Looking at Dead Babies


Has a steady diet of fictionalized pop media desensitized us to true images of trauma?

By Lauren Rosewarne, University of Melbourne


In Year 8 our history class watched a documentary about Cambodia’s Killing Fields.

Regrettably, I remember pretty much nothing of the doco and everything about a girl from my class running from our portable classroom in tears. I can’t be positive we laughed, but it seems like the ruthless kind of thing that horrible children would have done.

I had told this story to my parents later that evening, with all the bravado of a 13-year-old. And my Dad – I’m paraphrasing – said that he had much more respect for her than he did for the rest of us. I think he used the word “desensitised” but perhaps that’s my 33-year-old-self interpreting his rebuke.

I’ve never liked the word. In fact, the more I study the media the less I like it.

And yet, as loathed as I am to admit it, a heavy diet of popular media has indeed desensitised me to all sorts of imagery.

For years I’ve been failing to convince my brother to watch Breaking Bad. He claims to have seen an early episode. Saw a bloke disposed of in a bathtub of acid. Promptly decided that no more of it was needed. I only vaguely remember the splatter; certainly not in any way that deterred me from continuing. Ravenously so.

When The Sopranos was still airing, the language was frequently criticised. For me, The Sopranos was about quality writing, engaging characters, captivating storylines. Bad language? Perhaps, but it’s by no means my takeaway.

Rectify, Top of the Lake and The Bridge were my three favourite TV shows from 2013. Each thoroughly gripping and each had violence at the core. Violence, notably against women.

I could criticise brutality packaged as an entertainment product. Condemn the disproportionate number of female victims. Equally, I can table that I don’t think media effects are anywhere near so simple to make this a substantial concern.

Once upon a time, however, I had much thinner skin. Once, in fact, I walked out of a screening of Heaven and Earth (1994), so traumatised was I by the rape scenes. Twenty years later and apparently I’ve become the kind of person who doesn’t even flinch at a bathtub full of body parts.

And it is this “transformation” that reminds me that sometimes it’s good to find oneself shaken and stirred by imagery. To be reminded that even the battle/screen-weary amongst us can still be traumatised.

Dead children.

Recently I wrote a response for the ABC about a recent news.com.au article. My piece was focused on the visual accompaniments to the story: photos of “Walter” who was miscarried at 19-weeks-old.

Having studiously avoided Mum’s collection of midwifery books, I’d never seen anything that had come close to those haunting images. The distress I felt thoroughly surprised me.

And the very same day that I was crying over those photos, I went to see The Book Thief. An amazing film. An amazing film which, incidentally, showed a dead child only moments in. Later there would be others.

In the days that followed, coincidentally I would watch episodes of Major Crimes and Rizzoli and Isles each also offering up dead children.

Dead children as an entertainment product? Perhaps a tad hyperbolic. But it’s something that strikes me as fascinating nevertheless.

Frankenstein (1931) caused quite the brouhaha back in cinema’s earliest days. In the original cut the monster accidentally drowned a girl. In many US states censors had conniptions; edits were thus ordered.

The history of censorship is of course, replete with great battles. A favourite involved Alfred Hitchcock’s vigorous stoush to show just a few seconds of a flushed toiled in Psycho (1960). Nowadays hell, we’ll see not only see toilets but characters using them.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999)

I’m not going to argue a case for censorship here. I’m not even sure I could convince myself that there is something more egregious about portrayals of dead children than raped and murdered women or bludgeoned-to-death men.

But it’s interesting that Hays Code taboos about toilets, “miscegenation” and “lustful kisses” all seem so very preposterous – so very archaic – today. And that such feelings somehow frame us all as so progressive. Personally I’m not sure that the increased visibility of dead children is all that progressive.

Lauren Rosewarne does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.The Conversation
–This article was originally published at The Conversation.
–Read the original article.
–Photo: baby doll washed up on the shore of the patapsco river, near hanover street bridge, baltimore MD Sidereal/Flickr


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  1. I’ve been arguing for years that people are becoming desensitized to violence because they don’t see enough.
    On 9/11 European and Canadian TV, all day long, showed the pictures of folks jumping to their death.
    On the various Alaska Tv shows popular now the beheading of chickens and the game collapsing when shot are edited out.
    In a zero-tolerance school yard kids don’t know that it is often more sickening to hear, feel and observe a nose crunched by a fist than it is to have one’s nose punched… And consequently have no idea what will happen if you,shoot someone.

  2. I think one needs to distinguish between images created for fictional purposes (special effects, computer games etc) and actual graphic images.

    If anything, I’m usually struck by how different the two are from each other. It also produces a marked response in me when I know the image is of something real vs an image I know isn’t.

    • Same. I can laugh all day at super horrific violence in GTA 5, etc, movie gore, etc but show me a real person breaking their arm and I get the adrenaline flinch response…I just saw a video of a baby being saved by CPR and it made me cry, but show me fictious babies being killed in some horror movie and I wouldn’t flinch.

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