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Sex, Violence and Videodrome (1983)

David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) is a study in sexuality, gender, and masochism. The film tells the story of a television producer, Max Renn (James Woods), who is looking for the next big thing in entertainment. He discovers a pirate channel called Videodrome that depicts genuine violent sexual acts. His introduction to the world of Videodrome leads him down a path of rebirth and revelation. Television and pornography within the film are used as conduits for sexual desire, including taboo and violent cravings such as Max’s. Male-dominated sexual violence towards women is highlighted, both in the masochistic character of Nicki Brand and in the torture chamber scenes shown on the Videodrome television program. As Max changes internally, he metamorphosizes externally as well, growing a vaginal slit on his abdomen and a flesh-encased gun on his right hand.  Through the progression of changes Max goes through, Cronenberg makes an ambiguous social commentary on the effects of violence against women in pornography and the psychosexual effects of the media.

Television and the media have promoted human sexuality for as long as they have existed. Women are overly sexualized in the media to create viewership and sell products. As the old saying goes, “Sex sells.” The problem is when women are forced into masochistic roles in these sexual images. A study in the Journal of Advertising states that men tend to enjoy violent content and are less likely to be shocked by violence directed toward women in the media than women are (Capella et al. 38-39). Women are subjugated to violence and submission for mass consumption in almost every form of media, from a woman being forced to lick a man’s boot in a shoe ad to the beating, torture, and implied rape of Lara Croft in the latest Tomb Raider game (Hampton 4). As deviant behavior becomes more mainstream, the former deviants must become more extreme to fill their niche.

Such a niche is filled by the existence of snuff film – bondage porn taken to the max. These videos are not of actors in a studio, but of real victims in real violent situations. The blood, tears, and deaths portrayed on screen are real. Videodrome, the program within the film, is snuff. The character Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) describes it as “torture, murder, mutilation” with disgust on his face, but the character of Max Renn is fascinated (Browning 61). In the film’s commentary, Cronenberg explains that Max has become numb to the standard fare of pornographic titillation, as evidenced by his reaction to the soft-core film Samurai Dreams. Eroticism has become something perverted, like surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel’s “diabolic pleasure that is related to death and rotting flesh” (Indiana). Shortly after his first viewing of Videodrome, he has a sexual encounter with the masochist Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry). She asks him to cut her with a small knife and as he does so his revulsion visibly becomes arousal. As the two have sex, the camera cuts away to reveal that Max is seeing himself on the Videodrome set, hallucinating that he has become part of the program. This is only the first of many hallucinations on his journey from the masculine sadist to the feminine masochist.

Freud believed that masochism was an ingrained part of the female psyche (Robertiello 56). It appears that Cronenberg follows this doctrine of masochism being a feminine trait as well. Max is also clearly a student of Freud’s school of thought, as he quotes Freud during his television interview with Nicki Brand. The subjects of torture and masochism are almost exclusively women, and it is only after Max develops a vaginal slit on his abdomen that he begins having the same sorts of masochistic feelings. In addition to the vaginal slit, Max also grows a flesh-encased gun on his right hand. The gun is the phallic article, the meaning of death and insemination. In his transformation, Max has become the masculine and the feminine, the sadist and the masochist. He receives orders from others through the vaginal slit, literally having videotapes inserted into his body to control him. The pseudo-genitals serve as the source of his control; he is subject the whims of men because of them. The men controlling him use the slit and the videotapes to send him after Bianca O’Blivion (Sonja Smits), the daughter of the man who was the first victim of Videodrome. She deprograms him using a sort of sadomasochistic ritual involving a false suicide – he envisions the television shooting him. After this encounter he is reborn, able to go after the men that hurt him. Bianca tells him to “use the weapons they’ve given you to destroy them” (Hampton 2).

In becoming both male and female, Max can enact revenge upon his oppressors. Unlike Nicki Brand, who can only cause pain to herself through burning herself with cigarettes, Max is able to use his gun to go on a killing spree, murdering the creators of Videodrome and then committing suicide in an abandoned warehouse. He is given the power of the masculine and the pain of the feminine and for the first time understands both.

