Why is TV obsessed with gratuitous violence against women?

Why is TV obsessed with gratuitous violence against women?

The Netflix golden era of 2020 saw us all indulge in quite a lot of TV, much of it escapist, some of it gritty and realistic. 

With little else to do, engaging and engrossing TV became a must. 

In 2020, The Fall appeared on Netflix. The Fall was actually a BBC drama that had been released seven years earlier. It follows the character of Paul Spector, who we quickly learn is a serial killer of women, and DSI Stella Gibson as they engage in a cat and mouse game in which she attempts to pin him down for the murders. 

We see much of the show from Spector’s perspective and so end up watching many scenes of brutal torture and murder. Spector’s murders are sexually motivated, and there is a distinctly sexual feel to the drama, especially with the presentation of Spector (played by Jamie Dornan) as a generally attractive and charming man. His teenage babysitter’s fascination with him adds to the sense that he is a man with irresistible sexual charisma in spite of and even because of his murderousness. 

The Fall has been criticised for sexualising violence against women. Writing after its initial release, Terence Blacker in the Independent commented that the world of The Fall was one in which:

the murder of women is a stylish business, as lovingly choreographed and as tastefully lit as any love scene. Abuse is presented, without any crudely explicit detail, as an intense sexual experience, at the excitingly taboo end of things.

And indeed, it is hard not to feel that The Fall is trying to present itself as a form of ‘torture porn’. Along with shows like Westworld, The Handmaid’s Tale and Game of Thrones, The Fall offers detailed portrayals of aggression and violence against women that often have an underlying sexual motivation. We are engrossed in these dramas – they often have compelling storylines, leading actors and huge levels of suspense. But we have to accept that there is something questionable about the way they present violence against women – the way they depict it for so long and in such detail. 

Why is TV fascinated by men’s violence against women – and why do we get sucked into it?

televised violence against women makes them the possessions and playthings of men
Once again, this type of violence is the ultimate objectification of women

Televised violence is usually extremely graphic and tends to portray women as unwitting and passive victims in the face of unstoppable male violence.

The violence in TV dramas is rarely presented as a systemic thing (unless you consider The Handmaid’s Tale) and mostly revolves around individuals who perpetrate heinous crimes and other individuals who try to stop them.

Consider a film like Taken, in which Liam Neeson plays a father attempting to single-handedly rescue his daughter, Kim, who has been kidnapped by a trafficking ring. His daughter (and her also kidnapped friend) are presented as wholly passive (they appear to be drugged at many points) and there are sickening touches to the film, including the fact that Kim is said to be ‘more valuable’ to traffickers because she is a virgin. 

There is definitely something pseudo-pornographic about this film, and the fact that we are continually reminded that these girls have been kidnapped for the purpose of sex trafficking to millionaires definitely seems like an attempt to glamourise their plight. 

When we see Liam Neeson as the rescuer and protector of his daughter, and the kidnappers as the potential ‘defilers’ of his daughter, it’s undeniable that Kim has become a conduit through which various different men attempt to assert their power and control. In short, she has very much been objectified.

The passivity of women in violent TV is ever-concerning. When women have all manner of things done to them and show very little agency, the portrayal aligns with deep-seated attitudes towards women which paint them as objects. These attitudes are something we are struggling to shake off, even if we know they’re not right. 

TV violence against women convinces us that violence only lies in extreme acts
We can turn extreme violence into a benchmark against which we minimise other gender imbalances

When we watch fictionalised instances of severe violence against women, we are partly relieved because the extreme nature of them seems so far removed from reality that we can reassure ourselves that nothing quite so bad happens in real life.

While serial killings and brutal murders of women do happen in real life, they are not quite as common as the everyday instances of harassment and violence that women face. 

But because we watch such extreme depictions, we can start to use that as a benchmark by which we assess other instances of violence against women as ‘minor’ or not so pressing. We convince ourselves that violence mainly exists in extreme forms, and anything else does not need our attention. 

But it is those seemingly small aggressions, those instances which come and go with no permanent physical scars, which build up and make this world a very difficult place to be a women. We should not forget that – and nor should we let TV (or make TV) that encourages us to look only for the extreme.

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