Friday, May 3, 2013

Women in Danger

Malmo - "Non-Violence"
Photo credit: cybermagik
A college friend/radical feminist activist shared this great video of Siskel & Ebert discussing the disturbing trend of horror films that put women in danger, and aligned the viewer with the killers. Do go watch them when you have half an hour--they are very much worth the time. As much as Gene & Roger disagreed about specific films over the years, they agreed on what was behind this trend. 

They said it was clearly a response to the women's movement (aka feminism) and the message was for women to get back into their old places. They called it the "women's movement," a term that seems quaint because they were in 1980. Nineteen fucking eighty. 

Have things improved? Of course not. The teenage girl getting killed in a slasher flick because she has the nerve to go out alone, have sex or otherwise act like an autonomous human being is such an ingrained movie trope that it's unthinkable to imagine film critics addressing it so directly. At least one the films that Siskel & Ebert specifically called out has been remade (the "The call is coming from inside the house" one).

I recently got an e-mail about a petition requesting that networks add a sexual violence trigger warning before shows to help survivors of rape avoid watching something that could give them a flashback. I decided not to bother signing that particular petition because it's so futile. There's just too much rape and murder on TV these days that you're really safer not watching. Especially if you can't fast forward through commercials because the promos for upcoming shows will get you.

Don't believe me? Read this excellent analysis of rape and murder on current scripted dramas. The vast majority of shows include either rape or murder in their plot. The murder rate on TV is way higher than it is in real life.

(This increased sense of danger isn't helping anyone. Especially not Trayvon Martin, just to name one.)

On several occasions, HA and I have been trying to decide what to watch and when I request something relaxing, he suggests the latest episode of Elementary. Which is relaxing except for the part where someone dies almost every week.

Why do we never think of the victims in these shows? Years ago, I turned off an episode of Law & Order SVU and never watched the show again. I have a pretty high tolerance for violence--what kid raised on Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck getting Elmer Fudd to shoot them in head doesn't? But this was just too fucked up. The bad guys (which in a shocking twist may have included a woman-gasp) broke into a party of friends, forced them to have sex with each other at gunpoint in different combinations, then shot them all. The episode opened with a couple arriving late to the party and finding all the bodies. Once the Medical Examiner (or whoever) explained what had happened to the detectives, I was done.

Maybe it was because they used friends of the victims as our entry into the story, but it was impossible for me to put aside the torture and humiliation these (admittedly fictional) had undergone. You're at a party with all your couple friends and then someone forces your friend's husband to rape you. Then forces two of the (hetero) guys to have sex. And so on. And then they kill you anyway when the only reason you didn't rush them and make them shoot you in the first place was because you all thought you had a chance of coming out alive.

And now I'm supposed to forget about that and follow the good detectives as they catch the baddies, with the distinct possibilities that there will be more victims along the way. On a show that is supposed to be entertainment?

Jesus fucking Christ on a cracker. I am so over this shit. And that was something like ten years ago. 

Experts are even advising fiction writers that putting your main character's life in danger isn't a good way to raise the stakes of your story because we're exposed to so much fictional death these days that we don't care.

Let's brainstorm some plots that we'd like to see that don't involve a body count. I'll start.

  • How about a nice theft? Heirloom jewelry, priceless works of art, that sort of thing.
  • How about addiction recovery? Redemption, risk of failure, lots of dramatic potential.
  • Maybe something with corporate intrigue? Without CEOs offing each other.
OK, your turn.


  1. Hi Jen --

    Thanks for this. I've been thinking about this in my own writing for quite some time and really like the way you describe the trend and your reactions, as a viewer and as a writer.

    To my mind, there are a couple of possible writerly reactions, but they are seen as either "middlebrow" (from the perspective of people who see the violence in The Sopranos or The Wire as high art) or as less commercial (from the perspective of people who see the violence in action shows as the only that "sells" -- to men and boys, of course -- in large enough numbers to justify studio involvement. Or perhaps both.

    I'm not sure I can flesh out quick descriptions of the options I see in a way that will make sense in a blog comment, but I'd love to talk about it more sometime.

    1. The Vulture article pointed out that a lot of the quality stuff involved rape or murder, but I don't think that's because the violence is considered necessary for quality. It's more a problem of the best writers working on violent shows. For some reason. Even Nashville had a murder on it.

      Then you have a show like The Middleman, which was on ABC Family, so there were no rapes and the only murders were of the comic-book villain trying to take over the world type. That show was brilliant. But did it get good enough ratings to get a second season? No. Probably because no one expects anything good on ABC Family.

      And yeah, writing almost exclusively to adolescent boys isn't good for anyone.

    2. It's an interesting hypothetical -- would The Sopranos or The Wire or Breaking Bad be considered "serious" drama (by the guys who tend to define these things) without the violence. What are the exceptions on TV in this era -- Mad Men? West Wing? (if that's still this era).

  2. Amen!!! Life in the newspapers is bad enough. Teens are thinking this is reality and aren't sure life is worth the struggle. Murder is more rampant in these shows than in reality.

  3. Worst woman hating movie ever: Fatal Attraction. Even as a teenager I was shocked at the whole madonna/whore, crazy, desperate career woman/perfect wife/poor victim husband bullshit.

    I am continually thirsty for shows and movies with strong female characters. I'm currently really into the British drama Scott & Bailey--though they are detectives and there is implied violence.

    Thanks for this thought provoking post.


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