Power Porn

What is power porn? Well as with the other variety it titillates people with the what they cannot have. One with platinum blonde, drug fuelled moaning heaps and the other with unobtainable situations of power. In this post I am going to outline a few of the different tropes that recur in power porn. Now some of the time the power porn element is part of a broader more complex narrative but other times it is really in your face, lowest common denominator stuff like in the case of the Australian Organized crime Drama Underbelly.

In that instance it is just about the power tropes. There are no more subtle points about human nature or psychology it is really just a fat driver for the gang becomes ruthless mob boss,kills everyone and has his downfall all over the course of just one season. This show though, with its fetish for brutally murdering characters in front of children, does not specialize in subtlety.

With its penchant for ridiculously overdone shooting scenes and unnecessary narration Underbelly is the epitome of bare power porn. The whole narrative is driven by power and the show makes no attempt to broaden its scope. It only comes up with more and more indulgent ways to have power shifts and killings depicted.

Moral event horizons

One of the first things to know about the leader in power porn is that he has to cross a moral event horizon or multiple moral event horizons to become play the leader role. If we take the brilliant example of Walt from the AMC show Breaking Bad we find this par excellence. Walter White is the meek, mild mannered chemistry teacher who also works part time at a carwash to makes ends meet. Then he discovers he has cancer and he doesn’t want to ask his former friends, who got rich with his ideas, for help. So he turns this time to producing methamphetamine to make ends meet. That might be one moral event horizon or it could be the first time that he blows up a car, or when he murders someone for the first time, when he does nothing as his partner’s girlfriend chokes on vomit, when he non-fatally poisons a kid for the first time or maybe when he has 9 prisoners executed in prison. Take your pick. Each action along the sliding scale of morality though moves him more and more into the powerful mob boss role.

The classic moral event horizon, of course, comes from the 1972 Godfather where Michael Corleone shoots Sollozzo and McCluskey. Before he shoots them his attempts to become involved in the family business are looked upon with derision. His brother, Sonny, suggests that he is a college boy or that he only wants to get involved because he is taking everything very personally. The way then that he shows he is a decisive leader is by using his brain. He argues the point that it is a good move and that it is good business and not just something personal. He suggests a way of spinning the shooting with newspaper people on the payroll and comes up with a plan.

In Battlestar Galactica they seem, again and again, to hilariously conflate sacrificing innocents or making the hard call with leadership. When Saul Tighe, the number two man, appears shaky and unsure of himself it is a decision to close off certain parts of the ship and condemn certain people to die that reinforces his leadership skills.

In the show Boss Mayor Tom Kane makes the point that spectators stand on the sidelines and refuse to get involved in moral issues. Bombing Nagasaki and Hiroshima is evidence of decisiveness and leadership.

In keeping with the idea that the actor who does morally bad things is the better leader the leader is also someone who is extremely good at manipulating others to do things. One example of this would be Tony Soprano, the New Jersey mob boss, of the HBO Organized crime drama the Sopranos. There is a scene in which he is talking about one of his captain’s decisions whether or not to have someone killed. While ostensibly presenting him with the decision he massively loads the situation by making Ralph feel guilty and by hinting at the the idea of what other people might think about the decision. In this way he is able to offload the guilt for the decision onto Ralph while getting the outcome that he desired.

There is another example of manipulation in Luther. He says that he cannot see his friend, the ‘malignant narcissist’, Alice while someone he put in the hospital could wake up from his coma. Luther clearly wants Alice to finish off this man because he is ‘under surveillance’.

The leadership role is confining

The leadership role as we see it in tv shows is a very confining position. If we look at Tony Soprano we can see this. On one occasion Tony Soprano is talking about his medical problems after waking from a coma after being shot by his uncle. His consigliere Silvio Dante understands that talking in such a candid way about his problems is not in keeping with the boss position. He tries to distract Tony and discourage him from continuing to talk about his problems. Tony is not allowed to be himself in the company of his colleagues.

When he meets his father’s mistress from the she turns out to be an exploitative let down of a person. In talking with his underlings/ friends later, however, he has to suggest that she is a great dame. When Tony goes on a trip to Italy he brings Paulie and Chrissie with him. They spend the trip with prostitutes or taking drugs meanwhile Tony hold himself back from having sex with the attractive Italian female mob boss because he knows it would bring down the price on stolen cars he is selling to her. He is not allowed to have a life on his own terms. He is not able to let his guard down or lose control.

Being the boss is an isolating decision. As can be seen this scene from this scene where Tony talks about how every decision ‘effects every facet of every other thing’ and how that is a maddening experience that one is ultimately alone with.

It can also be seen as confining in the HBO show Deadwood where leaders like Al Swearengen are trapped and unable to explain their real feelings to people. Al displaces his feelings and thoughts onto prostitutes whom he treats as objects. Alternatively he communicates his concerns to an Indian head. At the end of the Third Season when Al is contemplating the murder of one of the prostitutes as a body double for Trixie. His plan for murder is in order to prevent Deadwood from being destroyed by Hearst’s men. Nonetheless Al has to go through the ramifications of the murder with an inanimate Indian head and imagine the ‘cow eyes’ of the others as they wonder how he could do such a thing? This scene then would be an example of both the moral event horizon trope and the confining role of the leadership position trope.

Tying in with the idea of the leadership role being confined is the idea that the leader in sense uses other people as objects and instruments. They cannot be fully there with their associates because they are always thinking of how people can be useful to them.  Often in the Sopranos and Deadwood characters serve to handle displacement from the leaders. People are often beaten up by the leader when he needs to get rid of his pain or anger from some other source. Sometimes it seems that leaders fight their fights with other leaders entirely through other people. In the mob it seems to be some sort of rule, informal or otherwise, that you’re not really supposed to a kill a boss. It’s not paid too much attention but it is definitely the soldiers that killed more often than the mob bosses.

Other characters are seen, in power porn, as just dependents with no real importance of their own. They only have significance by proxy like in this scene from Boss involving Mayor Tom Kane and his advisor Kitty O’Neill. In this scene Tom Kane tells her that she is nothing and she is only shifting her deprency from one power figure to another.

The leader does not have to explain himself

The final trope then is that the leader can do whatever they want in the sense that they can be arbitrary and capricious and they don’t have to say that they are sorry or explain themselves to anybody. This is illustrated in the above scene from HBO show Boardwalk Empire where Gyp Rosetti ridiculously steals a historical hat from a museum and wears it on his head like a real historical leader.

The leader does not have to explain himself. This even goes down to the level of the orders and directions they give to others. In the Sopranos Tony does not needs to explicitly say kill the men you hired to kill Carmine but it’s still clear.

When Carmine tell Tony to kill Johnny Sack he doesn’t say it explicitly but again its crystal clear.

In the Television show The Wire  we see the same thing again Stringer Bell orders Bodie to kill Wallace but again he doesn’t say anything explicit about it. He just has to skirt around the topic and use some suggestion and Bodie knows exactly what he is supposed to do.

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