the reality of one’s existence is to subscribe to a regime that renounces all subjective autonomy. It disrespects the violation of the body, trivializing the sufferer’s pain and history. This then causes the audience to understand the violated body only through its ability to reassure the audience’s own safety.

Having autonomy over one’s identity is an important aspect of understanding the self outside of society’s perception. The distortion of racialized violence through art and media directly confronts the misrepresented and creates a sense of radical alienation of control. These representations reinforce socially-assigned racial identities and restrict the audience’s capacities for self-determination. In Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin introduces a more personal way of showing racial suffering and violence. He explores his close relationship with this subject through analysis of his father’s pain and struggle with identity. This very narration of the black body and its experience shows us the effect of racialized violence in the subject. For example, Baldwin states:

I think—he was very black—with his blackness and his beauty, and with the fact that he knew that he was black but did not know that he was beautiful. He claimed to be proud of his blackness but it had also been the cause of much humiliation and it had fixed bleak boundaries to his life.2

As Baldwin discusses his father’s alienation from a sense of self, racialized violence can be seen as one of the boundaries that caused his bitterness. Baldwin discusses his father’s understanding of blackness and the fragility of the black body, which pushes us to think that the narrative of racial suffering and violence affected Baldwin’s father in more than one way. Baldwin’s father is a prime example of a person who is affected by the projection of racialized violence, as he is described as a man who often understood his existence in relation to what was said about him and his battle for autonomy. Baldwin talks about the ability to see the beauty within the self, which seems to be the center of his father’s collision with identity. This aspect of the book adds another element about autonomy and control. Most often, when we give in to the narrative painted by racialized violence it prohibits us from seeing the beauty within the self which can feel like losing one’s identity.

The senselessness of violence is often the greatest fear that we face in society and the dramatization of such violence often commemorates a fear that creates division between those portrayed in media and the audience. For example, in the film Elephant (2003), Director Gus Van Sant shows the impact of gun violence through a narrative based on the 1999 Columbine school shooting. Van Sant uses the camera to take the audience into the minds of the people involved in the massacre by showing us the simplicity of their day and the quickness with which so many lives were taken away. Often the camera focuses too much on the shock of the people involved to intensify drama, which cheapens the intention of the film’s message. It is clear that not much was known about the everyone involved and because of that lack of information, we can see a fracture between the truth and the film. Van Sant wanted to demonstrate the brutality and absurdity of the situation to frighten the viewer into empathy. In this case, fear is used as a medium itself to raise awareness about gun violence, which is maybe one of the most important ways films use violence to attract the viewer and influence their understanding of sensitive subjects such as gun violence. However, because Van Sant attempt to accurately represent this tragic story misses the mark in the way that it explains the connections between the perpetrators and the victims of the shooting.

Though given the connection between school shootings and white, male perpetrators, I suppose there is an argument to be made that the violence Elephant portrays is racialized. This is more about the understanding of racial suffering and its need to be advocated. Many believe that it is important to see and be educated on racial suffering to identify with the cause. For example, we see this in the many portrayals of police brutality across the media. The racial gap between the way that black victims are treated compared to white victims shows us yet another way that demonization of marginalized communities can be of real impact in modern society. When eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot on August 9, 2014, its national impact showed us the importance of showing racialized violence and understanding racial suffering. What we understood about the injustice of the death of Michael Brown is perhaps an important side effect of the misrepresentation of race in the media and the demonization of people of color. It is important to show what happens when we subscribe to the propaganda of racial dramatization in film and other mediums because it affects our ability to empathize with people impacted by this sort of violence. But when it takes the death of an unarmed person to shock us away from our communal bias, it shows us how much subscribing to marketized racial violence can diminish our capacity to see humanity beyond innocence. It also forces the subject (every person of color who realized the fragility of their mortality) into a state of fear and abandonment by their society. Because of this fear, it could be said that it is no longer best to look because looking traps the subject into a continuous cycle of pain and suffering.

The portrayal of violence is necessary for the building of empathy. But like most mediums, the possibility for positive and negative impact exists. What we understand about those we don’t know is often delivered to us through media and film. This can be problematic if the examination of violence is biased. Bias in these mediums evoke strong emotions that can lead to dangerous realities for the people who have been misrepresented. When we talk about the ethics of representing violence, and especially racial violence, we must often include sensitivity and understanding before we create art as we are not always able to control the way it is received. If the objective is to influence or to educate, the media must be clear about this its intention; because it is important to prevent ourselves from censoring those whom we narrate.

  1. Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (Oxford University Press, 1997),3.
  2. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son, (Beacon Press, 1984), 30.
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