Elizabeth-Anne Wheal: Women in Jeopardy

11 January 2017 Elizabeth-Anne

Season 3 of BBC 2’s controversial drama The Fall may have concluded last October, but the debate it has catalysed among programme makers, reviewers and audiences shows no sign of abating. Elizabeth-Anne Wheal offers a crimewriter’s perspective on sexual violence on our screens.

What do you think? Join the conversation in the comments below.

I’ve been writing television crime drama for more than 25 years, and for a lot of that time I’ve been immersed in murder stories, researching and imagining the kinds of human motives – fear, greed, envy, revenge, ignorance, hatred, exclusion – that fuel our transgressions of society’s most strictly held norms. I’ve mostly avoided telling stories about sexual violence and its victims over my career, however, because I’ve always been more interested in writing about empowered women characters. But as I sat down to write this article, it occurred to me that as a consumer of fiction, whether in print or on screen, the trope of vulnerable women in physical and sexual jeopardy is everywhere – seamed through fiction, like titillating mood music.

If I survey the content of my own reading and viewing life, the results are alarming. The historical fiction I devoured as a young child was littered with distressed and dishonoured damsels. Victorian novels introduced me to institutional as well as domestic abuse of women of every age and type. Bond girls rarely avoided injury or abuse at the hands of 007’s dastardly adversaries. War dramas were littered with scenes of women being sexually assaulted, mostly in background bit-parts to the main action; and in the westerns, whether on TV or the big screen, the heroes were the ones who even noticed the screams of an out-of-shot squaw being gang-raped somewhere in the back of the bad guys’ canyon encampment.

Books have been written on why this is so, but the obvious reason is that, in the real world, sexual violence towards men, women and children has been epidemic in almost all cultures across most of recorded time. During my lifetime, public and private attitudes towards women have transformed, at least in the first world. Audience appetite for sexual violence on screen, however (and this includes men and women), appears to be undiminished. So is it any longer acceptable to use extreme sexual violence against women as television entertainment?

That’s the question being asked of the makers of The Fall by its critics, many of whom indict all UK television commissioners for saturating our popular drama plot lines with sexual violence and rape stories (try googling rape + Downton Abbey, Happy Valley, Shetland and Poldark, as well as Game of Thrones, The Bridge or The Fall). The Fall’s writer and director, Alan Cubitt, has had to defend himself against stronger charges – that the work is pornographic and misogynistic – although he (and many of the show’s fans) argue the contrary: that the series takes an unequivocally feminist stance and maintains a ‘discourse on patriarchy and male sexual violence’.

For me, it’s not what stories we tell, but how. Cubitt’s tale was well filmed, scripted and acted. It was original and hugely suspenseful, and I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt here – but I can’t. The writer’s extreme fascination with his killer is fatal to his intentions. In trying to get intimate with Paul Spector, his sadistic psychopath, Cubitt essentially hands him control of the camera, and of the narrative itself. In my view, this reduces all the female characters, from boss cop Gillian Anderson on down, to objects, naked targets. As you watch them moving around their stories, you’re barely seeing or hearing them as people, because you’re looking at them through the lens of Spector’s bloody project. And he is a predator: what he’s watching is prey, or obstacles to getting at it.

The majority of stories I’ve written aired post-watershed, but my first regular commissions were for The Bill, whose stock-in-trade back then was what the executive producer (nickname the Admiral) called ‘small change stories’ – that is, no murder, kidnap or conspiracy and very little serious violence. And there was one further exception: although the Admiral was happy to deal with mental ill health, he really didn’t like the seriously, criminally insane. The Admiral reasoned that the mind of such a character was a locked cell housing an incomprehensible narrative – hence there could be no grey areas or complex textures to the crime, no room for writers or audiences to weigh issues, or relate to the characters in the piece, whether victim or perpetrator. And I got his point. In the case of Paul Spector, it’s not only that we cannot empathise with someone who likes to spend hours strangling women slowly. It’s that Spector’s motives are buried in a terrifying and finally unreachable psychopathology. As a result, his victims also become unreadable – powerless, objectified, mute vessels for his abuse.

I’m not saying here that we should never tell stories about criminal psychopaths or rapists, or that we should censor sexual violence from our screens. That way real darkness lies. But in choosing to use this stuff as a subject for drama there are questions that programme makers must ask themselves: is the depiction of sexual violence fully justified by its dramatic context? Should there be limits on how explicit or sustained it can be? What are the impacts of watching sexual violence on audiences? Are we genuinely entertaining with these stories, or exploiting?

I may not agree with Cubitt’s interpretation of the message of The Fall, but I don’t doubt his integrity or intent. The problem is, I think, bigger than the writer. Sexual violence sells. And like some murderers, commissioners are driven by a ruthless requirement for revenue. More specifically, they need ratings success, which means attracting bums onto seats and keeping them there for at least two minutes or risk losing them to increasingly multifarious competitors. This isn’t new. Way back in the 90s, executive producers started responding to ratings pressure with ‘firework drama’ – setting off a bomb (literally or metaphorically) right at the front of the episode. It’s arguable therefore, that the appetite that’s really being fed by sexual violence on TV is the commissioners’ insatiable hunger for ratings dominance and export sales. But so far in this debate, the commissioners aren’t talking much. I challenge them to change that – and soon.

