I was not a fan of Mad Men, and, although “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a hit when I was 16, I was not a fan of Nirvana. When it comes to monster pop culture trends, especially those with the greatest appeal to my demographic, I find myself frequently being the person watching everyone else with bewilderment and going, “Sure, it's okay – but that's it.” Or, “Maybe this really is the greatest thing in the world. But doesn't anybody have a different opinion?”
I am not, however, indifferent to The Cultural Conversation; if everybody's talking about it, and I have even the slightest bit of independent curiosity about it, I probably want to think about it, talk about it, and maybe blog about it too. So not only did I watch the finale of Mad Men last Sunday, and then see Montage of Heck in the theatre on Wednesday, but I've also been thinking about them, and about they mythos of America, since then. I was therefore pleased, though not surprised, to learn that the director of Montage of Heck, Brett Morgan, majored in something called American Mythology at Hampshire College before getting his MFA in film.
Don Draper, American Anti-Heroes, and the Soap Opera Heroine
I started thinking about American mythology in relation to the ending of Mad Men. The use of that iconic Coke commercial reminded me of the skin-crawly things about the show that made me stop watching it after a two-season trial binge (which happened, I think, around the time Season 4 was airing): how it takes advantage of the way that something that would have appeared to the world, at the time, as innocuous or even positive, now seems, with ironic, knowing hindsight, at once naive and sinister. In other words, our relationship to the recent cultural past, in Mad Men, is one of condescension, disapproval, and envy, which means that the show is not about the past and what it may have been like to live in it, but about our relationship to cartoon ideas about the past, which relies on, and fosters, cartoon ideas about the present.
I've heard a lot about Jay Gatsby in relation to Don Draper/Dick Whitman, but the series finale of Mad Men actually called to mind the endings of two other classics of American literature, one highbrow and one low: Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady and Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (another work that grapples with the present America's guilty nostalgia for its past). In the final sequences of both novels, an important character dies, while the protagonist, after reaching her lowest point, gets an ambiguous ending. Actually, Don Draper's final story arc even more closely recalls that of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis) in what ought to be an American classic, the film Now, Voyager, which takes its title from Whitman. In a moment of crisis, Charlotte, like Don, bolts from the city and seeks help and guidance at a retreat for the rich called Cascade. In Portrait, Isabel Archer, after increasing conflict with her husband, the social-climbing fortune hunter Gilbert Osmond, travels from Rome to England to see her dying cousin, Ralph, at his familial estate, the Edenic Gardencourt; after being confronted there by her obsessed stalker, Caspar Goodwood, who argues that Osmond's cruelty justifies them running off together, she decides, for reasons not revealed to the reader, to return to Rome and her awful marriage instead. And in the movie version of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett, after being left by Rhett, realizes that going home to Tara will give her the strength she needs to go on living and think of a way to win him back.
One of the interesting ways in which Mad Men alters the Victorian ending is by killing off the most hated, rather than the most loved, character. The effect of this was not to punish Betty Draper, but to give her some unexpected dignity and redemption, in a muted, sardonic way that kept true to the character's limitations and, thereby, to human limitations in general. The best way to understand American endings is by looking at how the shared plot elements transform in these different works. Don attempts a kind of homecoming when he goes to see Stephanie, but when he tries to help her, she points out that he's the one who seems to need help, which he gets, in the end, from her spiritual retreat; Charlotte goes to Cascade to get help, but discovers that the best way to help herself is to help a girl who reminds her of a younger and more helpless version of herself. Isabel's one sentimental and ethical tie to Rome is her relationship with a helpless young woman, Osmond's daughter Pansy, whom Osmond has sequestered in a convent for her disobedience, and whom Isabel has promised to help. Don has sentimental ties to all three of the women he calls from California – his daughter, Sally, her mother, his childlike ex-wife, Betty, and his workplace protegee, Peggy – and obligations to the first two. Yet Peggy is the only one who wants him back, suggesting that the workplace is his only real home, just as his professional life is the area where he's been successful.
