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Normalising the horrific – television and suicide bombers

Let’s call this entry a late night place holder, something I might come back to in greater depth later. I am interested in the role that television, and I mean fictional televison, plays in normalising, or at least how the depiction of things become normalised, by television. This first struck me in the way that torture was shown during the early to mid 2000s – shows like Lost, Alias, Battlestar Galactica and 24 were full of it, and not always by bad guys and in ways that were, for a time, less and less problematised. But that discussion itself is one for later.

Tonight I watched episode 10 of season 5 of Supernatural and something that had struck me watching V about a month ago, caught my attention again. Here were good characters engaging in suicide bombing. Since the rise of suicide bombing in our news over the past 20 years, we have seen plenty of bad characters using suicide bombing tactics on television. It has been in Spooks and, in the third case of suicide bombing that I have seen in the last month on television, quite recently on 24. But these are expected locations for suicide bombing, particularly because it is the bad guy, the one who needs to be stopped, who is the bomber.

Back when Cylons occupied New Caprica in Battlestar Galactica, the resistance used suicide bombing. What was interesting at the time was how the show carefully problematised this use, with debates about it and the clear implication that the “innocent” would die along with the occupiers. This use of suicide bombing was carefully thought through and did make some interesting points to challenge the way we thought about suicide bombing and its use by the oppressed.

In V last month it was a throwaway moment – a character we didn’t know but who was clearly on the side we are unambiguously supposed to support, setting off a bomb to kill himself and others who were in thrall to the supreme bad guy. What has changed to allow such a unquestioning, unproblematic use of suicide bombing by a good character?

The case in Supernatural was a little different – there is an element of the “last stand” about it as Jo is going to die anyway. But this does not explain her mother choosing to kill herself along side her. And yes, they were only killing hell hounds. While the trope of the “soldier” allowing their impending death to be sped up in order to save others is a very common one in war related films, the idea of a full able person killing themselves is much less common.

The other suicide bombing which I haven’t mentioned yet is that which sets off the action of Caprica. Again here as in Battlestar there is a much greater problematisation of the use of suicide bombing, but still questions remain about it.

My central question is, how often did we see suicide bombing on our televisions even 10 years ago? How has the frequency increased? Does this mean anything? Are we entering a Baudrillardian spiral in which the referent disappears?

Thoughts to return to later – but I welcome any comments or ideas.

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4 responses to “Normalising the horrific – television and suicide bombers

  1. Rachel ⋅

    I was going to leave a thoughtful comment deconstructing my own assumptions and prejudices around suicide bombing, but in doing a little research discovered that Jensen Ackles got married a few days ago. I am now too upset to think about such trivial matters as suicide bombers 🙂

    Also discovered that Jared Padalecki got married earlier this year – to dark haired Ruby!

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      OK, that is really terrible news and I too will have to spend the rest of the day being mournful. It wasn’t to a porn star though was it?

      But isn’t Jared worried he’s going to become a demon if he does that?

  2. Joel Bass

    Judging by the content of the shows you mention, I wouldn’t say that anything has “changed”; they’re written by different people. From what I can tell, V is written by someone on the far right side of the political spectrum, and normalizing the horrific (or fearmongering) is an everyday part of right-wing media. Whereas Battlestar Galactica always seemed more middle-of-the-road or sometimes liberal, so that there are definitely shades of grey to discuss before bombing innocent people.

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      I’m not sure it is quite that straightforward, although your theory has merit, In V it really wasn’t fear mongering – it was a kind of “good” if shocking act. It is kind of sad, however, if the current V really has a more right wing agenda, because I think that rather contrasts with the original V.

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