First published in The Author – December 2016

Comments

HB 31/01/2017 13:41:57
" Episode 4 of the first series of Taboo features an attempted rape and a conjugal rape all in the space of about 5 minutes.

Is this necessary? It's a programme created, written and directed exclusively by men, but as a female viewer, seeing two females subjected to that in such a short space of time made me feel *really* uncomfortable.

If it's a crime drama like, say, the first series of The Killing, where a female is raped and murdered, and then the programme follows the attempts of determined detectives (one of them a woman) to bring the perpetrator to justice, I can deal with the discomfort of the initial crime. There's something important psychologically about that incessant threat that women live with day in, day out, being resolved and dealt with. We can't hide from it, it's a reality, and that's why crime fiction and crime drama is important, and why so many women read it and write it. It helps us deal with the fear we live with all the time, and that must be one of the reasons that stories are important. (That said, lingering descriptions of sexual offences are probably not helpful, and might be prurient.)

But when you get violence against women in a programme which is essentially a sausage-feast, then I object. It just seems a bit too easy and dare I say it lazy to go "we need to put this female character in jeopardy, let's rape her." Aren't there other ways? The same objections have been made to Game of Thrones as well."
Polly White 26/01/2017 16:28:28
" My New Adult ebook is out in the US soon with another young woman in jeopardy. However, from the recent reports of grooming and trafficking in the UK, the portrail of vulnerable young people for exploitation by gangs is accurate. I too wrote to raise awareness to society of the perpetrators of such current crime and am hopeful that lifting the lid will interupt these predatorial activities.
For further details please do reply. I'd love to attract the attention of a screenwriter to collaborate over the finer details of my manuscript with."
PJ 21/01/2017 06:52:59
" The reason women are usually shown in peril is our INNATE instinct to protect women who may be pregnant with our tribe's next child - this is really basic and biological, not social. Think maidens in peril from dragons in folklore or on train tracks in early silent films. It's a silly ambition to want to change this and also impossible.

To put a man in jeopardy simply does not have the same power, no matter how the pc brigade (and Radio Times is basically a propaganda sheet now on this and other issues) campaign.

In fact, men - especially young men - are way more likely to be victims of violence than any other group (and 46% of domestic violence is against men; and most children/babies who are killed are killed by women) but we don't see that in the media or TV drama where men are either monster perpetrators or buffoons (men are ALWAYS portrayed as idiots in adverts in a way that women would NEVER be portrayed!). Women are usually the poor victims of these evil men. So not like real life according to the statistics and evidence actually.

The police well know that if a man is murdered it is extremely had to get any media interested for publicity purposes; make that uninteresting man a pretty young woman and it makes the front pages. Unfair? Of course, and no doubt many murderers of men have gone unpunished because crimes have not been solved. Publicity is needed in the first 24-48 hours really yet if a murder of a male is on page 17 in a small paragraph, it's unlikely to get people phoning the police.

But changing human instinct is not really possible as it is innate, not social. I know certain people will disagree and argue it's all social, but I absolutely disagree.

Btw I rarely watch UK TV drama any more because I think it is tiresome, unoriginal, diversity-fixated (rather than obsessed with quality), and, frankly, slow and boring (whether police dramas on BBC2 or costume dramas for export or what I call 'easy meat' dramas written solely to hook the older female audience - like 'fat friends' and all the rest of those sorts of series.

I make an exception with the brilliant Peaky Blinders and Taboo, and of course excellent US dramas. But these days, I mostly watch BBC4 foreign dramas or DVDs of TV dramas from the past."
Kathryn White 20/01/2017 18:33:58
" There has been a complete turnaround in the profiling of women on screen and in daily life. There was hope for advancement, coming out of the 50s and 60s when young girls were encouraged to think, to become engineers, playing with Meccano and Lego, bike riding, skating, adventuring. Both sexes wore primary colours and engaged in some events where they were active, not passive. It was a time when women were able to take control of their bodies and ultimately their lives and careers. Since that time, the market has insidiously flooded with toys to masculate boys and feminise girls, from pink dolls, princess dresses and boxed kitchen sets portraying girls happy in front of the cooker, to guns and weapons and combat gear with boys actively prowling for victims. This unhealthy attitude to the new generations coming through has to be pushed back, resisted, not only for the sake of young women in society, but to emancipate our young men too. Media and T.V. is the final stage of that control. Writing programme content that addresses issues of rape, neglect and domestic abuse is a positive and helps society face these issues, but it has to be done in a responsible and healthy way. Writers need to write dramatic content that depicts women as human beings. The desire to deconstruct women, piece by peice and present them as parts, objects, is abhorrent and senseless. Ratings may fall in the interim, but once the audience is used to seeing women's perspectives, strengths and passions too, there will be a readjustment and rebalance and a happier society."
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