Dramas like “Ripper Street” like nothing more than to tie women down. Photo: BBC
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Enough is enough: from TV’s “crime porn” to endemic violence, the assault on women has to stop

Violent images of women onscreen fuel violence against women in society. Actress Doon Mackichan explains why she now has a zero-tolerance policy on taking part in any storylines that use violence against women as entertainment.

I wondered about starting this off with me entering with a face covered in made-up bruises. I wondered what your reaction might be. Would this be a more entertaining way of opening my talk. Would it grab your attention right from the beginning? Would you be intrigued? Or repulsed? Or would you be indifferent?

Amnesty International has described violence against women as “the greatest human rights scandal of our time”. I would like to look particularly at mainstream TV and film as guilty of feeding a culture that sees this violence as “entertainment”.

Kat Banyard in her inspirational book The Equality Illusion says:

Violence against women is a phenomenon that knows no boundaries: race, wealth, culture, nationality – it cuts across them all. And it comes in many forms, domestic violence and rape being the most prevalent. One in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused at some point in her life.”

Rape is a human rights violation and has been defined as a form of TORTURE by international criminal courts. I would argue that TV and film are exacerbating this issue with increasingly hardcore elements. Once seen, you can’t unsee it, and like abuse, it’s insidious, attacking women’s confidence and self-esteem.

Rashida Manjoo, a UN special rapporteur, wrote a 4,000 word diagnosis of gender inequality in Britain, looked among other things, at sexual violence in the media. She says: “Have I seen this level of culture in other countries? It certainly hasn’t been so ‘in your face’. I am sure it exists in other countries but it wasn’t so much and so pervasive.”

Perhaps she saw a large billboard on her way to work saying “PUSSY: The drink is pure, it's your mind that has a problem”. Maybe in the newsagents she was greeted by the image of a woman bending over in a thong next to the Financial Times, or, one shelf up, a porn magazine entitled “BARELY LEGAL” with what looks to be a 14-year-old girl on the front cover. Perhaps she was listening to the radio and heard Rihanna singing “I like it when it hurts” or “Blurred Lines” (“you know you want it”), or perhaps she had a peek at some TV drama and watched a girl being tortured and raped while Gillian Anderson has sex with her “boyfriend” and the two scenes intercut – edgy?! Challenging?! You bet!

It’s just the daily assault of sexism that leaves me, for one, profoundly disturbed. The so-called trickle-down effect of porn into our culture is now nothing less than a tsunami and I would argue that we’re in a state of emergency, or a human rights scandal as Amnesty International says – and boundaries of acceptability no longer exist. 

At 21, my wake-up to feminism was sudden and powerful. I attended Manchester University to read drama and it was a hot bed of feminist activity. Women were angry, and not afraid to show it. There was less blogging and more marching – Reclaim the Night marches, picketing the Dave Alton abortion bill, women chaining themselves to newsagents to protest against porn on display ( which I would urge anyone to carry on doing, though perhaps without handcuffs). Sstickers on posters were commonplace, saying things like “This advert degrades women”. Graffiti regularly adorned large sexist billboard adverts. I was part of a group called “WOMEN AGAINST VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN” which successfully campaigned to have large billboard adverts on London Transport removed if they were seen as provocative or sexist to curb sexual assault on vulnerable women just trying to get home at night. This regulation no longer exists! The number of sexual assaults on London Underground and Overground rose to the highest level in 5 years in 2013. 15 per cent of women have experienced attacks or “unwarranted sexual behavior” on trains but 90 per cent are NOT reported!

We regularly wrote to the Advertising Standards Authority about advertising on billboards we felt to be degrading to women. We were a group of post-punk-women who may have been scantily clad but liberated and angry. I left university (with my family nickname of Milly Tant) and performed stand-up comedy focusing on gender issues and misogynistic rappers. This was the Eighties.

My first TV job asked me shave my legs and I refused. The cameras all zoomed in on my leg hairs and the 40-strong male crew treated me to a rendition of “Gillette, the best a man can get”. I unfortunately bumped into Jim Davidson in the corridor and he shouted “Not only has she got hairy legs, she’s wearing men’s shoes!” as he pointed at my Doc Martens.

