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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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain