A delightfully well-groomed chef works in a spotless kitchen as Bach’s Goldberg Variations plays in the background. He braises the meat with a delicate lotus root puree and arranges the most artful food on a dinner table for two. Simply beautiful.
VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED. GRAPHIC CONTENT.
This isn’t MasterChef, rather Hannibal that you’re watching. The well groomed chef is Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who cooks the flesh of his victims, whether a baked kidney pie, sautéed heart rolled in a crusty roulade, a lung pate on a bed of greens or even a shank, braised in a delicate marinade. If you’re squeamish just reading this then imagine the level of discomfort most people experience when they are watching the show. Hannibal does fall under the genre of horror and it does come with a warning and yet nothing stops the children, especially here in Pakistan where the series is downloaded as opposed to aired, from watching. And they are not repelled. They are fascinated.
Most children commenting on the Common Sense Media website are aged between 12 and 14, and one of them writes: "People complain that this (Hannibal) is too gory, mainly because they are under the legal age limit, they shouldn’t be watching it. The legal age is 15 and that sounds about right. There is hardly any swearing, sex or use of drugs, just plain old killing which can be quite bloody."
Plain old killing? What does that even mean? It means that teenagers today are exposed to so much violence, whether on television, cinema screens or even video games that even the most gruesome murder is perceived as "plain old killing".
Hannibal, of course turns murder scenes into artistic canvases, lending an almost lyrical quality to them. They are surreal, bizarre and yet often so fascinating as a tower of well composed (and severed limbs), a symphony of bodies designed according to skin tone, a human carcass decorated with various exotic blooms in place of organs. It is fascinating, to say the least. And yet what it does is desensitize viewers – most of them teenage children – to death and violence.
When we speak of teenagers, the single most influential (unfortunately) series of the decade must have been Breaking Bad. One Walter White, high school chemistry teacher, was uncool until he was diagnosed with lung cancer and turned his laboratory skills to cooking methamphetamine for the cash he wanted to tuck away for his family before he died. Walter White became an icon, a tragic hero and his trait – drug dealing – became his pivot to popularity. You could say that the theme was too far fetched for it to have even residual influence in Pakistan but then a small explosion in DHA, Karachi was unofficially reported as a meth experiment gone wrong.
Our children are attracted to the evils in society; the bad guys are always powerful and therefore more aspiring to teenagers looking for icons. Hannibal Lecter and Walter White are just two examples; a fondness for power play transcends time and goes as far back as the Medieval Ages with Vikings or Game of Thrones. There was a time, not very long ago, when Sex and the City was rated 18 for nudity and sexual content. That content has now taken a disturbing turn in series like Game of Thrones, which thrive on beheadings, mutilations, blood, gore and most disturbingly, sexual violence that includes incest, incestuous rape, prostitution and more.
Cersei and Jamie Lannister’s relationship has been a cause for concern amongst critics and viewers but George RR Martin (author of A Song of Fire and Ice, the epic-fantasy books from which the series has been adapted) has defended his story, claiming it would be "fundamentally false and dishonest" to omit the scenes.
"Whatever might be happening in my books, I try to put the reader into the middle of it, rather than summarising the action," he said in a recent interview. "That requires vivid sensory detail…and some readers find that intensely uncomfortable. But that is as it should be. Certain scenes are meant to be uncomfortable, disturbing, hard to read." They are ten times as hard to watch.
The Western media may be the mastermind behind these series but South Asian programming can be equally damaging. The nine o clock news, for starters, is half an hour of guns, drugs, crime and (often graphic) crime and bomb scenes. The movies we watch are mostly light and airy but then light and airy is considered flaky by children. Ironically, it is perceived as unreal. The unabashed display and romanticism of weapons in Ram Leela or the award-winning Gangs of Wasseypur is considered more appealing. More relatable than harmless rom-coms. Ram Leela and Gangs of Wasseypur were brilliant cinema. Not such a brilliant influence.
Simply put, the saturation of violence on television is making us immune to it. Just as watching wild animals ad nauseum on animal channels has created a sense of false security for children, similarly the sight of guns leaves us unperturbed. Armed security guards outside schools, cafes, malls, on the roads, outside houses…this is not normal and has a tendency of leading to the most tragic circumstances, as witnessed every second week.
There is no scientific proof that exposure to violence on TV leads to violence in reality but the statistics are staggering; we are living in a state of numbness and fear and we are becoming increasingly violent as a society. The media mirrors reality and vice versa and with bloodshed, perversion and violence on the rise on TV, what do you think the impact will be on society?