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Redefining “Torture Porn”

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One of the big conversations about the new season of Orange is the New Black has revolved around whether or not the show has descended into “torture porn.” Personally, many scenes made me feel physically sick or psychologically disturbed me long after I finished watching, and there’s been a lot of debate about whether that makes good television or means that its been taken too far.

But Orange is the New Black, like other cable shows, doesn’t want you to enjoy watching this pain. It wants to make you uncomfortable. And that, I think, is part of a general shift to a new kind of “torture porn,” where shows compete to horrify the audience as much as possible in the name of serious storytelling.

“Torture porn” is generally used to mean that a show or a movie revels in torturing its characters, and that the viewer is also expected to enjoy watching this torture. It’s horror movies like the Saw series, where characters die in extremely grisly ways, and much of the viewer experience is anticipating and then watching these deaths.

But I think that the “grimdark” trend, particularly in television, has inspired a shift in the intentions of these “torture porn” stories. The writers do seem to revel in showing suffering, but the viewers aren’t expected to join them. It’s not a case where stories are advertised as “come watch some ridiculous, grisly murders for two hours!” but where viewers are invited to emphathize with and care about characters before they’re put through hell. The shows revel not just in making the characters suffer, but in making the audience suffer as well, all in the name of “gritty realism” and being Serious, Good Quality Entertainment.

To be fair, I’m not someone who can speak objectively about graphicness on TV, because I am, to put it lightly, a wimp. The pilot of Hannibal left me feeling on the verge of throwing up for most of the rest of the evening, and stories of accidents with physical injuries leave me with my head on my knees, fighting unconscious. I really don’t deal well with watching people in pain, or with imagining the human body going wrong. So my definition of “too graphic” might be much more restricting than most people’s definition.

Still, network TV rarely inspires more than a “quick, look away!” response. But the rise of cable shows and online “networks” like Netflix has given shows the chance to be extra graphic in telling their stories. Combine that with our current obsession with grittiness, where shows want to be as Serious and as Realistic as possible, and shows seem to try and outdo one another with character suffering.

In some ways, this can be a good thing. If a show is exploring dark subject matter, like, say, gang violence, it helps to dig deep and show harsh realities, although this can backfire if the viewer begins to anticipate and enjoy the violence. But when a show continues to escalate its graphicness, or include examples that aren’t vital to the story, it begins to feel the writers are working against the viewers. They’re telling us a story that we’re invested in, and then they punish us for that investment by experimenting with how deeply they upset us. Can they make the viewer invest in a character and then cause them to feel physically sick over what happens to them? Can they make a viewer dislike a character, and then still make them feel physically sick over what happens to them?

Sometimes it’s the appearance of extreme blood and obvious gore. But often, with TV, it’s more that the idea itself is horrific. It’s two whole seasons of Ramsay torturing Theon in Game of Thrones, with no real plot progression — in fact, at the expense of the plot, since it ate up time on the show and ruined the chance to have the dramatic “Theon is alive!” reveal. It’s rape appearing more and more in the show, even as set-dressing, to make things Super Gritty. And most recently, for me, it was Orange is the New Black with its slowly growing pile of horrors, from Piper’s branding to Maritza’s nightmare-inducing “would you rather?” scenario.

I don’t think it’s good for storytelling if certain plotpoints are made off-limits. But things that will upset and potentially traumatize the audience need to be included very, very carefully. We want to feel like we’re sharing a story and a world with its writers, not that the writers are trying to disturb us for some kind of Serious TV points.

And unfortunately, disturbing the audience has become a major goal for Serious, Quality Shows. They want to make people feel invested and get them talking, and nothing sparks conversation more than painful plot twists and controversy. And really, if you can’t emotionally disturb your audience and make them feel physically sick, what’s even the point of telling them the story? Shows need emotional reactions, and while they could aim to inspire joy or tears, nothing leaves a more lasting impression that the deep, unbearable horror that this kind of torture porn can provide.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

2 thoughts on “Redefining “Torture Porn”

  1. I respectfully disagree here. In Game of Thrones, whilst the torture porn is used to show just how evil Ramsay is, there is too much sexiness (random fan service with Kyra etc) and beauty in the way that it is filmed for it to be anything but pornography.
    Where as the torture in Orange is the New Black is much more subtle and non graphic but much more effective at encouraging empathy.
    I suppose what I mean to say if D &D where making Orange is the New Black, Blanca would’ve been beautiful (because beauty is never tarnished) and stripped down and somehow she would’ve maintained her sex appeal the whole graphic, ridiculous time.
    Making her stand for days at a time achieved the themes and plot necessity of the story (how power corrupts and demonstrating Piscatelli’s evil) without prurience.
    Likewise with Maritza and the mouse

    1. That’s a good point. Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black are definitely very different, and I shouldn’t have suggested they’re doing the same thing. But I disagree that everything that happened in OITNB was *necessary*. Many of the awful things seemed just part of the pile of horrors to me, rather than key to advancing the plot. They were definitely telling a story, but it was a very disturbing story, and I have to wonder where the line is when it comes to equating “dark and disturbing” with good storytelling. There’s a balance, and although OITNB was gripping, I’m not sure it pulled it off without being gratuitous for the sake of gratuity.

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