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.