The American hero or heroine is profoundly alone at the end of his or her story, whether isolated by errors and others' wrongs or by their own bad behaviour. Scarlett O'Hara is still, curiously, the only female American anti-hero of iconic stature. Another way in which the Mad Men finale inverts the Victorian ending is that rather than going to a friend at the time of their death, Don travels away from Betty. The already-famous group therapy session hug combines the emotional breakdown, and breakthrough, that occurs for Isabel at Ralph's bedside with Caspar Goodwood's kiss – non-sexual touching being perhaps as difficult for Don as sexual touching is for Isabel.
Don Draper follows in the footsteps of Isabel and Scarlett by not having his future resolved at the end of his story. In this, he differs from all of the other major characters at the end of Mad Men, who are left in a place of contentment or at least acceptance, and who at least believe that they understand their future: Betty will die, reconciled with her daughter to the best of their ability; Sally will take care of her mother, which is enough to think about for the moment; Roger is newly married; Pete is reunited with his wife; Peggy is in a new relationship and settled in at her new workplace; Joan has started a business. He also differs from iconic American male protagonists, like Gatsby and Charles Foster Kane, who are dead before the narratives that tell their stories begin – or even his anti-hero peer, Walter White.
We don't know why Isabel chooses to go back to Rome and her marriage, but it's hard not to interpret the ending pessimistically: that she may be able to help Pansy somehow, and that the idea of being Caspar Goodwood's mistress doesn't appeal to her, don't seem like enough to constitute a bright future for her. The future looks somewhat brighter for Scarlett, although obviously not as bright as it would have been if Rhett hadn't just left her. At the end of Gone With the Wind, we don't know what's going to happen to Scarlett; at the end of Portrait, we not only don't know what's going to happen to Isabel, we don't know what has happened to Isabel: why she made the choice to return to Rome. And at the end of Mad Men, we have to infer what has narratively happened to Don from the juxtaposition of the image of Don meditating with the Coke commercial, without knowing thematically what it means.
The final image of Don Draper, meditating and wearing an enigmatic smile, has resonances with the famous final images of King Vidor's weepie Stella Dallas, starring Barbara Stanwyck, and Rouben Mamoulian's Queen Christina, starring Greta Garbo. Both women have lost seemingly everything important to them and that defines them (a throne and her lover, in Garbo's case; a marriage and her daughter, in Stanwyck's). (What does it mean that I keep thinking of narratives with female protagonists in relation to Don Draper – supposedly a symbol of turn-of-the-millennium masculinity? Just that the genre of Mad Men, unlike Breaking Bad, is soap opera?) Garbo, her masklike face a careful blank (Mamoulian wanted the audience to read the emotions they wanted to see into it), looks toward the future with stoicism, grimly “going forward” in Don Draper, and corporate capitalist, fashion; Stella Dallas, in contrast, smiles, finding a source of joy unknown to us as she strides alone into a future that we equally don't know.
From what I've heard and read about the internet reaction to the finale moments of Mad Men, a lot of viewers seem to think that the ending is saying, in a straightforwardly cynical way, that Don's smile seems to signify an epiphany, even enlightenment, but turns out to “really” be an idea for how to commodify his experience of connectedness and wholeness in the form of an ad; using our desperate thirst for higher meaning, “the real thing,” to sell Coke – and America, globalization, and capitalism – to the globe. That's the reductive interpretation, comparable to saying that Isabel goes back to Osmond because there's a conservative part of her that won't allow her to divorce, even if she's revolted by the idea of a sham marriage. There's also the interpretation that no enlightenment, however sincere, is entirely pure, at least none achievable by ordinary people; and at the same time, no really powerful popular image can be entirely cynical, even if its naivety benefits evil.
But isn't that America – or its mythology? I think Henry James would think so. Isabel Archer makes a mistake when she makes the most important choice of her life because, in her naivety, she believes she is free to choose, as the Americans (and aspiring Americans) who chose Coke believed they were free to choose.
