Laurie Penny: Films like The Killer Inside Me are part of a weary language of blithe, murderous complicity

There is nothing edgy or iconoclastic about violence against women.

Casey Affleck

Popular culture fosters the delusion that violence against women is edgy art rather than daily reality. This week, as the bodies of murder victims in Bradford and Brighton are picked over by the courts, cinemas, magazines and catwalks are teeming with glossy images of the rape, battery and dismemberment of pretty young ladies who appear artfully complicit in their abuse.

Michael Winterbottom's new two-hour murder-porn epic, The Killer Inside Me, hits cinemas next week, and advance reviews have already carried gushing descriptions of its graphic denoument, in which Casey Affleck's sheriff Lou Ford (pictured above) beats his lover to death with his bare fists, whispering how sorry he is over the sound of crunching facial bones. How terribly edgy.

Apologists for this type of thoughtless sexualised violence have described The Killer Inside Me as iconoclastic and challenging.

The photographer Tyler Shields responded with similar righteous indignation to criticisms of his latest series of stills, which feature a bestockinged Lindsay Lohan covered in blood and flashing bedroom eyes at the muzzle of a gun. Shields and Lohan defended the shots as art, but they look suspiciously like bland, mass-market, coffee-table misogyny of the type you can buy at Urban Outfitters for a fiver.

Art can shock in all sorts of valuable ways, sometimes by reflecting real life and sometimes by conjuring uncomfortable fantasy. But art that tries to get a reaction by dressing everyday misogynist brutality in a lacy thong and sexy lighting has lost its utility as social commentary.

The whole discourse is a lazy fallback, a stand-in for authentic subversion when creatives can't be bothered to do anything new.

After even the screechy million-dollar engineered catfight America's Next Top Model has featured a high-profile fashion shoot of young girls posing as murder victims, representations of violence against women can no longer be considered iconoclastic. They are consummately mainstream.

The relentlessness of these images normalises sexual violence, fashioning kinky little set pieces out of the abuse of women on an industrial scale.

Also in cinemas this week is Robert Cavanah's Pimp, a juddering fairground ride of beatings and buggery whose sharp-suited, snarling hero deals out disciplinary rapes and executions with a flick of a prop-box cane. The protagonist is played without a shred of irony by Danny Dyer, in whose name a column appeared in last month's Zoo blithely advising a reader to cut his ex-girlfriend's face "so no one will want her".

Meanwhile, yesterday's Telegraph carried the following headlines: "Woman and son murdered in Derbyshire village"; "Remains of second prostitute found"; "Spanish imam's 'prostitute jihad' ". The paper couldn't even find space to mention the ongoing trial of the man accused of killing Andrea Waddell, who was found strangled and burned in her Brighton flat last year.

"Seeing these stories listed together is so upsetting -- especially as in two cases they didn't refer to the victims as women or as human beings," said Laurie Olivia of the London Feminist Network. "Sometimes I wonder how we will ever get on top of this. I can't believe people say there is no need for feminism and that we have equality."

The press has taken pains to describe Waddell, Susan Armitage and other recent victims of sexual violence as "prostitutes", implying that the fact these women sold sex legitimises or explains the attacks. This is a profoundly internalised prejudice.

Jessica Alba, who plays a murdered sex worker in The Killer Inside Me, told the Sunday Times that she felt her character "had a death wish, because she was always egging [the killer] on or provoking him". The message is clear: women secretly want to be brutalised in naughty lingerie, especially if they are involved in the sex trade.

There is nothing edgy or iconoclastic about violence against women: it is a daily feature of the lives of ordinary people, including those who do not happen to be models or film stars.

Films like The Killer Inside Me are part of a weary language of blithe, murderous complicity that is deeply encoded in the overculture. That language is not edgy. It's not exciting. It's poor taste, pure and simple.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.