Moral Selectivity in Victims?

There’s always some drama about violence in film, violence in games, violence everywhere. And yes, in some cases we do seem to have been numbed to seeing violence on-screen; it’s not that big a deal anymore. But what always gains a universal reaction of horror and disgust is violence directed against animals – the cuter, the worse.

I heard quite a few interesting presentations and had inspiring discussions at the Film & History conference this year, where I presented my paper ‘Staring Into Darkness: An Analytical Framework for Villains in Literary and Adaptation Studies.’ We dig bad guys; I know, because I am extremely fascinated with them, and my main academic research has always focused on ‘villain studies.’ Yes, we’re aware when they’re doing bad things, and we may not always approve, but often, we don’t mind too much. But you turn completely horrified and disgusted once the victims are not human(oid). Whether it’s American Psycho, where Bateman kills a homeless man and his dog, or I Am Legend, where Neville has to kill his dog Samantha due to her infection, we’re heartbroken over the deaths of these fluffy companions – even if we haven’t gotten to actually know them, as in American Psycho. And just last week, I got to witness the whole cinema gasp in horror at John Wick, an action thriller revolving entirely around a hitman’s bloody revenge for his dog’s murder.

Granted, this one just must have been the cutest dog in film history.

Granted, this one just must have been the cutest dog in film history, hands-down.

Now, this would definitely be worth writing a paper or two about, and it would probably say a lot about our media culture, and so forth. But looking at my ‘villain theories,’ I gather that you can probably classify those types of characters that actually go around killing animals as ‘repellent’ – and in that sense, I’d argue it’s not just animals, it’s also children. (One of my case studies back then was The Lovely Bones.) No matter how crazy you are about villainous characters, harming, and especially killing such innocent victims seems to cross a line that is not easy to un-cross, and you need to put a lot of effort into it to actually like the character again afterwards, if you’re even so inclined.

When it comes to repellent villains – at least the way that I’ve theorised them – they do something that feels so utterly wrong to us, that derails the narrative, something that ought to not have happened at all as far as we’re concerned. So maybe we feel so bad when animals and children are targeted because those are the characters that are completely dependent on others for their safety. They’re not really responsible for what they do, and therefore it’s not quite their fault that they’re in a situation that turns so dramatically violent and that victimises them. Maybe it’s this screwed-up notion that grown-up characters should be able to take responsibility for their own life, and make sure they don’t end up in such situations, even though that’s victim-blaming at its finest. Or maybe, in much simpler terms, it’s simply because it’s a taboo, and because of that, scenes in which children or animals are victimised are most likely there to shock you to your very core. Either way, it would be such an interesting paper to write (though not necessarily pleasant considering the scenes you’d have to analyse), and it’d probably give us some valuable insights, too.

So to get back to what had triggered my little musing here: once the dog was gone, John Wick had every right to behave like he did and kill everyone in his way – especially because it wasn’t just about the dog. (Plus, it was so adorable!) But for that, you’ll have to go see the movie yourself. 😉

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