Cronenberg relates in the director’s commentary that during the filming of the movie, Woods felt uncomfortable wearing the abdominal slit prosthesis. He complained that he was “no longer an actor, but just the bearer of the slit.” Co-star Debbie Harry laughed and said, “Now you know how it feels”. In this casual conversation on set, life imitated art. Max and James both now knew what it was to be the subjugated female.

 In the real world, the effects of violent imagery in pornography are not as extreme as in the world of Videodrome. However, there is a directly causal relationship between the viewing of violent pornography and accepting attitudes toward rape and violence towards women. Laura Mulvey explains in her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” that in film viewing the gaze and visual pleasure are male and the object of that gaze is female (Zuromkis 9). Social scientists Lanis and Covell determined that “by viewing women as exclusively sexual beings whose purpose is to sexually arouse and gratify men, a power differential is created in which women generally are subordinate. This power hierarchy may support development of perceptions of women as appropriate targets for sexually aggressive behavior” (Cappella et al. 38). This belief is based upon the concept of Social Learning Theory (SLT), in which human behavior is based upon modeling behaviors by observing other people and the consequences of their actions (Cappella et al. 39). SLT would explain why children model their behavior after their parents, peers, and what they see on television. The concept is not limited to children however, as all humans have the tendency to model their behaviors based on those around them as a survival instinct. If men see a great deal of violence towards women and it is promoted as positive, they are more likely to be accepting of violence and the abuse of women and even more likely to abuse women themselves.

Violence in the media continues to increase, and different forms of media have different amounts of violence toward women. A study by Barron and Kimmel in 2000 illustrated that while adult magazines had sexual violence 24.8% of the time, adult films had violence 26.9% of the time, and adult internet chats had violence 42.1% of the time (163). Barron and Kimmel also noted that females were submissive most of the time in both video and internet chats and women were almost always the subjects of violence in these types of media (164).  Thirteen years later, it is possible to log on to the internet and find a variety of sites where women are beaten and abused for the viewer’s sexual gratification. The 2001 documentary Hardcore and the 2009 documentary Graphic Sexual Horror both document the brutality of the internet porn industry and the effects of violent sexual acts on camera for both the actresses and the viewers. Both films show the gritty, dark side of the porn industry, where women are abused off camera just as often as they are abused on camera.

So what does Videodrome have to say about all of this? What is Cronenberg’s take on the violence perpetrated against women in the media? There is a definite negative association with the sadomasochistic imagery and those associated with it. Despite being the protagonist and mostly portrayed as a positive character, Max Renn is punished brutally for his involvement with Videodrome and violent pornography (Zuromskis 9). Such behavior is therefore condemned. The film also illustrates a concept that repeats itself often within Cronenberg’s work, that the body is one’s only weapon against dominance (Rickey). Nicki uses her body to defy the system by branding herself, and it is Max’s mutated body that allows him to break free from the shackles of the men controlling him through Videodrome.

In his study of human sexuality and its relationship to the media, Cronenberg does not come to any sound conclusions. Videodrome is an exploration of gender roles, sadomasochism, and the effects of the media on the human psyche. Cronenberg himself states on the director’s commentary that he was “never interested in being a prophet” (Cronenberg). Overall, Videodrome both suggests and discounts the idea that exposure to violent imagery desensitizes the viewer and causes a need to derive pleasure from pain (Indiana). It is up the viewer, then, to dissect the meaning of the film and to draw their own conclusions.

Using studies done on the effects of media, such as those done by Barron and Kimmel, Lanis and Covell, and Capella, Hill, Rapp, and Kees, an analysis must be made of Videodrome that depicts it as a warning against the dangers of sadomasochism and the viewing of violent sexual material. Just as viewers in the real world are more likely to be accepting of sexual violence if they are exposed to it repeatedly, Max Renn becomes a monster of sexual violence. Nicki Brand, upon seeing Videodrome for the first time, even goes so far as to wonder how “someone gets to be a contestant”. She has been so numbed to psychosexual violence that she desires to be on the show, even if it means her death. Videodrome, then, is a fable, a warning to those who create violence in the media and to those that view it.

