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Prevenge: in a world of male violence, seeing monstrous women is a thrill

Why I love watching women commit acts of violence on screen. 

The best thing you’ll see in the cinema this year is a big man called DJ Dan looking down in horror as he realises that the thing slithering down his leg and onto his living room floor is his testicle, unleashed from its ballsack by the knife held by heavily pregnant Ruth (played by Alice Lowe). Or, if the death-by-castration of DJ Dan – an entirely appropriate response to his pick-up patter about the easiness of “fat birds” – doesn’t grab you, maybe one of the other grisly highlights of Lowe’s maternity-slasher movie Prevenge will.

You could choose Ruth sitting astride a man and ramming a gilt statue through his eye-socket; or Ruth butchering a chilly businesswoman who smirkingly explains at the end of a job interview that it just wouldn’t make sense to hire a woman who’s about to have a baby. And all of it is accompanied by the insinuating whisper of Ruth’s foetus, who seems to be talking to her from the womb, urging “mummy” to greater acts of violence. As Ruth’s gratingly sincere midwife tells her: “Baby knows what to do.” 

There’s an extra thrill to watching in knowing that, not only is the main character pregnant, but so is the mastermind behind all this on-screen gore: while Prevenge employs a wealth convincing prosthetics, Lowe’s bump isn’t one of them. She wrote, directed and starred in the film while pregnant. It’s hard to think of any film that better captures the nightmare side of pregnancy. Maybe Alien, and even Alien only managed it by pointing out how awful it would be if men were the ones hosting strangers in their bellies.

Prevenge shows the sheer bloody mentalness of pregnancy. On the one hand, there’s the fear a woman feels about what having a baby will do to her body and her life – in interviews, Lowe has said that it partly sprang from her anxiety that being a mother might mean never working again. On the other, there’s the cultural command that you be more blissfully happy than ever before (and if you’re not then you’re a terrible mummy). Between the two, it’s hardly surprising that most pregnant women feel part-deranged at least part of the time. Why don’t more of us fill our baby books with murder scribbles like Ruth?

But it’s not just pregnant women who I like to see committing acts of savage bloodletting. Contemplating all kinds of fictional female violence gives me a deep and holy satisfaction. After the US presidential election result, there was a time when the only thing getting me through the day was thinking about Naomi Alderman’s novel The Power, and imagining what I would do if nature handed me the ability to deliver electric shocks that the book gives to women: what I’d do, it turns out, is make a list of men I blame for Trump and go around discharging volts into them.

I loved Under the Skin, where Scarlett Johansson’s seductive alien can’t be penetrated by anything – she can’t even swallow even food – but can consume men by absorbing them in scenes of dark and abstract horror. I loved Ex Machina, where robot Ava (played by Alicia Vikander) turns on her creator and takes her revenge: she isn’t even really female, what with being an AI performing a man’s idea of femininity, but watching her rise up and batter the men who imprisoned and exploited her still made my heart sing.

I loved Audition, which starts like a romantic comedy with a man interviewing potential brides, and ends somewhere else completely when the woman he picks (Eihi Shiina) turns out to be much less submissive and much more torture-y than expected. I could argue that all these things are feminist – and some of those arguments would be more of a stretch than others – but the truth is I just like them, and liking something doesn’t make it righteous.

Becoming the monster is seductive, but the idea that women are dangerous or monstrous has always been used to justify the things men do to us. It’s witch trial logic. It’s the same logic that went into 1987’s Fatal Attraction, a film that (according to Susan Faludi in Backlash) male audiences watched with gleeful cries of “kill the bitch” as Glenn Close’s vengeful character was finally dispatched, taking all those unwelcome pretensions of female liberation with her. It’s the logic that gives front-page coverage to rare real-life female killers, while regular femicide goes unreported.

If women are bad, then it’s only self-defence when men strike us down. But if we’re naturally good, then we could never hit back or hit first, and the fantasy of hitting back or hitting first is a nice one, especially if it’s not really your fault because an evil foetus made you. That’s the joy of DJ Dan’s bollock: a short and gloriously cathartic holiday in being the one who makes others cringe, rather than the one who does the cringing. The future is female. Fear us.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.