The Cable News, Manufactured Heroism, Torture, and the importance of Grimdark

Despite a sharp decline in the United States’ violent crime rate since the mid-1990s, the majority of Americans continue to believe the nation’s crime problem is getting worse, as they have for most of the past decade. Currently, 68% say there is more crime in the U.S. than there was a year ago, 17% say less, and 8% volunteer that crime is unchanged. 2011 Gallup Poll 

This skirts the edge of politics, but is mostly concerned with a certain type of Fantasy literature. We live in age when we are constantly barraged with signs of danger. Colour coded alerts, fears of terrorism, threats of war, and the idea that anything we type on the internet is recorded and sifted through for signs of trouble. Doom of some sort is constantly just around the corner. Scandals are everywhere. It gets tiresome, really.

The primary perpetrators of this hyperactive, hyperbolic atmosphere of constant worry are without any shadow of a doubt the media; especially the twenty-four hour cable news channels. Its the ratings, you see. The news is, in theory, supposed to report on and analyze current events so that the public can make informed decisions about the world. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Unfortunately 24Hr cable news needs to compete with programs that are actually designed to entertain. This is actually quite a daunting task. Think about it, how exactly is a news program going to compete with the next Episode or Dr Who or Game of Thrones? What if nothing of broad interest is going on?

The solution for these media titans is to partly to fall back on the tried and true methodology of the worst type of newspapers. Offering a combination of scandal, righteous indignation, and downright fear-mongering to create a sense that the viewer will miss something of vital importance if they watch something else. This emotive appeal is quite effective at drawing in viewers and it has slowly spread throughout the industry. I have read of people  complaining about family members who remain glued to their favourite news station for hours at a time; I wouldn’t be surprised if it can cause some sort of disorder.

The North American media often blame video games and other art forms for the violence that permeates our society. Politics aside, this is oil-dipped coal calling the kettle black. Cable news thrives on violence and sex, relying on them to create the sense of threat and scandal that drives their industry. Cable news is often graphically violent these days, ironically warning viewers in the same way the video games industry does. Even when it is not the language is divisive and vitriolic, and the warning of eminent doom are constant.

The 24Hr cables news channels want us to feel. The easiest way to do get us to feel is to feed us a steady dose of righteous anger, fear, outrage, and occasional titillation. Eventually we become hooked on the emotional highs and lows that they provide. It ensures a healthy rating and lots of money from advertisers. 24Hr news channels, like most TV stations, make most of their money from selling their audience.

This is where torture and manufactured heroism come in.

Torture and the Media

Torture is something that has resurfaced in the last decade or so. It was once universally reviled, but a certain school of ruthless pragmatists have made the case for its use in the War on Terror. Leaving the politics of this aside (which is difficult), it is easy to see how this paradigm shift permeated the modern conscience. The Media, led by the 24hr hour news channels, were the primary vehicles for the dissemination of the idea that torture is now acceptable, or if not acceptable it is now the new reality and we can’t do anything about it.

What surprised me was the lack of substantive discussion about torture on these channels. The problem with this media model is that it does not allow for any real rational discussion. The panels have to maintain that emotional appeal or they lose ratings. The case against torture is passionate, but it lacks the visceral appeal of the case for torture, at least until more victims made the news. If it were a truly rational discussion, Torture would face much greater opposition: we got rid of it for a reason.

Grimdark often features torture because it is topical, and Fantasy fiction is a relatively safe space for us to explore our feelings about such ugly things. The best Grimdark discusses the merits and flaws of torture in a far more rational and thought provoking way than the news.

Manufactured Heroism

Despite its “now grittier than ever!” approach to current events, some of the new news Channels are obsessed with creating heroes. Heroes have a strong emotional appeal; the offer that much needed release after the endless slog of anger, fear, and indignation. Finally, here is someone we can believe in!

The problem with heroes is that they are rare, and not nearly as exciting as the news wants them to be. I have seen several attempts at manufacturing heroes by news Channels, sometimes politically motivated, sometimes just for ratings. These false heroes will  fall apart under scrutiny, which just feeds the cycle unfortunately. I’m sure you can think of examples. Giving mine would be too political for this blog and would likely sidetrack the discussion.

Grimdark has picked up on the ideas of Manufactured Heroism and run with it. The cynical attitude that leads an organization to attempt to create a heroic figure is absolutely worthy of fiction. The exploration of the human failures of people who are mighty and powerful has always been a staple of literature, and Grimdark carries on the more cynical explorations of that subject with great success.

Grimdark, while it is often the subject of the news, is really Fantasy’s way of commenting on the atmosphere that the 24Hr news channels, among others, have created. Politicians and newsmen have rejected rational principles in favour of ruthless pragmatism; Grimdark reflects this with its shadowy worlds and moral ambiguity. The constant sense of doom and scandal that the the news uses to compete with entertainment programs is reflected in the cynical characters and visceral violence of the genre. Good Grimdark is thus finely attuned Fiction that is popular because it reflects the tenor of our times, and how many people feel about the world that is presented to us. I would argue that Grimdark is the sandbox where many Fantasy writers go to play with the complex issues of the war on terror,  modern politics, false heroism, and the negative aspects of the trickle down economy. This makes it very important to the genre.


4 comments on “The Cable News, Manufactured Heroism, Torture, and the importance of Grimdark

  1. judaidan says:

    I think it’s fair to see a connection between the prevalence of “grimdark” flavoured fantasy and the manufactured fear machines known as 24hour news networks. Heroes (and not just the anti-heroes) will torture and kill in order to save lives, and it’s all ok because it’s in the name of justice and the hero suffers a sanitizing Christ-like guilt that suggests all these horrific acts hurt him the most (eg Jack Bauer and even Tamas from Promise of Blood). Could you imagine Superman torturing anybody? (I’m curious about whether that’ll occur in the new Nolan movie).
    As a fan of Horror, I’ve also noticed a prevalence of full out degradation and almost ritualistic humiliation for victims characteristic of some of sort of things we’ve heard and seen in the news. The Saw series is a perfect example of this cruel victim humiliation and degradation, and the victims themselves are not just the teenager stereotype – but adult, ordinary profession people. How much of the popularity of all this grimmer and mercilessly violent is a function of a society needing to assuage it’s collective guilt and despair in these unsettling times? Or is it the result of a wounded and victimized society needing to satiate its sense of justice with bloodlust?

  2. judaidan says:

    Here’s a satirical take on the new 24 cable news phenomenon. 😉

  3. […] C.P.D. Harris also takes on the grimdark debate again and links the rise of grimdark fantasy to the …. He certainly makes an interesting point there and coincidentally also explains why grimdark fantasy is mainly a US/UK phenomenon so far, for our own TV news aren’t quite so bad yet (and though Germany has so-called news channels, they mainly broadcast documentaries), although the media frenzy about the Ulli Hoeneß case is a new lowpoint. And I say this as a lifelong Werder Bremen fan who can’t stand Hoeneß. […]

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