My drama career seemed to peter out when I refused to be naked or show breasts when I didn’t think the show needed it. I was often made to feel like a prude.

I have been told by make-up artists about excellent plastic surgeons suitable for “refreshing” my face. Violence against women is also the knife and the needle. And by the way, I’m 51. And proud of it. Most actresses I know are will take 10 years off their ages, for fear it will stop them working. But I digress.

Natasha Walter has said: “Why is it that our entertainment seems to rely so much on the fascinated depiction of women’s scarred and bruised bodies?” Mainstream TV drama centres on plots involving female bodies in varying degrees of manipulation, often like meat on a slab. It then proceeds to reveal how it happened in gruesome, titillating detail. Whether the woman gets retribution is not the argument – it is the main part, often, of the stories that focus on a woman’s torture, pain, fear and suffering and I am SICK, SICK SICK to the death of it. Sick at heart. Like watching a tragedy played and replayed and replayed on primetime TV. Michael Winterbottom, director of a film called The Killer Inside Me, replied to critics that “It’s moral to make it unwatchable”. Well, one man’s morality is another man’s WANK.

Freeze-frame? You betcha! It’s a violation of women’s rights, NOT ART. His film pushed the assertion that women love violent men, so men felt powerful after them and more often than not, the women felt deflated, depressed and disempowered. More and more in these stories women are victims not heroes. Natasha Walter again: “Although noir films of the past had any number of murdered women in them, the ones we remember, those women had character, intelligence and dreams of their own before their life was snuffed out. Pretty underwear and bruised flesh has taken its place.” On TV what I call “crime porn” dominates our screens. Luther, Mayday, Ripper Street, The Fall, Silent Witness. . .

I profoundly regret my involvement in an ITV drama starring Robson Green called Wire in the Blood. Myself and the late Lou Gish were lesbian lovers and constantly needled – although I had been very clear about nudity ie; no breasts, bums etc – to go further by the director, often in front of the crew. I was certainly made to feel like a killjoy when I didn’t “drop the towel” in the sauna at the end of shot, or “brush her breast” with my hand. Far worse was the time Lou, who in the story was brutally murdered (of course), was sitting in make-up with only a towel around her waist as they applied cuts, bruises and blood all over her. I remember her feeling terrible – me holding her hand, and both of us shedding a tear. I wish I had never been a part of it. I never want to see another mutilated female corpse arranged in a titillating mess of limbs and underwear in my entire life. I have kept away from crime porn when asked to audition or be a part of these shows ever since. Recently, I was sent a request to be part a new police show: empowering, strong female Detective Inspector, a great cast, improvised – a total reworking of the old form. When I asked if any story lines involved violence against women, four out of the six episodes did. In these dramas women were objectified objects, inanimate pieces of flesh to be abused, raped, and killed. Just as sexual harassment can have a severe impact on women’s mental health – depression, post-traumatic stress disorder – I would argue that watching these stories causes the same feelings. Violent images persuade, and lead to anxiety and disempowerment.

Kat Banyard says: “There is little discussion about the aspects of our culture that encourage so many men to rape women.” Gird your loins for the statistics now. . .

Around 90,000 women are raped each year in the UK alone. That’s nearly 2,000 per week!! The rate of conviction is only 7 per cent. Two-thirds of rape allegations drop out during police investigations. Greater importance is given to motor vehicle crimes than is given to the victims of sexual assault. Two women a week in the UK are murdered by their partners or ex-partners.

The rise of the sex industry in the Eighties and Nineties mean porn and prostitution is respectable to an unprecedented degree in human history and hence the infiltration of the sex-industry into the work-place and media. We are in a culture that relentlessly sexualises women. Selling sex acts is like making a cappuccino. 75 per cent of prostitutes started selling sex acts before the age of 18 and were abused in childhood. 70 per cent in England have spent time in care. In a study of 110 men in Glasgow two-thirds had attitudes that were tolerant to rape. 22 per cent said that once they had paid, it wasn’t possible to rape a prostitute.

