How do we begin to judge what is too graphic?

This is a significant issue in the modern setting, whether one is a journalistic writer, a writer of secular fiction, religious fiction, making videos, or video games – it doesn’t really matter.  Graphic material, in a variety of different formats, has repeatedly been accused of contributing (or causing) any number of cultural depredations.  After the Columbine shooting in 1999 the families of the victims sued a number of computer game manufacturers, claiming that violent video games helped to cause the shooting.  The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) issued a policy on media violence (last updated in 2009) providing restrictions for how it could be portrayed, marketed, and what locations could provide access to violent media.  As recently as April of this year a school board in Texas proposed to end a highschool Dungeons and Dragons club for fear that the game  promoted a negative influence on students.  However, while records of this issue remain on a number of blogs, it has apparently been excised from the School’s website.  This is not the first time that Dungeons and Dragons, a game loved and defended by many, has been accused of being too graphic, destructive, and cultish.  I could easily spend this entire post on Dungeons and Dragons, but I don’t intend to.  If you would like to do more research on this subject here are the primary sites against, and for the game, and a site that defends fantasy role playing games in general.

So, this question is one that is important, and one that I have had sharp disagreements on with a number of people.  Suffice it to say that I have yet to be convinced that there is such a thing as ‘too graphic’.  Certainly there is such a thing as inappropriately graphic – graphic for the wrong reasons or unnecessarily graphic – and too graphic for a given audience – I wouldn’t show Blade to a five year old – but the idea that there is a simple line at which we can say, ‘this is too graphic for human consumption’, strikes me as ridiculous.  I am firm in my belief that fiction exists primarily to educate, to prepare us for the real world, and the real world is a graphic place.  When little Timmy’s mother dies from cancer, no one will tell him that it is too graphic and he shouldn’t be exposed to such a situation.  When the Nazi’s rolled through Europe no one cried out, ‘this is too graphic, turn it off!’  In the real world, we don’t have that privilege, and (IMHO) we spend far too much time protecting our youth from the world, rather than preparing them for it.

This is one of the few movies that everyone should see at some point in their lives.

However, this does not mean that anyone should be exposed to anything.  As I stated above, while there is no simple line of ‘too graphic’, but there is appropriately and inappropriately graphic.  Graphic material is innately powerful.  It affects us at a core level that is often difficult, or impossible, to reach through other means.  It can, should, and must be used responsibly in order for media to appropriately educate the populace.  However, in the modern world this is admittedly rare.  There are two primary ways that graphic material can be judged: 1) is it used in an appropriate manner, and 2) is it presented to an appropriate audience.  There are also a few simplistic arguments against graphic material that I want to address.

First, let us address the problem of the way in which graphic material is used.  The movie Schindler’s List is an excellent example of appropriately used graphic material.  For those of you who have seen this movie you will know that it was extremely graphic.  In fact, I can think of precious few ways that the movie could have been more graphic, but the graphic nature of Schindler’s List is masterfully used to present the horror of the holocaust in its every extreme.  Schindler’s List does not use its graphicity inappropriately, to titillate or to exaggerate, but uses it to teach.  Material that is graphic is emotionally powerful, and Schindler’s List uses that power responsibly and with solemn purpose.  We Were Soldiers also uses very graphic material for good and appropriate purposes – to show the terror and truth of the Vietnam war, and how it brought out both the best and worst in the men who fought in it.  On the other hand movies like Saw 2, Freddy vs. Jason, or Halloween H2O use graphic material for no other purpose than to titillate the audience with brief and meaningless portrayals of sex and violence.  While significant messages may be drawn out of such movies, such messages are not implicitly intended in the works, nor is the level of graphic material involved always necessary for, or appropriate to, such messages.

This is also a great movie!

The difference between this appropriate and inappropriate use of graphic material can often be difficult to judge.  For instance, to the undiscerning (or uninformed) viewer the graphic material in Schindler’s List may appear to simply be present to draw in an audience, or to exaggerate the horror of the holocaust beyond the truth of historical events.  Also, for the undiscerning viewer, the graphic material in Saw 2 might appear to be a harmless titillation of the senses.  However, neither of these is the case.  As I mentioned above, graphic material is powerful, it affects us deeply, and sometimes that affect is needed to deeply implant a necessary truth, but no string can be infinitely plucked, and when graphic material is used to pluck the heartstrings simply for the sake of the plucking, then it slowly begins to deaden them.  We often refer to this as desensitization.  This is a dangerous thing, but it is not a reason to avoid graphic material completely.  It is a reason to be careful what graphic material you take in.

