With all the slicing and cutting and loss of bodily fluids, Spartacus would seem to be a prime candidate for criticism about its excessive violence, but its stylized approach to violence makes for unconventional, provocative programming.
Spartacus: Blood and Sand-The Complete First SeasonDistributor: Starz, Anchor Bay
Cast: Andy Whitfield, John Hannah, Peter Mensah, Lucy Lawless, Nick Taraby
UK Release Date: 2011-05-02
US Release Date: 2010-09-21
***Spoiler Alert: Season Finalé discussed***
The subtitle of the Starz series Spartacus is: Blood and Sand. Forget the sand part. It’s all about the blood.
Retelling the legend of the rebellious gladiator, the 13-part series, released on DVD on 21 September, depicts so much blood that it should get an acting credit and a SAG card. Fountains of blood erupt when heads are severed from bodies. Streams of blood spurt wildly out of sliced throats, slashed torsos, and eviscerated abdomens. In my favorite shot, a fallen gladiator’s blood splashes across the entire screen, bringing a clever postmodern nod to the presence of the camera. There’s also lots of sex (gay and straight), topless women, full-frontal nudity (male and female) and did I mention blood?
With all the slicing and cutting and loss of bodily fluids, Spartacus would seem to be a prime candidate for criticism about its excessive violence. Yet the reviews I’ve read, while mentioning the gore, focus more on assessing the show’s characters and story arc. Does this mean that we’ve finally moved past the media effects argument?
The theory of how media effects us has been studied by scholars for decades. Does advertising effect the choice to purchase? Do political campaigns effect how people vote? Do public service announcements impact personal behavior? While these questions deal with direct effects, there are also the potential problems associated with indirect effects. Does media bias effect stereotyping? Do media images impact how we construct reality? Does violent media lead to antisocial behavior? It is this last question that perhaps gets the most press, particularly when a person who commits a violent act mentions the media as a source of inspiration.
No one has committed a crime and named Spartacus’ weekly blood fest as their playbook, but the argument is subtler. Namely, is the series a product of media that has desensitized us to violent imagery? This is the second part to the ‘violent media leads to violent behavior’ theory and it deserves a closer look. I’ll use myself as a case study. Here is the evolution of my reactions while watching the first season: Feeling surprised at the amount of gushing blood to eagerly anticipating more gushing blood. Did I become desensitized?
The desensitizing argument in effects studies implies that the viewer is bombarded with so much violent imagery in the media in general that they develop a level of immunity to it. This reasoning means that I should have little to no reaction to watching Spartacus slice off an enemy’s arm, for example. The problem is that I do have a reaction, so I’m not unaware or insensitive to the violent imagery. It’s just that my reaction is not horror. It’s more: “Oh, no they didn’t!” This reaction is a product of the show’s approach.
Watching an MMA fighter draw blood by cutting his opponent’s face with a punch is real violence. Watching an actor’s intestines (and by my count this happens at least twice on Spartacus) literally fall out of his abdomen is not. In other words, scenes of exposed organs on Spartacus are not in danger of being confused with an operating room scene from Boston Med. Generous use of CGI make the fight scenes so exaggerated that they take on a video game quality. Set to rock music and full of slow motion shots, the gladiator fights are like stylized blood ballet. You can almost hear one of the choreographers from So You Think You Can Dance complimenting the fluid strength of the lead actor’s sword strikes.
In this way, the violence on Spartacus is not desensitizing. It’s a delirious assault to the senses—an amusement park thrill ride. Nowhere is this more evident than in the season finalé.
If the violent imagery of Spartacus’ first season is like riding Space Mountain, the season finale is like riding Space Mountain on acid. Not to ruin it for you, but the last episode of season one is called “Kill Them All”, and it’s super accurate. Spartacus leads a revolt and women are killed, men are killed, a main character thrusts his sword into the pregnant belly of another character, a tiny pixie of a slave woman violently kills a 15 year-old boy by repeatedly thrusting a small knife into the side of his neck.
It’s a complete slaughter and it’s brilliant. It’s brilliant because it has no boundaries. It’s a fearless finalé that uses the cartoon aspect of its violence to push the envelope of what is considered acceptable television.
Rather than reflecting how the viewer is changing toward depictions of violence, Spartacus demonstrates how the institution of television is changing. While HBO was the first cable outlet to respond to viewer fragmentation by producing adult-orientated content in a deliberate effort to brand itself as a channel that pushed the envelope of sex and violence, the success of its controversial programs generated new business models for rival cable channels. Starz learned the branding lessons well. With Spartacus, Starz is producing edgy storytelling and defining itself as another place where audiences find what is prohibited on network television. The show is violent but in its stylized approach to violence it is unconventional, provocative programming.
Spartacus is not a product of a desensitizing media culture. Rather, it’s a brand of creative freedom and one that I would buy again. Maybe that is its most lasting media effect.