Desensitization in Modern Popular Culture

Remember when Interstellar was released? It wasn’t exactly met with the most positive critical response. In fact, it received a not-so-great-especially-for-Nolan score of 73% on popular review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. The most common criticism that was cast upon it was not directed at its complex narrative, nor its wobbly scientific accuracy. Instead critics found it to be too bogged-down by emotional aspects, finding it too cheesy. While there were moments of awkward dialogue and exposition, the grand ideas that the film put forth about intertwining love and time, and the perception of our connection with people as something that could possibly hold greater significance, was an incredibly refreshing experience. The film deals with this deeply intimate subject matter with the right sense of profound earnestness. Perhaps it was this sincerity displayed towards a serious subject matter that put off so many. A sincerity rarely witnessed in today’s world.

The most popular art and media of a period reveal a lot about the society they were birthed in. And so it is that a major indicator of today’s mindset is in cinema. Well, popular cinema at least. Art has always been about self-expression, and this is usually brought about by combining socio-political issues with an emotional narrative core; stories personal to the storyteller. The Greek tragedies gave rise to a form of storytelling still seen today. Stories such as Oedipus Rex laid very important foundational elements of classical modern stories. The Shakespearean tragedies built upon these foundations to further build a framework. Thus began the stories dealing with violence, and the implications it posed. These stories were deeply intimate portrayals of what it did to individuals. Stories such as Macbeth used violence merely to depict the character’s descent into depravity. Violence became a common theme in storytelling, but there was a slow shift in the manner in which it was being used.

In today’s cinema, we are fed a constant barrage of violence, with no emotional reprimand. Any displays of tenderness are brushed off as being mawkish. However films like “Drive”, and the recent “You Were Never Really Here” (still doing the festival circuit) buckle the tradition of ridiculous set-pieces and cringey jokes that have become commonplace in the present blockbuster scenario. These films instead choose to delve into the psyche of the characters experiencing these horrifying incidents of violence, many of which are inflicted by the protagonists themselves. There are no buildings crumbling, cities flying, cars vaulting through sky-scrapers or large, green-skinned, muscular humanoids battling men in large robot suits across a city. These banal displays of action in films have immunized us to violence.

Despite the positive responses these films received, critics labelled the film and its protagonist as being “feminine”. Simply because rather than displaying these characters as emotionless juggernauts immune to any moral self-jurisdiction, the directors chose to explore the effect the mindless violence has on them. These films are not devoid of violence, quite the contrary for these are extremely brutal films. However, all the blood and gore in the film is never presented as spectacle. Nothing is ever trivialized.

In the current post-post-modernist landscape, we are inclined to coat everything within numerous layers of irony, quite often including serious topics. This abject trivialization has most recently taken the form of the jokes and memes we view on social media. There have been more than a few incidents where people made light of some very serious issues. The problem here isn’t the offense it causes. But rather that we become desensitized. Well-constructed humour is certain to elicit a laugh regardless of the subject matter behind the jokes. But these obviously impact the seriousness with which we view these issues. A certain comedian’s frequent masturbation and rape jokes no longer seem all that funny in retrospect.

There is no denying that it is impossible to restrict ourselves to only watch arthouse movies or to never lay eyes upon social media. This is merely a by-product of the way we consume our entertainment. The bigger problem that seems to be occurring is that these ideologies are now bleeding over into our lives. We have grown more selfish. Humanistic values that were once upheld are now vilified. Despite being well-intentioned, our recent embrace of individualism has probably resulted in more harm than good. It is this very ideology that resulted in the election of Trump. But individualism is a topic for a whole other article.

Our capacity to empathize appears to be dwindling. And this is something that is in dire need given the world we live in. Art and cinema have always excelled at evoking empathy. So it becomes a responsibility of artists across all media to bring about the significance of the various complex affairs transpiring across the world, and to stop underplaying them. Freedom of speech is all well and good but our subjectivity mustn’t get in the way of what is paramount. Even if it means sometimes we have to get a little cheesy. Or feminine.

-Anantha Venkataram

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Anantha Venkataram

Basic cinephile who spends too much time preaching about the cinematic excellence of Steven Spielberg. Occasionally watches tv shows and thinks that Parks and Rec is the best sitcom of all time.

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