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Van Natta Researches Violence in Selected TV Progams

Monday, August 20, 2018

Most of us don't take the time to really unpack the violent content we have just viewed when we see a newly released Marvel or DC film. Dr. Michelle Van Natta, on the other hand, does.

This summer, Van Natta has been analyzing the content and narratives of four genre television programs: Lost Girl, Defiance, Continuum, and Mr. Robot. She selected the first three to examine how law enforcement violence is justified in the media, whereas Mr. Robot is used to look at violence specifically against women. The nature of these shows allows Van Natta to examine contemporary issues within a parallel reality.

In particular, she has been examining the manifestations of three types of violence within the first three shows: (1) instrumental violence, which is intended to directly accomplish a goal, (2) expressive violence to show anger and (3) directed symbolic violence utilized to assert dominance or power. Two of the shows exhibit some variation of non-human life coexisting with humans. Conflict arises between humans and non-human species, which is combatted with these three types of violence. Law enforcement and other characters in these shows sometimes justify violence by emphasizing that victims are non-humans and this may allow viewers to consume the material virtually free of moral quandary.

According to Van Natta, in the US today, targets of law enforcement brutality are often dehumanized in the media in ways that make the force and oppression against them seem more acceptable. There is a racial divide in attitudes toward violence used by law enforcement in our contemporary world. Research shows that people of color in the US are more critical of police practices than whites. People of color, especially those in low-income communities, are more likely than whites to have witnessed or experienced harmful behavior from police or to learn about such behaviors from personal contacts. Many white communities are less likely than other groups to directly experience police violence and more likely to draw their beliefs about police from mainstream media portrayals. Van Natta maintaisn that research shows that whites are more likely to believe that police rarely use racial profiling or excessive force. She stresses the importance of looking at the nature of media portrayals because these images are widely consumed and can have a significant impact on how groups view each other, especially in a segregated society where groups may have little direct contact or communication with each other.  

In her research, Van Natta also emphasizes that it is important to not only understand the perceptions and struggles of black communities and other communities impacted by policing practices, but to also look at the ways that we have positioned the police.

"I don't think it's only about individual bad cops. I think it's about a system where we emphasize militarized policing but don't emphasize programs that combat systematic oppression and the root causes of street crime. Then we put police in a position where they're supposed to handle out on the street mental illness, poverty, domestic issues and all the other failings in our society out on the street. And the tool we give them is a gun. So, what are they going to use? They're put in a really bad position and we're pouring a lot of money into those types of solutions and less money into having after-school programs. We know that the rate of violence amongst youth in city neighborhoods drops when they have job programs where they actually get paid. But we've got very few of those available for young people and we're pouring a lot of money into policing. And I think there is a divide in how people think about that," Van Natta explained.

To social media's credit, it has increasingly exposed privileged communities to non-fabricated content that shows the realities of the strain between law enforcement and some black communities, sparking increasing demand for a change in what law enforcement should look like.

"I'm hoping we'll have a more nuanced way to think about what law enforcement could look like, what public safety might look like, what prevention of violence might look like, what humanity should look like, and how we can think about ways to promote public safety and well-being that are less dangerous and where there is less dehumanization happening in communities that puts people at risk," she said.

Another aspect Van Natta is studying is violence against women, specifically through the show Mr. Robot. She has found that violence against women is significantly more sexualized than that against men, and that it is often used in a dehumanizing way.

"Women's bodies are still being used as objects to reward or punish men. And I think that when that happens, it does give us that subtle message about violence against women being normalized." Nevertheless, Van Natta does not think that violence against women should be censored from media for it is still a reality and, if portrayed in an appropriate way, may even be empowering to women who can relate to the narrative. It is imperative then, to craft the instances of violence against women in media carefully.

Ultimately, Van Natta believes that media created by a more diverse range of people needs to continue if we are going to see a shift these perceptions and divides, and that viewers need to be critical of the narratives they consume and thoughtful of the narratives to which their children are exposed so that they may develop a critical eye of their own.

By Patrycia Piaskowski