Bibliography:

“Audio Commentary: The Director and Cinematographer.” Videodrome. Narr. David Cronenberg and Mark Irwin. Dir. David Cronenberg. 2004. Criterion Edition Blu Ray.Criterion, 2004.

Barron, Martin, and Michael Kimmel. “Sexual Violence in Three Pornographic Media: Toward a Sociological Explanation.” The Journal of Sex Research 37.2 (2000): 161-168. JSTOR. Web. 26 Feb. 2013.

Browning, Mark. “Videodrome: Not a Love Story – A Film About Pornography.” David Cronenberg: Author or Film-maker?. Bristol: Intellect Books ;, 2007. 57-79. Print.

Capella, Michael L., Ronald Paul Hill, Justine M. Rapp, and Jeremy Kees. “The Impact of Violence Against Women In Advertisements.” Journal of Advertising 39.4 (2010): 37-51. JSTOR. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.

Hampton, Howard. “When in videodrome: travels in the new flesh.” Artforum International 31.6 (1993): 70. JSTOR. Web. 8 Feb. 2013.

Indiana, Gary. “Videodrome: The Slithery Sense of Unreality – From the Current – The Criterion Collection.” The Criterion Collection. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

Rickey, Carrie. “Videodrome: Make Mine Cronenberg – From the Current – The Criterion Collection.” The Criterion Collection. Criterion, n.d. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

Robertiello, Richard. “Masochism and the Female Sexual Role.” Journal of Sex Research 6.1 (1970): 56-58. JSTOR. Web. 27 Feb. 2013.

Roth, Marty. “Videodrome and the revenge of representation.” CineAction  43 (1997): 58-91. JSTOR. Web. 6 Feb. 2013.

Videodrome. Dir. David Cronenberg. Perf. James Woods, Deborah Harry. 1983. Criterion Collection, 2004. Blu-Ray.

Zuromskis, Catherine. “Prurient Pictures and Popular Film: The Crisis of Pornographic Representation.” The Velvet Light Trap 59 (2007): 4-14. JSTOR. Web. 7 Feb. 2013.

 

About Danielle Ryan

A cinephile before she could walk, Danielle Ryan loves controversial cinema (especially horror) and good cinematography; her dislikes include romantic comedies and people's knees. In addition to Diabolique, Dani writes for Birth.Movies.Death, Paste Magazine, and Cinemazine. She also co-hosts a weekly podcast about weird fandoms, @FreakyFandomsPC.

2 comments

  1. ‘Videodrome, then, is a fable, a warning to those who create violence in the media and to those that view it.’ I don’t share that spinterpretation at all. That would imply the film was an act of self-flagellation and guilt by Cronenberg, and that he was negatively critiquing his own whole psyche and aesthetic. This would make the whole film an act of penance towards his detractors, which it clearly isn’t. Not like he stopped making gory and violent films after Videodrome, after all.

    The film is part satire, mocking the moral panic in the air in the early 80s about the effects of viewing violent videos/films on the human psyche. And Renn is never a sympathetic/decent character; he’s portrayed as a burned-out, sleazy, amoral, misogynist scumbag from the get-go, which is partly why he’s expendable. Just another lacerated-flesh-pound-salesman. I do love that the Videodrome signals are initially meant to be coming out of Pittsburgh, though; you can see the effects of George A Romero’s violent cinema in Rabid’s construction and ending.

  2. Videodrome is described in the film itself as the location of the ‘battle for North America’. Cronenberg’s prescient dystopian fable of what has become/is becoming the hallucinatory terrain of cyberspace connects the Internet’s capability of channelling the politics of extreme psychosexual behavior and control to the overall mechanisms of political control and violence. Renn’s character mentions early on that he is looking for something ‘tough’ and his would-be handlers describe using Videodrome as a means of weeding out the soft, weak, (and decadent) in pursuit of becoming ‘tough’ and “strong” – a tell-tale sign of the illicit masculinity at work. While cyberspace is especially now seen as a means of shaping, distorting and manipulating the body politic (see American Election 2016), Cronenberg offers a means of transcending these abuses of power by toughening ourselves, embracing the new personal politics and our “new names” in what is now the Cyberdrome and with it the political will to control our own bodies in it, the “new flesh”.

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