If porn is filmed prostitution, then our media is PORNIFIED and as porn has become more relentlessly violent and aggressive, the prevailing attitude is “they like it when it hurts”. It eroticises the dominance of men over women. Millions of women’s lives are caught up in stripping porn and prostitution. It is an epidemic. 88 per cent of pornographic scenes that men masturbate to contain physically aggressive acts towards women – slapping, gagging, choking, amongst many others. 68 per cent of women in prostitution have post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the work they do.

What about actresses? They are often pushed further than they want to go. The recent lesbian film Blue is the Warmest Colour saw a seven-minute sex scene which took ten days to film. The girls said it was humiliating and that they felt like prostitutes.  

Porn is everywhere. Girls say they feel embarrassed, awkward – does it affect their idea of sex? Shaving pubic hair, getting breast implants, requesting labial surgery seems to say yes. Girls may feel that they are expected to be treated as sex-objects, and that they just have to live with it. Explicit material is way too accessible and the extreme has become normal. Rape is OK. When I spoke to my daughter about this – she was about 16 at the time – it became clear that of her generation, who have been so exposed to so much hardcore material, quite a few of her peer group were saying they were “bisexual” for safety, as if they felt they were expected to perform some of what they had seen. The links in the media, and on TV, to abuse in the playground and then straight to domestic abuse is NOT DIFFICULT TO SEE. School is the most common setting for sexual harassment. Humiliating and degrading girls at an early age is commonplace, and sexist bullying an integral art of school life. Anti- sexism activist and filmmaker Byron Hurt says that feminism is the solution to countering the masochistic culture which is so prevalent amongst young people in London and leads to the terrifying knife crime that kills mostly black boys. “Men are drip-fed through media, religion, sport, family, culture, porn, prostitution and TV to devalue, exploit and stereotype women and girls. Men are in denial about the level of violence against women.”

When a casting website calls for actresses who are “the very definition of a slut”, we have a problem.  What about “she climbs into a car, hitches up her skirt and rides him with nonchalant detachment”, or “please send picture of tongue so I can approve tongue length”, or “she is a heartless crone, nagging harridan and pussy whipper”, or “SHE IS SURPRISINGLY GOOD LOOKING FOR SUCH A STRONG WOMAN”. Directors or producers may argue “it’s a more liberal attitude to extreme sex-scenes” but often they aren’t sex scenes. It’s a woman being tortured, hit in the face, chained to a bed, raped, humiliated, burnt or knifed.

HOW FAR? How much further? The percentage of women directing, writing, producing and shooting films has been in decline since 1998. In Hollywood, only five per cent of directors are females, and 15 per cent of writers. If you have all white males working behind the scenes, then where are the people saying NO? Enough is enough? Oscar voters and the industry top brass are overhwhelmingly white, male, and middle-aged. The film Bridesmaids is a fluke, a one off, just like The Hurt Locker. It hasn’t encouraged a flurry of films starring or directed by women.

Sophie is an actress who has been raped twice in her four-year acting career so far. I asked her about this. The first character was very flirty: she wore a short dress and a lot of makeup. The scene comes about after a great deal of flirting with the character’s care worker and poses the question to the audience “was she asking for it?”. During the scene, the character says “no, stop it” repeatedly to no avail. Sophie said she felt weird. Nothing was shown , she was fully clothed, it was just “very uncomfortable, it didn’t feel empowering,” she says. “It was a private, personal, harrowing situation, manufactured.”

In the first film she did, she was eager to present herself as easy to work with. The director said: “You’ll be in bed but you won’t see anything” and true to his word it was, but the director still felt it appropriate to produce a small bottle of vodka in order to make Sophie feel more comfortable in the scene. Soon afterwards a montage of shots was requested which “required” Sophie to be in an apron with nothing underneath, which was shot from behind. The impression was that this character was perfect, and Sophie, who had been selected for the part, was ordered to wear copious amounts of makeup on her bum. They shaded it – “Can we have some more make-up please on this bum,” said the director. “I wish I hadn’t been so naïve as to think I could say no,” says Sophie.

