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  1. Culture
14 October 2014

Is violence against women on TV acceptable if there are complex female characters?

Violent scenes on TV form part of a wider picture of how the media portrays women: as degraded, objectified and patronised victims.

By Clare Wiley

There’s a scene in The Fall where Jamie Dornan’s psychopath silently breaks into a woman’s home. He gags her, binds her hands and feet, then slowly, almost tenderly, strangles her to death. The victim’s eyes are wide with terror, like an animal. 

It’s a nauseating and upsetting episode; the show stops just short of inviting you to share in the killer’s sadistic pleasure. The BBC programme first aired last year, and has won awards and critical praise. It’s an intelligent thriller, well crafted and gripping, but the violence makes it difficult to watch. With the second series returning to our screens next month, I’m steeling myself for more graphic acts of cruelty, intended to thrill and titillate. 

TV shows that rely on male violence against women, often sexual and glamourised, are everywhere, and they seem to be on the up. Voiceless, faceless women are now intimidated, abused and murdered by maniacs, fictitious warriors and cult leaders alike. In French drama The Returned, women must fear a cannibal killer; in Game of Thrones, it’s violent rapists. The Bridge, Luther and The Killing all have their stalking predators, while in Dexter it’s the psycho next door.

I love psychological thrillers. I love the twists and turns of dark drama, the thrill of a shock ending. I shouldn’t have to abandon the genre because show-runners can’t seem to think of a different crime. But I’m getting tired of the beatings, the rapes, the visceral strangling, the intimidation, the aggression.

Increasingly though, the same types of shows are turning out fascinating and more complex female characters. In The Fall this is Detective Superintendent Stella Gibson, played brilliantly by Gillian Anderson. She’s intelligent, ambitious, cold, has sex where and when she wants it. Sofia Helin’s Saga Norén in The Bridge is unlike any other character we’ve seen – she’s often callous and hard to understand, but funny and ultimately compassionate. Even in Dexter, a show that admittedly lost much of its appeal in that daft final series, the killer’s sister Deb, played by Jennifer Carpenter, has a frailty and charm that brings some realism to the absurdity of the secret-psycho-brother premise. 

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It’s exciting to see all kinds of women on screen. The characters are layered, morally ambiguous. They’re allowed to be flawed and difficult, a bit like… people. These women are light at the end of the trope tunnel. I find myself strangely relating to the characters despite the often ridiculous constructs of the shows – cults, mythical lands, bi-national bridge-based killers. It’s important to have these shows fronted by women. We’re gradually moving in the right direction, diversifying from the seemingly endless parade of one-dimensional women there almost exclusively to further the male character’s cause.

But does it make the violence ok? Is gruesome, sadistic male brutality somehow acceptable with the inclusion of a complex female character? It’s tempting to think so. They certainly make the programmes better and more compelling to watch. And in 2012 a professor at Texas A&M University discovered that viewers find sexual violence on TV less offensive if the same scenes feature a “strong” female character, capable of defending herself. He called it the “Buffy Effect”. 

In the vast majority of shows, however, the women subjected to violence are rendered nothing more than helpless victims. This ruthless exertion of male dominance and power won’t be offset in the eyes of the viewers just because there’s a multifaceted female detective in the next scene. 

The actress Doon Mackichan has spoken about how she refuses to be involved in any storylines that feature violence against women. She is one of many who believe that “on screen images of women fuel violence against women in society”. Don’t forget: this is a society where one in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused at some point in her life.

Some might dismiss on screen violence as harmless fiction. But I believe these acts are so pervasive that they’re having a truly damaging impact on how we collectively view women. These violent scenarios also form part of a wider picture of how the media commonly portrays women: as degraded, objectified and patronised victims. Ultimately, while the inclusion of well-written female characters is commendable, they won’t magically exonerate this insidious, relentless male violence, and they aren’t enough to combat its effects.

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