The ending of Mad Men also poses the question, without giving us the answer: has Don changed in some way during the course of the show, or, in turning his epiphany, and the entire 60s revolution, into his most powerful image of desire yet, is he the same – only more? Portrait raises this question even more directly by making Isabel make the same disastrous choice again, but here Don really belongs in the company of fellow pop American icon Scarlett O'Hara, who is virtually incapable of change, to the secret pleasure of the reader or viewer, who finds her exciting, and a suitable wish-fulfilment identification figure, because of her flaws. Don is somewhat unique, however, in that he finds some reason to go on that is not external to him (as Charlotte certainly has a reason in Tina, her quasi-adopted daughter, and Isabel perhaps to some extent in Pansy), and that is not simply a reason to survive (like Stella Dallas's, in her loneliness and poverty), but to be great, and maybe joyous. And that's his work, meaning both his creative ability and his professional success. In this he most closely resembles (David O. Selznick's) Scarlett again, because although winning Rhett back may give her a project (like working on Coke), it's Tara that gives her the strength to undertake it, and Tara is nothing more than a symbol of renewal (Mother Earth, continuity): not Coke, but Om.
Montage of a Feminist-Postmodern-Punk Marriage
Kurt Cobain is a very different kind of American icon from Don Draper; and yet, as Montage of Heck also shows, maybe not so different. Feeling abandoned and unloved by his divorced, working-class parents as a teenager, Cobain sought to escape from himself in the very American fashion of reinventing himself as a rock star. Unlike Don, however, Cobain couldn't wholeheartedly embrace the American dream in all of its naive sincerity and absolute inauthenticity. He wanted a happy, united family, and wanted to rebel against it; he wanted to be a world-conquering rock star, and wanted to be a civilization-smashing iconoclast; he loathed conformity and craved acceptance.
At the birth of rock and roll, there was no conflict between being a world-famous billionaire and being a great rock musician. But Cobain belonged to a post-Don Draper generation that had seen everything that looked like the real thing become commodified, including every attempt to rebel against the process. He knew that there was no way to matter on a large scale except by conforming, or at least spawning conformity, and becoming a corporate tool. Cobain stood out not just in being the charismatic zeitgeist vehicle that brought punk into the mainstream, but by being willing to die – not by hedonistic accident, but by shotgun to the head – to establish his authenticity. In that, he was more Isabel Archerish even than Don Draper: in one interpretation that I've always liked, Isabel self-destructively goes back to her husband so that the marriage she was tricked into will be her own choice after all; and Cobain, it seems, killed himself to get back control over a narrative that was being determined by impersonal cultural forces.
Courtney Love's relationship to the mainstream and success is every bit as fucked-up as Cobain's, but very different, too. Her desire for success and acceptance has always been absolutely naked, and for that reason, the cool kids of punk (like Kim Gordon), who never questioned their punk ethos, found and find her embarrassing and disturbing; and yet she's more punk rock than they'll ever be, louder, angrier, rawer, more jagged, absolutely incapable of being assimilated into the mainstream. Or so it seems, but she, too, has engaged in an ambivalent dance with success. There was a moment in the late 90s, when, riding the wave of mainstream success that Nirvana had made possible for alternative acts, she released a perfect pop-rock album with Hole in Celebrity Skin; got the plastic surgery just right; successfully launched a Hollywood acting career; and was dating a nice, stable, talented Hollywood actor. Even Camille Paglia approved. As Love has said many times since, she could have fulfilled her dream, then, of being Hollywood Courtney. Did her demons reassert themselves at that point, or the realization that her dream contained a large component of bullshit? Punk Courtney and Hollywood Courtney are each as real as the other – like Professor Kelp and Buddy Love. And that internal tension is what makes Courtney Love (like Jerry Lewis) such a great American star. Whereas Cobain seemed to be unable to live with that tension and conflict, Love made it the subject of her art, and her life into her art.
