Adam’s Notebook
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Adam’s Notebook

What do we call a ‘violence-prude’?

Sex, as the phrase goes, and violence. And here’s the thing: I have no problem with reading about explicit sex, but the older I get the harder I find it reading about explicit violence. There’s an awful lot of violence in contemporary writing, and film, and video games — in contemporary Fantasy, let’s say, a genre in which I am at present, for particular reasons, reading a bunch — and I tend to find it all just horrible and distressing and ugly and egregious. Your mileage may vary, of course. Indeed, given how ubiquitous ultra-violence is nowadays I’m guessing yours does. There is, I guess, a market for it: an appetite.

This is my question: we have a word for a person who objects to explicit representations of sex in art. We call them ‘a prude’. What’s the equivalent term for a person who objects to explicit representations of violence in art?

I suppose we might call such a person ‘squeamish’, or ‘a wimp’, or something like that. I am squeamish, I concede it (this has something to do with the birth of my kids, since when the representation of horrors inflicted upon human bodies and minds has become deeply upsetting to me). But I’d suggest that ‘squeamish’ isn’t the same sort of term as ‘prudish’.

Perhaps a prude is upset and distressed by the representation of sex, but surely the logic of prudery is: I have a restrictive code of modesty that I am seeking to impose upon you. But that’s not how ‘squeamish’ works, I think: it’s not a code, it’s an affective response. We (let’s say: we ‘sex-positive’, ‘liberated’ moderns) might disapprove of the prude, but I’d suggest we’re more likely to look down upon the squeam. Not a word, I know; but I’m proposing it.

This seems screwy to me. Sex, to quote the late lamented George Michael, is natural, sex is good, not everybody does it but everybody should (unless they don’t fancy it, he should have added, in which case they should leave it alone). Violence is different. Violence is not good. True, it figures in popular narrative as a mode of excitement, a short-circuit to an adrenalized response in the audience; but violence as such is ghastly — it is an affront. It is always destructive and never constructive. People like to believe it can be empowering, problem-solving, because it is exciting and thrilling (or is portrayed as such, in books and films and video games). It’s not, though. I blogged at length of the topic of violence in Fantasy a little while ago, and as part of that I said this:

What will you call me, violence-prude that I am? Perhaps ‘squeam’ is the best we can do. I’m not sure though.

One thing violence indexes, in contemporary art, is a kind of paucity of dramatic imagination. Because stories need conflict, to be dramatic: they need an agon. The issue is the imagination that thinks ‘conflict’ and goes immediately to fist-fights and guns. From Greek tragedy to Jane Austen’s novels to the Toy Story films, the best storytellers understand that conflict makes for richer and more compelling stories when it isn’t simply a matter of people hitting one another in the face. Of course, I may only be saying so as a contemptible Squeam.

[Update: over on Twitter my friend Abraham Kawa suggests, rightly I think, that ‘prude’ is coded conservative, politically, and that the reason why there isn’t an equivalent for violence is that “the Right”, from conservatism through to fascism, doesn’t actually have a problem with violence (unlike sex), but on the contrary valorises it: corporal punishment, guns, genocide.]



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