Wayne: An Exploration of Justice Porn
By Caleb McGee Husmann
“I know it when I see it.” When tasked with providing a definition for pornography during the Jacobellis v. Ohio case, this is what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart came up with. Some applauded him for being frank and realistic, others chastised him for being arbitrary and cavalier. Either way his words have lived on. Indeed, they are his enduring legacy. Potter himself acknowledged as much before he passed away in 1981, “…that’s going to be on my tombstone,” he said, with a hint of regret and less than a hint of hyperbole.
Regardless of how one feels about Potter’s phrase, there can be no doubt that it addresses a legitimate problem. Namely: How do we define “porn?” This question was important in 1964 when Potter first wrote those words, but it is even more important in 2021. Back in the 60’s pornography was confined to seedy movie theaters and plastic wrapped magazines, now it’s everywhere. That’s not an exaggeration. The most popular pornography website gets more hits than Twitter, Wikipedia, or Instagram. Indeed, porn’s role in our contemporary zeitgeist is so fundamental that its function in our lexicon has expanded.
The word “porn” has been liberated. It is no longer exclusively tethered to sexual material. We now have closet porn, baking porn, organization porn, real estate porn, and myriad other types of porn that have nothing to do with sex. The contemporary world is a veritable cornucopia of porn! Yet, despite this fact, most of us have only an instinctual and tenuous grasp of what the word means. Thankfully, on this matter scholars C. Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams have an answer: “…a representation is used as generic porn when it is engaged with for the sake of a gratifying reaction, freed from the usual costs and consequences of engaging with the represented content” (2020, p.148). In other words, porn is anything that allows you to get off without having to pay the price. Bookcase porn allows you to salivate over the ingeniously designed shelves brimming with leatherbound volumes without having to worry about dusting them or having your kid pull the lot of it down on her tiny not-fully-developed head. Similarly, pressure washing porn allows you to experience the satisfaction of blasting away dirt and grime without having to don ugly protective eyewear and walk around in soggy sneakers.
Understanding the contemporary usage of porn in light of the last two examples one could easily conclude that such porn is innocuous, a quirky and fun neologism. This, however, is not necessarily the case. Take for example, moral outrage porn, the focus of Nguyen and Williams’s work. As these authors adroitly argue, moral outrage porn is different from bookshelf porn and pressure washing porn and the like because it is non-mechanistic, which is to say “it is an essentially cognitive form of porn. One must engage in a belief, or a belief-like state—a state of judging something to be morally bad, or something very much like this—in order to acquire the desired gratification” (2020, p. 149). This is a key distinction from mechanistic forms of porn because it “invites its users to seek simplified moral representations of the world, and to simplify their own moral beliefs in order to maximize the gratifications of outrage” (Nguyen & Williams, 2020, p. 149). In short, you don’t have to take an ethical stance in order to enjoy bookshelf porn, but you do in order to enjoy moral outrage porn. As a result, the former is largely harmless while the latter is harmful.
In addition to moral outrage porn, another cognitive form of porn that has found purchase both online and within the entertainment industry is justice porn. As its name suggests, justice porn is all about seeing retributive justice happen right in front of your eyes, it’s about watching someone do something bad and then watching that same person promptly get their comeuppance. A doorbell video camera captures footage of a porch pirate getting a stink bomb in the face; an abusive man gets put in a full-nelson by a good-Samaritan who happened upon the scene and happens to be an MMA fighter; a gun-toting robber gets skillfully disarmed by what appeared to be a helpless clerk; each of these is an example of justice porn in all its viral glory. Justice porn is a tale of just deserts abridged and fast forwarded, it’s the Count of Monte Cristo removed of complexity and condensed into a TikTok video. It’s overly simplified, it’s morally problematic, and it’s immensely entertaining.
While such justice porn has existed for quite some time, it has undoubtedly proliferated over the last few years. As such, one is hardly surprised when one turns on the first episode of Amazon’s new television show Wayne and find a half an hour of justice porn on repeat. One is, however, surprised when that same show gradually evolves into an inquisition of justice porn, an intensive and massively engaging investigation and exploration of the phenomenon that exposes its flaws while also acknowledging its key insight.
Perhaps the most brilliant part of Wayne’s critique of justice porn is that it doesn’t start off as a critique. Instead, it starts off as an embrace. In episode one the titular character Wayne spends the bulk of the time dishing out brutal renegade-style retributive justice to a parade of one-dimensional bad guys. He breaks the window of a cheater, takes out multiple school bullies with a trumpet, burns down a slumlord’s property, and bites the nose off an abusive father. His acts are violent and swift and above all satisfying—satisfying for Wayne, yes, but most of all for the viewer. Wayne does what many, perhaps most, people would like to do: he makes bad guys pay. There is no discussion, no appeasement, no effort at rehabilitation, there is only Wayne, an awkward, tough teenager dispensing the appropriate punishment with his own two hands. It’s uncomplicated, unapologetic, and unarguably enthralling. It is justice porn at its porniest, and, high on the gratification that it provides, the viewer can’t help watching more.