To see Love and Cobain together in their home videos in Montage of Heck is to see Gen X allegorized in the form of a famous, fucked-up couple who are like inversions of each other. They've got the kind of playful, solipsistic soulmate bond that, in rock stars in their mid-20s, you normally only see between the creative duo in a band: the Lennon and McCartneys, Morrissey and Marrs, Doherty and Barats. Or yes, okay, the Lennon and Onos, which is one of the reasons Ono attracted such hatred: because finding a bond with a fellow artist within a feminist heterosexual marriage precludes the need for the homosocial bond that's the traditional basis of culture. And that fucks up our pop culture. You don't just want the music of The Beatles: you want the Beatles romping together. Morrissey and Marr flirting with each other. Doherty and Barat practically having sex on stage together.
The clips chosen for the documentary give the impression that Love and Cobain, in a way that's very 90s postmodern, were incessantly meta about their relationship and the way it was being mythologized by the public, as interpreted by the media. They were also, in a way that also strikes me as very 90s, very my generation, meta about their gender roles in relation to themselves and to their relationship. This did not produce harmony, however, but rather struggle within oneself and with each other. Cobain despises masculinity as traditionally conceived, but sometimes seems to struggle with conventional attitudes (“Mommy's loud,” he complains to the infant Frances at one point; at another, he pretends to punch Love in the arm and refers to his action as “wife beating,” but he's clearly actually frustrated with her); Love is openly competitive and effortlessly assertive, but has a conflicted attitude toward femininity (she complains about women being mean to her and warns Kurt about the woman who are going to try to get their claws in him on tour). (As I learned from rewatching my wedding video at the time of my divorce, there's nothing like video to capture the small tensions and aggressions that constantly flare up between friends, acquaintances, and members of a couple.)
I found myself recognizing myself in Love, in terms of our relationship to feminism, again and again. Growing up in the 80s and early 90s, one was constantly bombarded by the media (which in those days was TV and magazine articles) with the message that men considered women inferior and didn't like you to be intelligent or angry; that men would ignore women when they spoke, or not take you seriously; and that being female meant to be threatened by objectification, sexual harassment, and rape. As a person with a healthy ego and a pretty elastic relationship to gender (learned from David Bowie – a Cobain favourite), I accordingly cultivated a persona of maximum force and directness. There were limits to this, since by nature I'm a quiet, introspective, meek person who likes to read and write and be left alone. And it was mostly brought to bear in relationships and intellectual engagement with men, and in the university classroom, where I usually dominated discussion; and in the street when having to walk through bad neighborhoods at night. In workplace contexts, on the other hand, it tended to work against me until I figured out what I was doing wrong: the constant expression of frustration just reads as entitlement in situations that call for high levels of patience or cooperation.
Love's context was punk rock, and for her that didn't mean cool, as it did for Kim Gordon, since cool was far beyond her, but the ability to express your aggression. And not only onstage, but to some extent in your personal interactions. There's a scene where she and Cobain are getting ready in the bathroom, their backs to each other, each apparently facing a mirror, where Love, rambling on with her trademark logomania on her usual topic of her perception by others, expresses her concern that she will become the most hated woman in America. Cobain pipes up, muttering, “You're already the most hated woman in America,” to which Love responds instantly by halting in mid-hair-tease and asking, an edge in her voice, “What?”, daring him to repeat himself. I smiled at that point, because I have done that so many times in conversations with men – especially in my 20s, as Love is here. He rephrases himself, placatingly, “You and Roseanne Barr are tied for the most hated woman in America,” and they move on. (Hyper-aware of their mythology, both Cobain and Love like to consider themselves, and each other, in relation to other pop culture figures of the present and the past. Cobain seems especially fixated on Axl Rose as his antithetical doppelganger.)
