Prostitution, oral sex, orgies, incest, defenestrating a kid if caught during incest, a terribly dehumanising nude walk of shame, slavery, genital mutilation, crushing a man’s head with bare hands, cannibalism, breasts, breasts and some more gratuitous amounts of breasts.
Geez! These are just some of the forbidden fruits we’ve gnawed and devoured in the recent years. And this is all just one show.
Game of Thrones, HBO’s annual taboo-breaking event
Television has transformed itself into a canvas that redefines what is socially acceptable. Of course, social media has alleviated this transition by cheering on the producers and showrunners to test our limits. Every scandalising scene and taboo broken is decorated with a catchy hashtag, like #walkofshame or #twincest. It has become as bold as cinema, thanks to the highly tolerant ongoing cultural zeitgeist.
It’s not TV, it’s HBO.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the medium of film was the cool, rebellious trailblazer who kept pushing the envelope. Television was his inferior, second-string, unimaginative cousin. Well, it’s all changed now.
How? Enter HBO. They married film’s artistic vision, complex characters, mature content and higher production values with TV’s mere intimacy, to provide a more satisfying and emotional experience. Though this relationship is incestuous, it is also fuelled by a sibling rivalry characterised by an intent on being the trendsetter.
And now, other cable and streaming services have followed suit.
How to Break a Taboo?
It’s true that with time, mind-sets change and taboos break. There was a time when portrayal of infidelity in any medium was frowned upon. Then Madame Bovary happened. Though controversial and disapproved at the time, it is now one of the most seminal works of French realism despite its content. Until recently, those who indulged in certain sexual practices and lifestyles called BDSM were admonished. Thanks to some poorly written rubbish pretending to be a novel about female empowerment, people are now more forgiving.
The cultural taboo of incest has existed across different societies throughout mankind’s history. Despite our often visceral reaction to it, many great works of literature have alluded to instances of it if not explicitly stated. From Sophocles’ Theban plays to Shakespeare’s play, Pericles. From the Bible to Nabokov and George R. R. Martin. Incest has not just been a popular topic in erotic fiction.
But what makes incest in television or film more shocking and controversial?
The graphically lurid portrayal of it. We have an innate, instinctual aversion towards the topic of incest. Even the self-assured but mostly disagreeable Sigmund Freud believed that incest was one of two universal taboos among all civilisations and formed the reference point for our conscience and morality.
If you remember David Lynch’s hauntingly wonderful Twin Peaks, the big reveal about the murderous and incestuous father was masked with paranormal undertones to downplay the cold-blooded and vile nature of the crime. But hey, HBO is a trendsetter, remember? Game of Thrones takes such a casual, unambiguous and explicit approach to it, it almost seems normal.
The show continues to shock us season after season by breaking what were previously taboos. Yet, that’s one of the primary reasons we keep coming back for more. More seditious the content, More the people will talk and tweet about it.
“It’s a positive thing to talk about terrible things and make people laugh about them.”
It’s not just television. Look at Louis CK. He is, perhaps, the only person who can make inappropriate remarks about his daughters, pantomime fingering a female rat, talk about sad handjobs or draw an analogy between paedophilia and Mounds bars (video below), with hilarious results. George Carlin once famously quipped, “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” Louis CK sure took his advice to heart.
Though his SNL monologue was met with public indignation and social media outrage, he is not disenchanted. And why should he be? Louis is someone who continues to challenge people into uncomfortable places in their head. Yet, you can’t help but visualise what he’s saying. With uncensored self-deprecation and unfiltered misanthropy, he confronts the more serious issues. Using comic relief, he unmasks a side of us we try very hard to inhibit.
In the monologue, he doesn’t empathise with the paedophiles but rather wonders about the source of their impulses and rationale. If the whole fiasco got the people talking and led to public discourse about this grave issue and its possible solutions, surely something good came out of what was merely a joke.
Winter is Coming
Admittedly, graphic portrayal of taboos makes for provocative but great television. And HBO, Netflix and the gang continue to challenge society’s norms for what is socially acceptable television.
Are they testing our moral boundaries with their continued experimentation with increasingly instigative programming? And does such graphic content numb us to its perverse and profane nature?
I agree and disagree. Though I agree that nudity and violence in many shows, including Game of Thrones, often seem so gratuitous, it’s not like such content is being forcibly inflicted upon uninterested subscribers. One can always unsubscribe.
I agree that, in the name of quality entertainment and due to emotional investment in our beloved characters, we continue to stomach content we would have otherwise found nauseating. But hey, pick up a book with an unabridged and elaborate account of human history, you’re bound to find worse. Things a lot more distasteful and appalling than a work of fiction.
And hey, I love Omar Little and Walter White but it doesn’t mean I intend on becoming a stick-up man or a drug dealer. I love Hannibal Lecter but no, I don’t intend on eating your liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti. Being of sound mind and body, I can differentiate between reality and fiction. But I won’t dismiss the fact that regular exposure to ultraviolent content has had a cumulative effect on me. It sure has. It has desensitised me to a character’s distress and suffering.
With incest becoming the new normal in television and violence the norm, I don’t think there’s much left that shocks me anymore. Though I engage with the rest of you in this cultural phenomenon, it doesn’t mean I embrace it. Yes, this may make me seem less humane but it doesn’t make me any less human.