A survey asks me: What disturbs you that no one else seems to be bothered by? My answer comes to me easily: A body being thrown into a wood chipper.
Like the original, Deadpool 2 earns its R-rating through profanity and frequent, physics-defying, cartoonish violence. Bodies are bent and turned, swords are stabbed, and torsos, among other things, are thrown into wood chippers. While we watched, the theater chortled. I winced and looked away, feeling like a woman thrown out of her time.
What do I mean? As a 23 year old living in a city in 2018, I don’t often remind myself of my own grandmother. But sometimes, at the movies, I do.
I once saw a movie with Nonnie that involved Lindsay Lohan removing her panties before spreading her legs for a boy in a canoe. Nonnie made a strangled-sounding noise and actually physically covered her eyes. I rolled mine, thinking that she was being so over the top. We saw another movie, a year later, where two teenagers go and have sex in a closet (I swear, these are just scenes from run-of-the-mill romcoms). Again, she made tut-tutting noises and turned away. I paused the movie, annoyed, and asked her why she had to make such a big deal out of something so simple. It’s just sex, it’s a part of life, I told her. Why are you being so sensitive? Well, she tells me, I just think that is the most intimate thing you can do with someone. I’m don’t understand why it needs to be on a screen.
Watching Deadpool 2, I’m being sensitive too. So over the top. Not about sex-on-screen but about on screen violence. At the movies, I’m always wincing, shuddering, turning away. Making a big deal out of the twisted heads, the fake blood, the bystanders, and the women whose bodies are chopped up and put into refrigerators. It’s something that I am delicate about.
My mother used to buy glass flowers. Elegant things, hand blown with thin green stems that ended in gorgeous, spreading bursts of color. She put them in a vase on a table. It, of course, did not take long before my brother and I, playing, caused a crash! bang! boom! The flowers lay shattered on the floor, their stems in pieces, their petals turned to glittering shards. This is what happens when things are delicate.
Women were once thought of as delicate. Well, no. Upper (middle?) class white women were once thought of as delicate. They had humors that required balancing. They were sometimes prone to fits of hysteria. They were sent to luxurious spas when things got overwhelming (or they got embarrassing). When upset by the world, they would throw themselves onto beautiful fainting couches, designed specifically to catch and cradle delicate women.
As Mady Schutzman put it, “upper class women of the late nineteenth century provided the prototype of sanctioned femininity. They displayed subdued emotion and unsullied tact, a practiced frailty, restricted mental activity, domestic privation, and a constriction of physical activity.” In other words, they were like glass flowers -- beautiful, still, and easily disturbed.
The pushback on this idea is part of the story of the twentieth century. The upper class women in question pushed back, pointing out that they were citizens, not flowers, and required a vote for god’s sake. Women of color, and poor women, and trans women pointed out that, despite their lack of (sometimes metaphorical) fainting couches, they too were women and that not all women were allowed to be delicate. Everyone pointed out that putting glass flowers in charge of careers and children seemed like a bad plan. Women of all sorts fought to be considered something, anything, other than delicate.
And then there is me. I dislike seeing murder on my screen. I prefer not to be asked to laugh at dismemberment. I don’t think that shootings -- school, bank robber, cop, any kind -- are all that thrilling. I don’t enjoy seeing people pretend to die. I rarely say any of this as bluntly as all that for fear of someone saying, as Rebecca Solnit put it, that “the incidents hadn’t happened at all as I said, that I was subjective, delusional, overwrought, dishonest -- in a nutshell, female.” I’m prone to avoiding speaking my mind about just how disturbing I find much of our media to avoid being called delicate.
But there are things in the 21st century worth feeling delicate about. Things we should be easily disturbed and overwrought by. Students being shot in our schools. Mesa police officers violently beating unarmed men. Shootings at newspaper offices. Men having bombs clamped around their necks while the police watched, waiting for the swat team, as he explodes.
This last example is what Netflix chronicled in 2018 with the release of Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist, a true-crime documentary about a 2003 bank heist in Erie, Pennsylvania. The story is truly bizarre and violent. Then, in the first episode, you see it. A man dies on screen, parts of his body flung around, because of a bomb exploding. Somehow, I didn’t find myself feeling nearly as delicate about this as Deadpool 2’s woodchipper. It’s not that it wasn’t disturbing (believe me, it is). It’s that the violence was treated with more respect. You only see it once. It is not played for any kind of laugh. The shot underlines the gravity of the situation, the horror, the strangeness. This violence is used to tell this story better.
The Motion Pictures Association of America’s Film Rating System allows intense violent content at a younger age rating than sexual content, language, or substance abuse. When critics say that both Deadpool movies earned their R-rating, they mean it. The movies are fantastically, ridiculously, chaotically violent. But they are also cartoonish. The MPAA tends to rate films where the violence has dark, real-world consequences higher and films where it is depicted as cartoonish or silly as lower. The result is that violence, but especially cartoonish goofy violence, is everywhere in the US.
And that violence steeps into our culture. A 2014 study done at Stanford found that the experience of schizophrenia reflected this. Quoted in The Atlantic, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrman said that “our work found that people with serious psychotic disorders in different cultures have different voice-hearing experiences”. Schizophrenics in India and Africa tended to experience their auditory hallucinations as postivie -- some found them religious or magical, others felt that they had a friend. One even reported that their auditory hallucination reminded them to do things, like clean the house. But in the USA, the experiences were never positive. Americans reported that their voices were violent. Some had a voice telling them to do things “like torturing people, to take their eyes out with a fork, or cut someone’s head and drink their blood.” Others reported being aggressively berated and insulted by their voices.
The modern world is far too complicated to draw a straight line from people’s eyes being taken out with a fork on a screen to auditory hallucinations suggesting the same. Trying to empirically prove that violent media causes anything seems like folly to me. There are just too many factors at play.
“The ultimate princess fantasy is to be so glamorously sensitive and beautiful that you have to be taken care of...you see the truth, and so you suffer more than ordinary people and can’t function.” Pauline Kael wrote, speaking of Joan Didion, in the New York Times. Didion is, in a word, delicate. She complains frequently in her essays of being so disturbed by the violence and chaos of the early 70s that she is sick to her stomach. But she isn’t weak. This is a woman who traveled alone to go and write about the world. A woman who lost her husband and her daughter in the same year and stayed sane enough to write the tale. I am not advocating for the censorship of violent movies. I’m advocating for the dripping condensation of Kael’s words to fade. It’s okay to be disturbed. It doesn’t make you weak. And it should be at least as difficult for me to see a decapitation on my screen as it is to see a nipple.