What's at stake in that exchange? Love is momentarily in denial about how much the public hates her, and doesn't want to hear the truth just then, from him; she's also sensitive to the possibility that by repeating the sentiment, he's supporting it. She has a category of things that men are not allowed to say to her and ways that they are not allowed to speak to her without challenge. In later footage, family and friends sing “Happy Birthday” to Frances on her first birthday, which seems like a joyous occasion until, the moment the song ends, Cobain exits the frame and Love shrieks “KURT DON'T LEAVE!” Was he only able to stick around for the length of the song before he had to get high? In any case, he's shirking his parental duties, and Love won't put up with it, telling him that she won't open Frances's present until he gets back there.
As men and women who'd grown up exposed to second-wave feminism sloughed off their traditional gender roles, it didn't produce equality so much as a new, topsy-turvy imbalance: the spectacle of an openly aggressive woman bossing around a small, quiet man. And yet the power imbalance in the public sphere remained the same, with the man having the more successful career. Which means the dynamic is less something new than the Macbeths archetype. Love is such an important figure not because she had the most respected career of a woman in rock (that would be PJ Harvey, who, unlike Love, has never inspired me to buy one of her albums, because I don't actually care about rock), and not because she and Cobain had a celebrity “power marriage,” which they didn't entirely (if you want celebrity marriages where the members of the couple have equal power, there have always been those, from Liz and Dick to Brad and Angelina), but because, again, she exhibited the ambivalence of ambitious women who were trying to achieve equality with men. Love wasn't content with being separate but equal: unlike Liz Taylor, Yoko Ono, Angelina Jolie, or Beyonce, she evidently considered herself to be in direct competition with her husband for his job of being the greatest rock and roll star in the world. At the same time, because that role wasn't as easily available to her as it was to a man, she was tempted to get power the way women have traditionally had to do it: through association with her husband. That is where feminism was at in the early 90s (see also the Clintons).
A curious way in which we mythologize famous couples, when their personalities or narrative fit the archetype, is by demonizing one of the members. Surprisingly, it's not always the woman who's demonized. When a woman is taken up as a cult figure, often by feminism, like Zelda Fitzgerald, Jane Bowles, or Sylvia Plath, the husband may be demonized, suspected of somehow contributing to his wife's struggles with mental illness. On a larger scale, there's Princess Diana, victimized by her husband and the shadowy machinations of the Royal Family; or the conspiracy theories about Kennedy involvement in the death of Marilyn Monroe. The woman-abuser, wife-murderer, or gaslighter is one gendered Gothic narrative we have at our disposal; its counterpart is the emasculating bitch-wife, so iconic in Anglo-American culture that you can just call her The Yoko, although more recently she's been popping up in cult TV focused on male protagonists through which writers, and apparently viewers as well, work out their relationship to traditional masculinity. That is where feminism, which perhaps should now call “gender relations” (since we're well into getting meta about masculinity in pop culture), is at in the mid-2010s.
The Cobains weren't The Osbournes, in part because Love did pursue her own career rather than being part of her husband's, even as his “boss.” Love and Cobain also come across in the videos as far too intelligent, funny, and self-aware to play the parts of termagant and clueless “schlub” husband. On the other hand, who knows what they would have been like by the early 2000s, if Cobain and their marriage had survived. Is it better to die young, with integrity and dignity, or to get a reality TV show and become an unfathomably rich joke, but evidently enjoy your family life? Love has continued to cling to punk dignity, refusing to take the easy way and become the reality TV star she was obviously meant to be, even though her popularity as a musician didn't survive the 90s. But is it worth it, in a world in which no bit of real reality can survive the touch of commerce or media, and in which “reality” is a TV genre that means “gawking at freaks”?
