Violence — especially grotesque, gory or bloody violence — has become a staple of network television during sweeps periods. But there’s a new kind of violence surging — violence against women. A new study by the Parents Television Council called "Women in Peril" reveals that between 2004 and 2009, CBS, NBC, and Fox (but not ABC) all green-lighted a significant increase in the incidents — and degree — of violence against women.
On average, during the five-year span, there was a 2 percent increase in overall violence during the primetime viewing hours. But during the same time period, there was a 120 percent increase in the number of times the audience would be exposed to a violent scene with a female victim.
CBS, the "CSI" network, led with 118 violent storylines on women, but NBC had the largest increase, at 192 percent. The forms of violence depicted included rape, stabbing, dismemberment, electrocution, poisoning, shooting, beating and torture. Death was regularly a result of the violence.
This stat tells it all: In a complete reversal of tradition, network programmers strongly favored violence depicted on screen (92 percent) rather than implied (5 percent) or merely described (3 percent).
Flipping channels in primetime can be a scary proposition with children in the room. Viewers of the NBC comic-strip-themed show "Heroes" saw images in flashback of the villain Sylar’s evil deeds, including a scene of him stabbing a woman in the chest with scissors. On ABC’s popular and sleazy "Desperate Housewives," viewers were shocked when one of the main female characters was shot in the chest while camping in the woods. It turned out to be a murderer’s daydream, and his plot was conveniently foiled before he could kill off a major character.
Nothing’s sacred. A smaller but growing category in network sensationalism is violence against female children, virtually unseen in the past (six incidents in the 2004 February and May sweeps). There were 30 such scenes on the same networks during the same time slots in 2009. CBS’s "CSI" featured a plot about a teenaged girl found dead in a parking lot (with the corpse shown several times), and in flashback scenes, viewers saw her assaulted by a friend’s father. For good measure, there was an attempted sexual assault while she was unconscious. A gorier scene aired on NBC’s "Medium," where a suspect was shown photos of a teenage girl whose throat was slit and covered in blood.
The acceptable rules of engagement for female characters keep expanding. Chivalry is dead and so are lots of women on television, splayed in all kinds of horrific poses. Graphic violence and bloody crime scenes were not necessary for people to enjoy "Police Woman" or "Hill Street Blues." Now it’s seemingly essential. It makes you sentimental for the days of shows like "Mannix," where people would get shot and fall down. Was it realistic? No. Neither was it horrific.
Then there’s the bloody violence and brutality in cartoons. It’s not as "real," and therefore perhaps not as bothersome as live action and because of that, it’s far more gruesome.
Imagine what would have been the audience’s reaction, children and adults alike, a generation ago if, watching "The Flintstones," suddenly Fred Flintstone were to smack Wilma in the face, or Bam-bam were to pummel Betty Rubble with his stick.
Yet on today’s primetime cartoons, aimed at adults and children alike, the creators think it’s hilarious to abuse their female characters. On "Family Guy," the lead character tells his son that he should be the "best leader of the household" he can. So the son pushes his rear end into his sister’s face and flatulates, and then punches his mother in the face. On "American Dad," a female dentist saves the lead character from a shooting. When she approaches for a hug, he punches her in the face and takes her gun. See the "hilarious" pattern?
Then there’s the bloody violence. On "Family Guy," a joke about the "extensive divorce procedure required by 18th century society" is illustrated by the lead character shooting his daughter dead with a musket. On "American Dad," there’s so-called comedy in suggesting lawn sprinklers are a deadly household hazard. In a cautionary film, two little girls are shown playing catch with a doll, when one girl trips and lands on the sprinkler, which pokes through her chest cavity. The sprinkler showers the house, lawn and the other little girl with blood.
The creator of those shows recently had his contract renewed, reportedly at $100 million.