This post is inspired by a conversation that I had with my friend Dan earlier today in which we discussed the rising use of graphic imagery in movies and T.V. shows. We both saw Roger Eggers’ new movie, The Lighthouse, a few days ago, and 1.) I recommend it, but also, 2.) I think it addresses our rising cultural desire to see and experience authentic human emotion. The movie takes place at a lighthouse on a remote island off the coast of North America. We watch as the two lighthouse keepers—Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe)—slowly, but also rather quickly, devolve into madness, resulting in both of their deaths.
Graphic movies and T.V. shows have existed for a long time, but recently, I’ve observed a shift from innocently graphic media (like Titanic, for example) to grotesquely graphic media, like HBO’s Euphoria (or Black Mirror, Westworld, Game of Thrones, etc.). I remember the first time I saw The Butterfly Effect (2004) or Requiem for a Dream (2000), I thought they were the most disturbing movies I’d ever seen, and even to this day, the memory of watching them is unsettling; however, watching those movies felt like an oddity, like I was experiencing something that was not “mainstream.” Today, on the contrary, it feels like almost every new HBO series is a new attempt to push the boundary of graphic imagery to the next level. I just started watching Euphoria, an HBO series that was released in 2019, and it depicts abusive porn, extensive nudity, drug use, and more generally, the despair of living. Watching a single episode is a remarkably emotional journey.
These observations that I’m making aren’t based on fact; I haven’t done a study on the use of graphic imagery in popular media from the 1970s to today, but if these observations are correct, I wouldn’t be surprised. I think there’s a strong correlation between the search for authenticity and the rise of postmodernity, and I think the increase in graphic imagery is a reflection of this trend. We’re living in a poststructural world in which we painfully understand that everything we know to be “true” is socially constructed and context bound. For this reason, we see art exhibits that feature a banana taped to a wall. Hyperrealistic artwork—meaning artwork that is literally the actual object it’s meant to depict—is peak poststructuralism: it’s more “essential” than any other artistic interpretation could be because it’s the object itself, yet agonizingly, this brings us no closer to the “truth” of the object because it’s still embedded in a social context.
I think graphic shows like Euphoria exist in the same vein as the banana taped to the wall: they’re an attempt to get to the core of the human experience by depicting “authentic” experiences, like unnerving sexual fantasies, drug use, violent thoughts and tendencies, dishonesty, and a whole lot of anxiety. Euphoria addresses the human baggage that everyone carries but no one wants to talk about. It’s unsettling, confrontational, and almost too real, so what’s the appeal? Why is it only a single example of a larger trend in popular media? My interpretation is that, like the banana taped to the wall, graphic shows like Euphoria are an attempt to dig deeper into the human psyche with the hope of discovering “authenticity.”
Another popular show created by HBO, Westworld, is literally set in an amusement park that exists for the sole purpose of giving attendees the opportunity to carry out their darkest fantasies, like rape, violence, and murder. Is the show itself also a platform in which viewers get to submerge themselves in disturbing human tendencies? Does the popularity of these shows tell us anything about the unspoken desires of both the creators and the consumers of this content?
I think the emergence of graphic popular media is in alignment with the decay of authenticity found in the day-to-day grind of corporate America. I think one of the primary consequences of neoliberalism has been the strict, pervasive social conditions that dictate how people live their lives if they want to “succeed.” Social media, for example, is a tool meant to consistently surveil the behavior of its users, sustained by the users themselves, which means that heavy social media users are almost always filtering their behavior through the context of universal access: literally anyone on the internet can see and comment on users’ behavior, which encourages them to self-regulate for the sake of perfection. I think there’s one clear result of this: a yearning for authenticity and freedom of expression, like engaging in dangerous fantasies, leading to the creation of shows like Westworld and Euphoria.