And that’s when the show really starts to work its magic.
Having hooked viewers with justice porn, Wayne gradually proceeds to expose that very same phenomenon for what it is. It takes the one-dimensional characters, the dualistic plot, the unapologetic retribution, and blows it all up. Both the good guys and the bad guys are developed into complex, flawed, and touchingly human characters. Sure, there are still heroes and villains, but they are qualified heroes and villains. The good guys aren’t invincible and unwavering, they’re vulnerable and make mistakes. The bad guys aren’t twirling their mustaches, they’re working through personal losses, seeking their parents’ approval, and trying to overcome their own shortcomings. Similarly, the larger narrative evolves from a Manichean tale of good versus evil into a muddy story populated by characters and subplots that don’t fit neatly into either camp. Do we want Wayne to get caught by Sergeant Geller and Officer Ganetti? Or maybe Principal Clay and Orlando? Or neither? Or both? What about Del? Should she give up on her family? Or on Wayne? Or on all of them? And what about Wayne’s mom? Is she a bad person or merely a weak person? Either way is she beyond forgiveness? And Wayne, what about him and his code? Is he a lost cause unfit for real human relationships? Or perhaps for civilization altogether? The answers to all of these questions are unclear, and, as the viewer begins to appreciate and engage with these complexities, so too does Wayne. Problems that he would have fixed with a hammer and a fist in episode one are now solved in a variety of ways, sometimes with ridiculous dancing, sometimes with a heart-to-heart conversation over cookies, and sometimes still with a hammer and a fist. Wayne is exploring the possibility of a greyer world, and in the process he is finding out that some of the people he would have written off as bad are actually okay. Thus, with each successive episode the viewer is growing, Wayne is growing, and the amount of no-holds-bar retributive justice is declining.
Nguyen and Williams state that, “We engage with morally outraging fiction as non-porn when we are appropriately entangled with its moral content—when we ask ourselves if its moral vision is true, and, if it is, try to integrate that vision into our belief system. [Whereas] We engage with morally outraging fiction as porn when we take gratification from our reaction of moral outrage, while avoiding the further entanglements of applying and integrating our larger epistemic and moral beliefs with an eye toward the truth” (2020, p. 163).
Applying this logic to Wayne, one realizes that the show succeeds in getting the viewer to do the former by first encouraging them to do the latter. That is to say, Wayne gives us cognitive porn in episode one so that by episode eight it can liberate us from cognitive porn. It’s an ingenious and elegant way to expose the shortcomings of such porn, and if the show were to stop there it would be enough to consider it a triumph. But it doesn’t. Instead it does something interesting, unexpected, and challenging: It returns to the ferocious and bloody brand of retributive justice that it had been gradually moving away from throughout the series.
But of course this time around the violence is different. It’s different because this time the narrative is muddy, the consequences are evident, the characters are multifaceted, and the complexity is understood. This time the harsh retributive justice isn’t porn because this time viewers can’t avoid the intricacies. They see the grey, the repercussions, the impact on their view of morality. Indeed, they can’t help from seeing these things because the show has dispensed the curative to justice porn so effectively.
And yet despite this fact, the audience, now more than ever, wants Wayne and the other good guys to beat the bejeezus out of the bad guys. It doesn’t matter that they’re no longer cartoons, indeed, it’s even more appealing because they’re not, and this realization leaves the audience in an interesting place. The savage vigilante-style retributive justice that they thought synonymous with justice porn is suddenly decoupled from justice porn, and, as a consequence of this decoupling, a new realization has struck: Justice porn is bad but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the style of retributive justice that serves as its hallmark is also bad. In fact, it might be good. It is certainly the outcome one is hoping for at the end of Wayne. More than that, it is the outcome that seems most just, the one that fulfills Nguyen and Williams’s requirements of having a “moral vision that is true” and that we want to “try and integrate into our belief system.”
Thus, by the end of season one, Wayne has laid bare the shortcomings of justice porn but it has also made a case for the unsparing and expeditious brand of justice that serves as the genre’s distinctive feature. It has suggested that Wayne’s seemingly savage reprisals are not anathema to a civilized world, but instead might be a necessary component of one. It has stated that although life is always grey, sometimes justice is black and white.
Caleb McGee Husmann is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at William Peace University in Raleigh, North Carolina. In addition to his academic work, he has written two novels under the pen name C. McGee.
Nguyen, C. Thi & Williams, Bekka (2020). Moral Outrage Porn. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy 18 (2).