Game of Thrones and the Obligations of Writers of Fictional Violence
Besides the Mad Man finale, the other thing that happened in TV – which makes up about 85% of The Cultural Conversation in any given week (with 10% devoted to Stuff That Happened on the Internet and 5% to news stories involving celebrities) – was, of course, the latest Game of Thrones rape scene. I don't follow GOT, because I can't imagine anything worse than its combination of static talking heads scenes, grim, grisly, sexualized violence, and tits. However, as with my other two subjects for this week, that won't stop me from weighing in. I've only got three more posts to go after this; I'm giving up this blog to focus on writing a novel after I turn 40 at the end of August. One is going to be on Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, which I've almost finished re-reading; one on my feelings about feminism (not to be confused with my feelings about gender equality); and a final one on the forms my reading has taken in my 39th year.
This subject makes a good introduction to some of the issues I'll be talking about in the feminism post. Having listened to podcasters on the subject and read several articles on the internet, I want to weigh in from a perspective that I haven't heard represented: a woman who's written in the same genre as Game of Thrones. I'm not talking about sword and sorcery fantasy, although I've seen articles defending the scene based on Martin's deconstruction of the “heroics” of the genre, or whatever. (That shows a bit of a short view of literary history, since the preeminent canonical fantasy epic, The Faerie Queene, is full of the rape and torture of women – for which see Fiedler and Paglia.) No, the genre I'm talking about is pulp, the pop culture continuation of medieval romance (in the sense of “fantasy”). It's the basic underlying genre of pretty much all popular novels, TV drama, superhero comics, daytime soaps, and such movie genres as film noir and horror, and it's characterized by a fascination with sex, violence, and their intermingling, as well as such moods, emotions, or states as “suffering” and “angst.” Thanks to Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, we have come to refer to its pessimism (a lowbrow form of the sublime of tragedy) using terms like “comic book darkness,” a mood that strongly informs cult TV.
I myself was writing a fan fiction soap opera parody, but it was in the mode of pulp, which is exactly the same whether it's coming from the imagination of TV, novel, or internet writers. What I found is that following my Muse where it took me while writing a sexually explicit soap opera meant conjuring up a series of increasingly horrible scenarios of intimate abuse, violence, or exploitation. None of which, incidentally, were meant to be titillating, although a lot of other scenes in the story were. Notably, doing really horrible things to the people closest to you is also the basis of Greek tragedy, and in the case of Oedipus Rex, the most iconic of all the Greek tragedies, the crime is sexual; which, as an educated sort of person, I was thinking about in writing my silly, but dark, soap parody.
One of the arguments that critics of the GOT scene have made is that if you're going to put rape in a story, you should treat it sensitively and responsibly and not just use it exploitatively, for shock value. To which the counter response has been that the show is full of horrible violence perpetrated against multiple characters, male and female – beheading, stabbing, torture, castration. So why should this topic receive special treatment? And if you're going to get upset about this fictional act, why not get upset about all of the others?
Now, I think that a writer is aware of when they are writing something primarily to entertain, whatever the work's actual status as a work of art (as if that's something that's objective and unchanging across all contexts). Writing to entertain doesn't preclude writing to challenge, including writing with the hope that your audience will be shocked, upset, and disturbed. But the sensitive and thoughtful writer who is writing to entertain will pause before using a subject that's a real-life problem, and highly emotional for many people, as fodder for their project of shocking and disturbing in a way that entertains. Such a writer will want to treat those subjects in a way that, without ceasing to be shocking and entertaining, is thoughtful and sensitive, and has consequences for the characters.
So, for example, the penultimate shock-scene in my story was a climactic act of intimate partner violence within a relationship between two men that had been characterized by quasi-consensual rough sex. The result for the characters was that the victim ended the relationship, which was never even temporarily resumed, despite the continued existence of strong feelings. The final shock scene was an act of rape perpetrated on a woman by a man (the worst villain in the story, a sadistic madman), which I used to illustrate that acquaintance rape doesn't have to be violent and can even involve incidental arousal. Subsequent chapters dealt with her emotional healing, confusion, and anger, without making her final story arc entirely about her rape. (A complex and ambiguous character, like every character in the story except, for the most part, the hero and the rapist-villain, she was something of a stalker and sociopath, so her arc had to deal with those things too.)
