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The Rise and Rise of Television Torture

The X-Files was a reflection of its time. It ran from 1993 - 2002. Two FBI agents working on weird and unusual cases. The X-files. It also had an overall plot line that was slowly advanced in between "monster of the week" episodes. The central plot concerned an overarching conspiracy. A powerful cabal who were collaborating with alien colonisers.


It was thoughtful and often slowly paced. The central characters were in search of truth while everyone around them tried to obscure it

Fringe is a modern reincarnation of the X-Files. A special division of the FBI who is responsible for for working with "fringe" cases. The show uses the same "monster of the week" format with an overarching arc (though the monsters are often more tightly integrated into the arc itself) and the protaganists are slightly odd outsiders.

However one major difference that jumps out when you compare them is the huge amount of torture that happens in Fringe compared to the X-Files.

Nina being tortured

Torture is depicted as a tool. Sure it is a big hammer. And maybe not appropriate to be used for every nail. But if you need to use it then of course it is appropriate. Why wouldn't you pull that tool out if you needed it? In fact it is often portrayed as a moral failing to not do anything it takes to get the results you need.

Torture is used by all parties. Everyone resorts to torture, whether they are the good guys or the bad guys. Because torture is not seen as objectively bad. It is a technique for winning.

Scully and Mulder from the X-Files did not go around torturing people. And neither were they (at least not very often) tortured themselves.

But this prevalence of torture that you see in otherwise very comparable shows is not limited to Fringe. It is everywhere in American entertainment now.

Everywhere you see it it promotes the lie that torture works. It does this very effectively. Because usually we, the audience, already know that the person being tortured has the information. They just will not give it up. In real life of course torture is not like that. In the hundreds of torture scenes that have been acted out in popular media only a handful show the victim making things up, and saying whatever they think the torturer wants to hear in order that they stop torturing them. Which is the reason why torture is not a useful tool. The process would be: Torture someone, they tell you something, you double check that story, maybe torture the people they implicate, then you find it out that there story was incorrect, go back to torturing them. Just one round of that might take days or a weeks. Which would make for boring TV.

On television National Security or law enforcement, is presented as an ongoing series of life or death situations where some wrongdoer is withholding information that will save many lives if it is just some how extracted. some how. Right now some how. There is no time to think or make rational decisions.

You cannot help but link this increase to the changed attitudes towards torture in American politics. Torture has been legitimized as the only way to prevent a terrorist attack that is going to happen any minute now. When really it seems to being used to extract confessions and encourage people to give someone, anyone, else up.

Missing from the televised depictions of torture are all the other reasons why individuals or states might torture someone. Torture is used for diverse reasons (punishment, revenge, political re-education, sadistic gratification, deterrence, coercion of the victim or a third party) and to show it used for a single purpose only is very misleading.

Fringe, like many other shows (Scandal OMG), is part of the normalisation of torture. When you start actively watching out for it the prevalence of these scenes is shocking.

Scandal torture scene

Not shocking just because they are uncomfortable to watch, but shocking because they are re-educating and changing attitudes towards this act. Conveniently at a time when governments have also redefined torture as something appropriate.

Other Sources

  1. New Yorker article on the presentation of torture in scandal
  2. Taylor Marsh arguing that Scandal is actually progressive
  3. Lengthy discussion thread over on HackerNews

Hansel - 05/01/2014