Momcore and Maul

by on Oct.10, 2009, under television

Big Josh’s latest story has put me in a murderous mind. The joke of Josh’s story, as I see it, is that blood and entertainment aren’t new friends in our fallen age; that we aren’t much nastier than we ever were, but that we’ve always been nasty. Granting that, what are the uses of nastiness specific to our age?

A call-in Leverage thread over at John Rogers’ joint zeroes in on a form of violence whose star is rising right now. He calls it “momcore,” and since the thread in question contains a lot of other Leverage questions to wade through before you get to the momcore bit, I’ll reproduce almost the whole “longish ranty bit” in toto after the jump.

[T]his show is not one of the dozen or so mainstream network shows that traffic in exploiting rape, sexual murder, and an irrational fear of violent super-predators. A field that I christened, a while ago in conversation, “Momcore.”

My Mom, a super lovely lady, keeps recommending modern detective thrillers to me to read. Stuff she and her sixty-year-old friends read. So every now and then I’ll pick one up — and they are fucked up. In Jeffrey Deaver’s The Bone Collector, turned into a movie with Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie, a woman is tied to a sewer pipe and BOILED ALIVE.




Cruise through the thick airport best-sellers and you find a parade of cunning rapists, insane serial killers and mocking pedophiles with a tendency toward baroque clue construction. The CSI shows are rape/murdertastic, and the original CSI in particular basically equates anything outside total heteronormativity with perversion deserving of a horrible death, after which sincere CSI squares cluck their tongues and solve your murder that, hey, you kinda brought on yourself anyway.

Now, those dudes are writing crime thrillers, those are the streets they walk. I’m a big fan of those shows (I actually prefer L&O: Criminal Intent, but you know), and accept that they are working withing those bounds. And although it wins Emmys, it was L&O: Rape Exploitation Unit that gave us the famous “sodomized with a violin bow.” For God’s sake, Harper’s Island opened with a dude tied alive to a boat propeller, forced to watch as it turned on and chopped him up alive, and then for a second death they cut Harry Hamlin in half — in fucking half on-screen— during the pilot.


Now, the nature of Harper’s Island was also to a great degree parody, but I’m dubious that’s how it came across to most of the CBS audience. And they were fine with it, because of a steady dose of Momcore.

Momcore. The casual mainstreaming of gory/sexual violence used to give a frisson of horror to mass culture. We don’t do it, we were mocking it, and the whole show was conceived as a rejection of those boogiemen in a quest to go after some actual villains doing big-time damage to people’s lives. As Downey said, back when we were developing the show: “I think everybody else on TV has got serial killers covered.”

We exploit pain and misery too, parasites of culture that we are, but at least it’s in going after villains everybody else seems to be ignoring.

I’ve just started watching Dexter — jumping into the current season after missing most of the last three — and so I’m really not poised to do more than raise questions here. Rogers nails one of the uses of nastiness in his rant about CSI: the focus on sexual violence is a technique of repression in a liberal, or at least liberalizing, society. On its face, our laws are bending towards a more permissive regulation of sex, though I wouldn’t say towards less regulation. Violence in popular entertainment is a way of suggesting a permanent atavistic law, a kind of barbarian narrative justice that’s gonna getcha if you deviate from the old norm, even as the norm changes.

Dexter seems to be up to something different. For one thing, the public doesn’t really figure in these stories; there’s an esoteric world of serial killers, a game between Dexter and his prey, and there’s the normie world of the police department. A regular procedural would place the police world in the esoteric position, standing between the natural and inevitable assaults by psycho killers on people and their families. While there’s certainly sexualized violence in Dexter–season 4 opens with the bloody dispatch of a nude in a tub–our route into the show is through a serial killer, and the society from which victims are drawn is less important.

So I’m not yet sure what the use of nastiness in Dexter is.In the world of CSI, the only thing more baroque than the methods of death are the methods of detection. Technophilic and omnipotent, the UV light and the databases successfully disenchant the mysteries of violence by the end of every hour. The opening montage of Dexter, with its lush close-ups on razor nicks and mosquito bites, and the bright red yarn Dexter uses for spatter analysis, low-tech and redolent of feminine arts-and-crafts, suggests (along with his passion for his work) that the show’s aims are beauty more than fear.

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1 Comment for this entry

  • Joshua Malbin

    I’m not saying anything original here, this is something the show’s creator has said himself, but the right genre to measure Dexter against isn’t crime procedurals or slasher horror but superhero comics and their TV and movie spinoffs. Dexter is explicitly envisioned as a superhero: he has an origin story, a secret identity, a personal morality, and above all, the power to kill.

    That said, the writing of the show is often a total mess and treats Dexter’s violence very inconsistently. In earlier seasons Dexter was a much more questionable character; lately he’s pretty much all hero.

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