As an organization interested in media impact, our “water cooler” chatter around the office often includes TV series that shocked us and exposed us to something new, or video games we were impressed by. Read on to see the meaningful media HI staff has been talking about in May:

  1. Featuring: Law and Order: Special Victims Unit
  2. Game of Thrones
  3. Bates Motel
  4. Rust

1. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit 

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit is a long-running TV crime drama that focuses on stories revolving around sexually-based offenses. The Law & Order franchise is well-known for its “ripped from the headlines” episodes, which include storylines that are partially based on real-life crimes that have received attention in the media. To many viewers, ripped-from-headlines TV is a guilty pleasure–a sensationalized take on unbelievable crimes that appeal to our inner voyeuristic tendencies. But at Harmony Institute, we wonder if these shows can have a positive impact, especially when it comes to raising awareness about crimes that only receive a minimal amount of media coverage, often because their victims come from marginalized populations. In the two-part finale of their 17th season, a former inmate from Rikers Island (New York City’s main jail complex) reports being repeatedly raped and harassed by a Corrections Officer, even after her release. Led by Lieutenant Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay), the SVU squad uncovers a much larger problem of officer-inmate sexual assault, which is protected by a culture of cover-ups and deceit by Rikers staff, corrections officers, and labor unions set on protecting their interests. 

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Source: TV Spoilers

Housed in the Rose M. Singer Center, women make up a small minority of Rikers’ population–only about 7% in 2014–but suffer disproportionate levels of physical and sexual abuse. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 8.6% of women inmates at Rikers report being sexually harassed or abused, compared to 3.2% of all inmates in jails nationwide. Moreover, the Public Advocate’s office found that Rikers officials failed to report to police a staggering 98 percent of sexual abuse complaints last year. While Rikers Island has received a fair amount of media attention over the last few years due to increasing reports of violence, corruption and prisoner mistreatment, we wanted to determine to which extent conversations about the facility took into account the treatment of female inmates. A social media scan which compared conversations about male inmates and female inmates at Rikers over the last three years revealed a distinctive gap; that is, conversations about women at Rikers consistently occurred at lower rates than those about men. The largest increase in social media conversation about women at Rikers, which occurred in July 2015, coincided with an event held by NYC Jails Action Coalition in support of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of two women alleging repeated acts of rape and other sexual abuse during their time at Rikers.

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Law & Order: SVU has been criticized at times for being too exploitative of real-life tragedies, too sensationalistic or too alarmist. But SVU often makes an effort to portray the complexities of issues related to sexual assault, in a way that supports rather than blames victims. A recent study from the University of Washington found that viewers of Law & Order: SVU tend to be more educated about rape, with lower rape-myth acceptance, as well as greater intentions to seek consent for sexual activity, refuse unwanted sexual activity, and adhere to decisions related to sexual consent, compared to viewers of other crime shows like CSI. SVU also makes an effort to have an impact beyond their storylines–the show’s stars regularly appear in PSAs to raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault, and lead actress Mariska Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization which provides resources for victims of physical and sexual assault. We applaud Law & Order: SVU for focusing their season finale on the sexual assault of women at Rikers. We hope that by bringing attention to this otherwise underreported issue, we will see a rise in productive conversation about how to improve safety for female inmates, which will lead to tangible reforms at Rikers and other jails nationwide.

2. Game of Thrones 



Source: Winter is Coming 

Game of Thrones is an extremely popular show that is both violent and controversial. Each season, the show’s creators manage to continue to shock us. Considering that the story has already featured beheadings, eye gouging, skull crushing, castration, immolations by dragons, and wedding bloodbaths and rape, how much worse can it get?

Our feelings of horror while watching the show can be broken into two dimensions – the severity of the harmful act, and the likability of the victimized character. This likability can be influenced by many different characteristics, one of which is the baby-face bias.

This bias (Zebrowitz, 1997) posits that individuals with small and round faces, large eyes, short noses, thick lips, and protruding, curved foreheads (or put simply, faces that look similar to a young child or baby) tend to be perceived as more innocent, weak, warm, cooperative, compassionate, honest, and trusting. This translates into media when a character, such as a child, has these features.

Seasons 5 and 6 have passed a boundary rarely crossed on television by killing young characters in extremely violent ways. Stannis Baratheon burns his daughter Shireen at the stake as a sacrifice to win an upcoming war (which he ends up losing). Jon Snow hangs Olly, a young boy he mentored and was later betrayed by. Perhaps worst of all, Ramsay Bolton has his baby step-brother devoured alive by vicious dogs. Even a show as graphic as Game of Thrones can’t show this scene directly. It is too horrific in both the act’s severity and the victim’s innocence. But the scene’s purpose is served, cementing Ramsay’s place as the most evil character in the show’s history.