The question is how I knew to treat intimate partner violence and rape differently from other kinds of violence, in a story that features such acts of violence as: attempted murder of a baby (twice); two murders (one extremely gruesome) and two notable accidental deaths; a good old melodrama shove down a staircase; and arson (twice). And those are just the parts I plotted. (I had two collaborators, and one of them was as “dark” as I was; the other one mainly ran around hooking characters up.) And the answer is that feminism has raised awareness of, and demanded sensitivity toward, those types of violence.
All of which means that I agree with both sides: I do think that writers should treat sensitive subjects with sensitivity; yet I also think that we should use furors like this as an opportunity to ask why only certain representations of violence deserve sensitive treatment, and usually only those in which female characters are the victims; while elsewhere, the sadism of the writer and viewer can run rampant. We should ask ourselves why so much of our entertainment (and, taking the long historical view, our art) is so violent, and whether we should embrace the reign of the unconscious in fiction or choose less violent fictions.
The reaction of self-declared feminist critic Kate Kulzick on The Televerse, one of my favourite podcasts (I listen to it even though I don't watch 95% of the shows they cover and have never watched 80% of them), is instructive of the weird compartmentalization going on with this topic, because after expressing her anger at and disappointment with the GOT scene, she went on to express excitement over David Lynch's return to the Twin Peaks revival. I love David Lynch and the first season of Twin Peaks, but if ever there were a show that used violence against women for no purpose except shock value, that was it. I think particularly of the scene in which the villainous thug Leo advances on his kneeling and cowering wife while swinging a bar of soap in a sock, which was the most shocking thing I'd ever seen on TV as a 15-year-old. (As a superhero comics reader, I'd seen more violent images, including a couple of murders of men that stayed with me for the rest of my life.) Nor was that scene ever meaningfully followed up on. And the horrendously violent scene in which Laura Palmer's murderer is revealed in Season 2 was so gratuitous, disgusting, and silly that I not only never wanted to see Twin Peaks again – I never wanted to see anything by David Lynch again. (He didn't fully regain my trust until Mulholland Dr, a decade later.)
Lynch is a writer-director who knowingly trades in shock imagery, yet one seldom gets the sense that Lynch's intention is to entertain (except in the episodes of surreal humour that drain off some of the constant dread). At its best, such “meta” violence has the result of making the audience pause and question our relationship to violence, imaginative and real, while violence in entertainment has the precise opposite effect; yet it shouldn't be surprising that offence and rage is one possible reaction to such deliberately crafted extreme imagery. Since violence is a staple of entertainment, as it is of life and the imagination, I would in fact, as a viewer/fan, like to see more examples of it being treated as a thing with consequences in fiction, simply because it's an opportunity to deepen the characters and world.
However, violence doesn't show up in writing because writers want to portray “real” issues in sensitive ways, but because the imagination is violent, and a huge amount of what art (not only narrative but also visual) and entertainment does is imagine scenarios of violence and suffering, inspiring pity and fear. (I have now, in case you didn't notice, switched to using “art” in the broader, more inclusive sense of all cultural artifacts with which a significant segment of the public has strong engagement.) We should have strong reactions to these images that permeate our culture, and those reactions are bound to be emotional and confused, because the life/art boundary is confusing, or art couldn't inspire these reactions, or in other words, be art. But I think it's the duty of critics and feminists (and I count myself as both) to not just express emotion and have reactions, but also be critical about our reactions, and get clear about what is confusing and what is going to remain confused.
And let's also keep in mind that internet outrage, a type of mob emotion, is every bit as base a source of pleasure as an exploitative graphic scene. To give a foretaste of the Northrop Frye post (can you wait??), here's one of many great sentences from Anatomy of Criticism: "At play [e.g., in art or sports], mob emotions are boiled in an open pot, so to speak; in the lynching mob they are in a sealed furnace of what Blake would call moral virtue." The internet is somewhere between play and a lynching mob.