The second film was a challenging role. The script was ballsy, interesting, gritty. She was fully aware of the rape and its importance in the film. There was no nudity clause so she was happy to accept it and they had four or five meetings over the nature of the scene and how they were going to do it, which made Sophie feel safe in accepting such a part. On the day stunt men were to barge through the opened door and carry Sophie’s character and another girl into a room. It was to be a gang-rape. The first sequence was the worst. We were told to struggle against the men carrying us, she explains, which we did and then they had their hands held behind their backs as they were pushed to their knees and had their faces held against the carpet.

“This for me was the worst thing I’ve ever done, at the end of the sequence when 'CUT' was called I instantly started crying because of the genuine adrenaline and not because of anything hurting,” she continues. “I am not that sensitive and consider myself a pretty strong person mentally, but when the director said ‘carry on’ I had to shout CUT again. The doctor came. Where does it hurt, he asked me. I was emotional, I was angry, I was overwhelmed, but I wasn’t hurt in any way.

“Then followed a scene in the bedroom, as I was held down spread-eagled by four guys and simply told to struggle and scream. My voice gave way after approximately 15 seconds, my throat hurt, I had absolutely nothing in me, I kept thinking, please cut, but there was no voice. I had absolutely no power whatsoever. I prided myself in being a strong person both mentally and physically but there was nothing left in me but the trust it would end in a minute. I was completely and utterly exhausted. I ask you, what is the difference between this and the real thing?”

We both cry at this point.

The other girl with Sophie had no lines in the film. “Why did she do it? I just don’t know.”

Sophie is hyper-aware of the casual sexism of parts sent her way now. “My perception of what is absolutely necessary for a part has been heightened. I will never play something that is thrown around around ever again.” Note she uses the word “something”. This is no small victory for me, this is the beginning of a change for the better.

Maybe when the doctor asked her on her on that set where it hurt she should have said “in my soul”.

Changing the mind of one actress on participating in a violent scene is a huge step. She will challenge her agent, other actors and directors not to see her as “repressed” or as a prude. This is one actress who has also had enough. [FUCK YEAH.]

So, challenging, edgy TV or film, or a human rights issue?

Rape isn’t entertainment, it’s a never-more pressing outrage that is not to be enjoyed with a glass of Merlot and a few cheese straws as you watch your “edgy” TV drama. There are more refuges, more sexual assaults and women are now seen as sex objects on an unprecedented scale.

Director Carrie Cracknall says: “The interconnectedness of the way women are represented in pornography, in music videos, in cinema, in advertising, in fashion which connects into the global beauty industry – insecurity  about body image, younger and younger women going under the knife which connects into a dehumanised objectified perspective on women by men and other women and that must in some way lie at the heart of conversations we are having about domestic abuse, about rape, about sexual assault. Those things all sit together in one murky, complex bathtub.”

I think violent, on screen images of women fuel violence against women in society and I am now implementing zero tolerance on taking part in any storylines that involve violence against women, unless, of course it is with a radical feminist agenda. Let us rewrite the stories, let us bring back the heroines, let us ditch the vacant stereotypes and inanimate objects, let us educate women and men, empower them to find different subjects. As Rebecca Reilly-Cooper wrote in the New Statesman: “If I wanted to avoid anything that contained damaging depictions of women, I would have to live in a cave.”

If there were more writers like Nick Payne, perhaps she could come out of her cave.

Nick is a playwright and writer of National Theatre’s brilliant Blurred Lines at the Shed. Nick said after being part of this show: “As someone who writes plays with female roles, I cannot write shit that is damaging to women. Quite honestly I don’t think I’ll ever write a scene that involves rape or a violent act against a woman.”

There is a resolution in those words. I would urge anyone in the business of creating stories that may one day make it to screen and the people involved in producing those images – actors, directors to follow suit. As Banyard says: “Everyone has a crucial role to play in ending sexism. . .There are no quick fixes when it comes to social transformation.”

This is a small cry, a call to arms, to follow in Nick Payne’s footsteps. Anyone who has been awakened to the unprecedented violence against women in our culture, take your own personal steps and say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.

This is a version of a talk delivered at the HowTheLightGetsIn festival

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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war