When a child is violently killed rarely anyone is in favor. It accesses an even stronger subconscious feeling of compassion and protectiveness for the victim that enhances the audience shock factor. This automatic feeling is separate from any actual qualities of the character that the show may emphasize, that would be different if the victim was older. The effect of the baby face bias was demonstrated in real life as well. It took an image of the drowned 3-year old Syrian refugee in Turkey, which caused increased activity on social media from activists and reporters, to catalyze action,  influencing Europe to change course and open its doors to fleeing refugees.

This could be a plot device of the writer’s; killing off children is a moral pivot that lets the audience continue to be shocked again and again by increasing the potency of violence. The use of this effect, in media like GOT and in real life, is an interesting twist on impact techniques that spur reaction and action.

3. Bates Motel


Source: Entertainment Weekly

For four seasons, viewers of Bates Motel, the prequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, have followed Norman’s slow spiral out of control. This season, Norman’s dissociative identity disorder (DID) took a turn, landing him in Pineview’s mental health facility. At Pineview, they address his disorder, his blackouts, his Oedipal relationship with his mother, and the violence triggered by women. His doctor sees Norman split into Norma as he takes on her mannerisms, clothing, and tone. Freddie Highmore’s performance as Norma and Norman is chilling; his split personality becomes more frequent as Norman loses his sense of reality and becomes a threat to others and himself. Norma is no longer able to avoid the danger posed by Norman, and is torn between the unconditional love of her son and protecting herself from his violent tendencies. This steered the narrative of the season as Norma took steps for Norman to get help, and for her to protect herself and focus on her own life for once. The tension and dynamic shift between Norma and Norman slowly brought Bates Motel closer to the inevitable events of Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In the season’s penultimate episode and the finale, things take a drastic turn when Norman attempts a murder-suicide and Norma is killed. Although Bates Motel foreshadows their inevitable fates and creates a narrative expectation, the audience is left hoping that there is a brighter future for Norman and Norma. The strength of Bates Motel is its ability to go past the original film to provide depth and backstory for the characters, and help the audience understand what caused Norman’s development into the man he is in Psycho: a murderer who cross-dresses as his mother, whose dead corpse sits in a rocking chair in the house.  

The finale alluded to Psycho, as Norman dug up Norma’s body, brought her home, and glued her eyes open. In this moment of madness, we see that Norman believes he has clarity: he will never be separated from his mother, and they can still be a happy family. With one season left for Bates Motel, it has done a wonderful job with its tribute to Psycho and strength as a prequel. The directors will be bringing in Marion Crane’s character, ushering the audience closer to Hitchcock’s original vision. It’s now time for the audience to hold on to their seats and descend with Norman – and Norma’s corpse – on his ride into complete mayhem, bringing everyone to the cusp of the events in Psycho.

4. Rust


Source: Think Progress

Currently in development, Rust is a multiplayer video game that mirrors many survival sagas that we are familiar with, including threatening animals, hunting, armors, weapons, and competition with other players. Gaining some impressive popularity, Facepunch Studios sold over 3 million copies at the end of 2015 and a million people play each week. So why has this game brought on unique discussion? The game began to randomly assign gender and race to its players, leaving them with no control over the character they will be playing with for the entire duration of the game.

Rust’s lead developer Garry Newman explains his motivations in this decision in The Guardian, which includes getting away from a focus on player customization, keeping the consistency of appearance over time to enforce accountability, and to make an interesting social environment through diversity. All of this is to allow the player to focus on the task at hand – survival. Needless to say, Newman was not trying to impose any social or political agenda on his players, but the reaction was an interesting one.

To Newman’s dismay there was some backlash that is similar to other games who have tried similar things — introducing nuanced character selections on their devoted players.  Some feel that because they can’t identify with their character, their enjoyment is diminished. Others feel they are having certain viewpoints being forced upon them. What is most intriguing is that female players were most receptive to this change, for the reason that they are used to having to play with a male characters, even though they make up 48% of video game players. This brings important attention to the contrast between the lack of diversity that exists in the gaming world, and the diversity that exists in the players participating within it.

The video game environment is one that intrigues many social science researchers simply because it’s an environment that is behind the scenes and anonymous, where free will and antisocial behaviors are more available. When this is inhibited, it appears that players feel they are having something taken from them. This, in combination with the contrast of the gaming environment and its actual players listed above, brings up the question, are video games an effective platform for media activism and social change? In the field of media impact, perhaps this is where we need to focus our attention. It will be interesting to see if the diversity within the game will change the player’s’ interactions with one another, and if that will translate into real life.