Second, let us address the problem of audience.  While the movie Schindler’s List is an excellent example of appropriately used graphic material, it is not appropriate for a five year old.  The lessons, both emotional and historical, that Schindler’s List teaches are important, and (IMHO) necessary, but they are lessons that a five year old cannot understand or appreciate.  To show this movie to a young child would be nothing more than destructive, because it would traumatize the child without any positive benefit.  Schindler’s List, like any truly graphic material, is traumatic (and again, this is necessary because life is traumatic).  However, unnecessary trauma is never healthy, and when trauma cannot bring any positive results, then it should be avoided, if possible.  Unlike Schindler’s ListA Bridge to Terabithia is an excellent children’s book/movie that is appropriately graphic for young children.  It uses its graphic material in the same way as Schindler’s List, but is not as exceedingly traumatic (honestly I hesitate to call if graphic lest you form the wrong opinion), and it teaches lessons appropriate and necessary for the young.  But again, there is no set age at which certain material becomes appropriate.  While Schindler’s List  is not appropriate for a five year old, it is appropriate for many fifteen year olds.  However, some youth may not be ready for it until they are older, and some may be ready earlier.  No two people mature at the same rate, and so when increasingly graphic material becomes appropriate must be determined by the recipient.  However, and I will address this more fully later in this post, an adult should be able to handle graphic material appropriately.

There is also the question of audience desensitization.  If an audience is already desensitized, then graphic material will not affect them as deeply.  While graphic material must be used appropriately (see above), it must also be more explicit to create the same effect.  This is one of the great values of Schindler’s List and We Were Soldiers, they are suitably graphic, but also graphic enough to show the truth to a desensitized population.  They have the intended effect, and because they have the intended effect, they are able to teach the intended lessons.

This is an excellent children's movie and book.

Third, let us address two common arguments against graphic material.  The first of these I hear most commonly in religious circles: All people are the same, so if it is not appropriate for a five year old, then it is not appropriate for me.  To these people I say: Go home, live with your parents, do everything they tell you, do not get a job, do not pursue a career, do not get married, because none of these things are appropriate for a five year old.  I will say the same to people who draw the line at material appropriate for a thirteen year old.  There are necessary differences between a child and an adult, and one of these is the ability to handle the trauma’s produced by the real world.  If you truly wish to stay a child, then please stay a child in every sense of the word, but if you wish to be an adult, then take on the responsibilities of an adult.  Appropriate graphic material will allow you to develop the strength to deal with significant trauma’s in life before you are actually confronted with those traumas.  A person who is unwilling and unable to deal with the difficult situations that life brings is a child, no matter how old that person might be.

The second argument that I commonly hear is this: Graphic material causes desensitization, and is therefore dangerous.  To some degree this is true, graphic material does cause desensitization.  However, the attitude that desensitization is automatically bad is ludicrous.  A certain level of desensitization is necessary for many careers: a surgeon who quails at blood is useless, a soldier who panics at killing the enemy is dangerous to his comrades, a father or mother who stops living after the death of his/her spouse is incapable of caring for children.  Desensitization is necessary for life.  When it is not appropriately guided it can certainly become dangerous, but many of the most useful things in life are dangerous when used inappropriately.  This argument is a valid reason to control access to graphic material, to provide (and pay attention to) rating systems.  However, it is not a valid reason to do away with graphic material, and it becomes dangerous when it is used in this way.

Ultimately, graphic material is important, and it must be controlled.  However, too often in the modern culture we confuse control with censoring.  There is obviously a problem with the use of graphic material in modern media, but censoring graphic material out of media is not a responsible, nor a wise solution.  Producers have a responsibility to use graphic material well, and parents have a responsibility to know when it is good and healthy to introduce graphic material to their children.  We have have a responsibility to know what is appropriately graphic for ourselves, and what is not.  If we begin to live up to these responsibilities, then graphic material can begin to be the healthy, educational influence that it should be.

2 thoughts on “How Graphic is Too Graphic?

  1. You did a great job of laying out when it is appropriate to use graphic material and when it isn’t. And you’re right the argument should not be about simply banning or allowing graphic material; it should be about when graphic material serves an edifying purpose.

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