Sunday Bloody Sunday! Has the Depiction of Violence Towards Children in Television Crossed the Line?

It is kind of the dirty little secret of television that it is okay to show images that would be normally repugnant and unacceptable otherwise — simply because it is not real.  Photos and images that would normally be banned as too graphic are allowed under the guise that it is okay because they are not showing something that actually occurred.
But as some of this year’s television shows have stretched the boundaries of what we will tolerate, a question has arisen as to: where do we draw the line? Television shows like THE KILLING, AMERICAN HORROR STORY and THE WALKING DEAD are challenging our sense of morality and ethics of what should be allowed to be shown in the television format. 
Last spring, when THE KILLING debuted, there was an outcry over the way Rosie Larsen’s body was show both in the trunk of the car and the photos of her final injuries — not to mention the videotape of her best friend being assaulted.
More recently, there was outcry over THE WALKING DEAD’s strategic use of children to further its dramatic story by showing the accidental shooting of Carl which opened this season, bookended by the intentional killing of Sophia – albeit, in her newly incarnated “walker” state.
And to a lesser extent, there was some adverse reaction to AMERICAN HORROR STORY’s blood-bath slaying of the red-headed twins in its opening sequence of its premiere.
It can be argued that each of these shows are accompanied by parental warnings that the scenes depicted may be too upsetting to some viewers.  But is that enough?  Should such acts of violence be shown in the first place?  Do we have to see a child (or even child-actors) in such situations?  Does it make it any less disturbing and haunting to see violence towards children portrayed?
In the case of AMERICAN HORROR STORY and THE WALKING DEAD, those shows are known to have supernatural elements which we do not consider real, so the universe they inhabit is not as closely associated with our “real” world. The thought is that our tolerance is higher when the world depicted is supposed to be other-worldly — it helps us disassociate from the violence we are watching.
However, in THE KILLING, it is supposed to be a mirror-image of our world – it is supposed to represent something that can happen in the “real” world – and it frightens us.  We do not like to acknowledge, let alone watch such atrocities exist in our society or in the world around us. In its defense, THE KILLING is supposed to be a cautionary tale of what can happen when a teenager steps outside of their parents’ protective circle.
But, as a viewer, at what point do we declare it is too much?  Looking at it a bit more closely, I found that I am less offended when the violence is not directed towards a child per-se, but rather towards a child that is actually supposed to be a creature.  Like in THE WALKING DEAD, once Sophia was transformed into a “walker,” my brain understood that she was no longer a child – she was a zombie-like creature that had arisen from the dead.  She was already dead and now was a creature. Not unlike shows that show children infected with demons.  We no longer see a child; we see a monster.
But in the case of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, the children were simply unruly and delinquents, not monsters.  Their death was horrifying and disturbing to watch because they were simply children — just like Rosie Larsen. 
Violence towards a child is just different.  Our brains protest watching those kinds of scenes or seeing the trauma a child suffered because we feel helpless.  As a viewer, we do not simply want justice or vengeance – our desire is to protect and to be denied that basic urge to help is frustrating.  In fact, my inclination is to fast-forward such scenes as it invokes such a strong reaction.
There is a distinct difference to watching a childlike “creature” getting blown away opposed to watching a child suffer.  It makes me wonder: who exactly can sit through those scenes and remain unaffected – and what audience a show is trying to appeal to by showing such violence?
Television is a lens by which we watch fictionalized stories.  We are invited to participate as the viewer in their struggles, their joys, and their triumphs.   Depending on the craving of the day, we can tune in and watch a drama, a comedy, or even a slice-of-life portrayal.
The question shifts slightly from: what do we watch vs. what should we be watching?  Should we be made to see atrocities up-close-and-personal, or should there be a bit of creative ingenuity employed so that we are not made a voyeuristic party to the crime itself?  Once upon a time, television sensors would never have allowed the actual depiction of some acts of violence – blood spurts and other gore were left up to the viewer’s imagination.  But in an effort to make fictionalized television stories more real, in modern television, emphasis was placed on making each act look and sound more real.  It was the “show, don’t tell” philosophy. 
While I applaud the effort to get television to show us more interaction between the characters and de-emphasize the need for monologues describing a scene, there must be a line.  Some things are simply too disturbing to be depicted visually.  It assumes the audience or the viewer wants to participate in such horror. 
I posit that the line needs to be reestablished.  The television world needs to reconsider what is necessary to show in their story versus what they can allude to.  I have no desire to be made an unwitting accomplice in watching crimes against children (even in a fictional world).  It is one thing to have to hear about it, it is another to be forced to endure – making me an unwilling participant.
In the three examples I have cited above, only two of the shows fall within these acceptability criteria.  THE WALKING DEAD very carefully chose its ending note for its mid-season finale.  Sophia was no longer an innocent child to be protected, she was already dead – she had died long before when the “walker” infection overtook her.  Then in THE KILLING, they have been very careful to not make the audience a party to the crime which claimed Rosie Larsen’s life.  That leaves AMERICAN HORROR STORY clearly within the crosshairs of acceptability.  Did it go to far in its depiction of violence towards children?  Does it make it any more acceptable that it is set in a supernaturally-infused world?  My gut reaction is a steadfast “no.”  But perhaps to you, it has not yet crossed that line. 
But you should think about it: when does the depiction of violence towards children become unacceptable?  And at what point do you see yourself as being forced to be a passive participant? Are you truly a television viewer that can disassociate to such a degree that nothing you see affects you whatsoever?
Television is not supposed to recruit disinterested and disassociated viewers.  Television is about engaging our imaginations.  It is all a matter of what television is trying to engage us with — that is what we need to be pay closer attention to.  Are we being asked to laugh at a joke? To cry for the loss of a child? Or to be forced to watch children suffer? Even when it is not real, it looks real and we are being asked to believe that it could be real.  Perhaps there needs to be a line as to what we are willing to tolerate – even in fiction. 

Tiffany Vogt is a contributing writer to TheTVAddict. She has a great love for television and firmly believes that entertainment is a world of wondrous adventures that deserves to be shared and explored – she invites you to join her. Please feel free to contact Tiffany at or follow her at on Twitter (@TVWatchtower).

  • James Ged

    Fantastic post, Tiffany. Personally, I believe that violence can function both for good and for ill purposes, depending on the way it is presented. For example, The Walking Dead seems to wrestle with themes of moral right and wrong in a world that is drastically different from our own. And the shooting of (zombie) Sophia seems to highlight that struggle in an emotionally impactful way. On the other hand. American Horror Story seems not to have a moral base at all and is simply out to shock and titillate. There is no philosophical or moral purpose in the violence it depicts; it simply asks us to be participatory bystanders in a grotesque carnival. 

    So, for me, it is not so much that a line needs to be drawn as to “what” can be portrayed. Rather, as viewers we need to be more cognizant of our reactions to the portrayals of violence we encounter, and examine how that violence makes us aware of our own violent tenancies or ethics in productive or unproductive ways.