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16 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Why are crime dramas like The Killing so hooked on rape?

It's not just the “Nordic noir” phenomenon, though - TV shows like CSI and NCIS seem to find it hard to get through a 60-minute episode without making reference to at least one mutilated female corpse.

By Caroline Crampton

We know Stieg Larsson’s first bestselling novel as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and there was a time when you could see it everywhere. For years it felt impossible to get on a bus or train without counting at least three copies being tensely devoured within five feet of your seat. What few of Larsson’s British fans knew is that the original Swedish title of the book was Män som hatar kvinnor, meaning “men who hate women” – a phrase that seems to have become the guiding principle for a whole genre.

Sexual violence, especially against women, is by no means the exclusive property of the “Nordic noir” phenomenon that has dominated the UK’s bestseller lists and TV screens for the past few years. Many crime dramas, but particularly the US procedurals such as the NCIS and CSI franchises, seem to find it hard to get through a 60-minute episode without making reference to at least one mutilated female corpse.

It spreads well beyond crime and police drama – in the fantasy epic Game of Thrones it’s difficult to find a point to tune in when you won’t immediately see a gratuitous pair of breasts or a heavily implied rape.

Sexual violence against women is everywhere, once you start seeing it. The inclusion of the rape or the beating of a woman in a plot has become lazy dramatic shorthand for “gritty” and there is no obvious male equivalent. Even worse are the times you wonder if the writers are trying to titillate.

Perhaps it is because the imported Scandinavian dramas overall tend to be far less prone to the misogyny that still permeates much of our popular culture that their focus on violence against women feels so incongruous. When you have skilled writers turning out otherwise thrilling plots that put fascinating female characters in positions of authority, it’s frustrating that they feel the need to drop in the occasional violent rape just to make sure we notice how “noir” everything is.

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For instance, the writers of the Danish series The Killing gave us a wonderful female authority figure in Sarah Lund, who is a better detective than her male colleagues and has a deeply complicated personal life, too. But the first series also opens with a long sequence of a woman sprinting through a wood, only for her to be found brutally raped and murdered in the next scene. Was the rape necessary to the twists and turns of the murder investigation that follows? Why isn’t her violent death alone sensational enough?

The first series of the Danish-Swedish co-production The Bridge similarly opened with a mutilated female corpse, found in two pieces on the bridge of the title. So far, so expected.

And yet it is The Bridge’s second series that gives hope that the flood of female corpses could finally be drying up. The new series, which is airing on BBC4 at the moment, began with two hours of compelling television that was by turns tense, moving and witty. Even better, not a single woman had to be sacrificed to the cause of sensationalist violence. There were female victims, to be sure, but they were treated identically to their male counterparts, and at no point did the plot suffer as a consequence. Take note, writers – it can be done. 

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