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Images of Murder: A Follow-up to the America’s Next Top Model Controversy

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Recently I wrote about the controversy surrounding America's Next Top Model's decision to hold a fashion shoot that involved the models posing as crime scene victims. I want to pick up on something noted by a commenter named "Not a necrophiliac", i.e. the trend toward shows like CSI to display images of brutally murdered corpses. I think the commenter was really hitting on something there by situating ANTM's poor choice in the context of a wider cultural trend.

Part of what rankles us about ANTM is that it is a reality show. No one likes to admit they watch reality shows (though I, for one, am not ashamed to admit to my ANTM fandom) because they serve a wonderful linguistic purpose. Reality shows, we are all meant to know, are trashy, cheap and beneath us — whoever the "us" in question is. ANTM doing something as awful as posing women as corpses is understood as yet another quality about reality television that makes it so base.

And yet, the thrills people get from CSI and other shows that they will admit to watching with very little compunction at all go unquestioned. Arguably, however, there is something equally if not more morally problematic going on between the viewer and the image on those shows. The idea is that looking at a "murdered" corpse on CSI is morally excusable because it's set in the context of good guys and bad guys. The good guys have to gaze upon the beautiful, dead teenage girl in various states of undress because they have to catch the bad guys.

Seen from another perspective, though, these images are just as perversely pornographic as anything shown on ANTM. We, the viewers at home, love the feeling of being disgusted by these images because they inspire our own sense of moral righteousness. The more our disgust is amped up, the more fascinated we are and the more we want the good guys to get revenge on those bad guys. But unlike ANTM, these are images we see week after week, through all of CSI's various and inescapable permutations.

And it gets creepier, too. Because I watch television as part of my regular paying job (yes, it's true), sometimes I am required to watch programming I wouldn't otherwise waste my time on. One example of this was an episode of CSI that I would have loved to switch off. It involved a child molester who had murdered one of his molestation victims. I was completely astonished that in a culture that claims to care about children and that, on the surface, is so opposed to and disgusted by child molesters, that an episode like that could even be conceived of. Of course, it's CSI's moral underpinning that is supposed to make the pornographic ecstasy of seeing a dead child's body a-okay. But I think that's total bullshit.

This is another example, I think, of the amazing split in our cultural psyche. On one hand, we stand so opposed, so morally outraged, by certain acts, but experience such pleasure when we see these acts fictionalized through televisual media. Richly detailed depictions of murder on fictional and reality-based programs are disturbing, but we're fooling ourselves if we think we can talk about them independent of a larger social context.

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