“You watch that?” Why we consume violence against women as entertainment


I have a confession to make.  I was once obsessed with the television show Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. Originally a casual viewer in my teens, I became increasingly addicted to the show when I transitioned into dorm-living at university, a place where fellow first-years far more tech-savvy than I introduced me to the wonders of closed file-transfer systems.  Entire seasons of pretty much any TV show you liked where but a click and short download away.  SVU extravaganza!

I watched all the episodes I could get.  And when I moved off-campus, I wasn’t going to let the fact that I could no longer safely pirate for free stop me from getting more.

So I began buying entire seasons on DVD (at anywhere between 60 and 70 bucks a pop) and holing up in my room for mini SVU marathons.  I had to watch them in my room because my roommate and dear friend could only handle so much rape and battery in our shared communal spaces.

You see, SVU is a crime-drama explicitly about, as the introduction to the show describes, “sexually based offenses,” which are “especially heinous.”  Unlike your regular, run of the mill murder at the centre of most episodes of the original Law and Order, SVU plots are about serial rapists, international child-porn rings, incest and the like.  You know, the stuff of warm and fuzzy primetime.

I honestly cannot explain my initial attraction to the show, other than to say that it was exciting and suspenseful, well-acted and full of the twists and turns for which the Law and Order franchise, and its creator Dick Wolf, have become famous.  I was also really into the dynamic between the two main characters – what I saw as truly plutonic respect and admiration between a male and female detective, which is a refreshing departure from your typical she-loves-him/he-breaks-her-heart soap opera storyline.  I wasn’t a criminology student, interested in exploring the psyches of abusers.  At that time I didn’t even identify as a feminist – it wasn’t a conscious effort to examine the portrayal of violence against women in the media.  I just liked the show, so I watched it.  Every episode ever made over the course of its 10+ seasons, in a matter of months.

As the show became more predictable and the quality of writing diminished, I became less interested.  I would still catch new episodes from time to time, but I didn’t plan my life around it.  The glory days were over.  But I still considered myself a fan.

Fast forward to last year, when, in the common area of the UBC Women’s Studies department, I casually mention to a professor of mine that I watched the show the night before.   An inexact dramatization:

Me: “So I was watching Law and Order: SVU last night and I think the storyline was inspired by a local case.  You know how Law and Order episodes are inspired by real stories?  Well last night it wa – “

Prof: “You watch that?”

Me: “Yah, I dunno, uh, er, [incoherent increasing panicked mumbling].”

Prof: “Wow. I make a conscious effort not consume gratuitous depictions of violence against women.”

Me: “Yah, me too, you know, it’s just such an interesting show… it’s, it’s uh, it’s not all bad.”

Prof: “Regardless. It is what it is. Which is something I would never watch. Ever.”

I had been outed.  Here I was, a feminist, in the feminist epicenter of the university no less, admitting first that I watched TV at all (gasp!), and worse, that I watched misogynist trash.  In a matter of seconds my proud L&O fandom became a source of incredible embarrassment.  Why did I watch that show?

I still don’t entirely know.  But the process of self-reflection in this regard was re-ignited last month when, at Vancouver Rape Relief’s public forum on violence against women, one audience member argued that the culture of sexist violence we all live in will never change as long as torturing women is considered entertainment, and as long as various programs all relying on graphic violence against women constitute our ‘choices’ on television. Later that night, my partner turned on his new favourite show, Criminal Minds. The episode chronicled the FBI’s response when a woman was kidnapped, gagged and rigged up to a bomb in the  middle of the desert by a deranged sociopath.  The people the anonymous commenter was condemning were people like us.  I felt like a phony, like a big, sleazy hypocrite.  In attempt to delve deeper into this part of my life (or perhaps, to assuage my guilt), I’ve reached a few conclusions.

I think it’s fair to say there are two very different categories of violence against women in popular media (primarily on TV and in movies).  The depiction of women being sadistically brutalized in the name of entertainment – or “torture porn” as it is now being called – is epitomized in the modern horror film genre (think the Hostel series).  It is gory, graphic, cruel, and revolting.  A very small (mostly male) minority constitute the group most willing to stomach it, even enjoy it.  It is a very dark and very twisted way of ‘escaping’ from the realities of everyday life, which is what I think of as the reason most people go to the movies.

As far as I am concerned, it is the farthest thing from entertaining.  While men and women are both decapitated, carved up and gutted in this genre, Kira Cochrane says “it’s the violence against women that’s most troubling, because it is here that sex and extreme violence collide.”  The psychopath protagonists in these films always reserve the most twisted of sexual torture for their female victims, and female victims’ sexuality is almost always front and centre to their character’s identity – she is either a stripper (or some variation thereof) or a virgin (or virgin-esque). She is sexy alive, but sexier dead.  Here we see the troubling resonance of the label “torture porn.” It may be a thriller, but it plays off of the all-too-familiar signposts of porn, something supposedly meant to spur arousal and feelings of sexual satisfaction.  According to a media professor at Temple University, the increasing representation of sexual characters in horror films tells us that the media “seem to be giving women permission to take control of their own sexuality.”  Now that’s scary.

The second category is less sensational but more widespread: violence against women that occurs as part of some (semi) believable plot, as part of a TV legal drama (think Prime Suspect, Law and Order, etc.) or feature film (The General’s Daughter, A Time to Kill, Thelma and Louise, just to name a few).  While it is certainly still disturbing, this kind of violence is presented as part of, if not central to, the show’s key conflict: it is a crime perpetrated against victims who deserve justice, if not healing, rather than a foregone conclusion resulting from some psychopath’s twisted agenda.  The audience is supposed to be angry that this thing happened to the victim and join in on the pursuit for justice (not sit back and enjoy it as they bleed out or are gang-raped).  It can be no less triggering than torture porn – actually often more so, given that it is more ‘real’ (we’ll come back to this).  That said it can still be sensationalist and bizarre – see the Criminal Minds example above – but it can also be very true-to-life, a semi-accurate depiction of what a woman might go through.  This kind of violence encompasses a wide spectrum of stories.

So why do people watch it?  Some people are really freaking privileged (honestly, I was probably this type of viewer originally).  They’ve never gone through heavy sh*t, or truly had to deal with real violence in their lives. So for them, it’s a glimpse into the Other – a totally different set of experiences that are different from theirs and thus, strangely entertaining (all with the caveat that this is all of course, fictional). There’s also a voyeuristic element to this kind of media. Violence against women is a taboo subject – not very many people talk about it on a day-to-day basis, let alone broadcast stories about it to the masses. So these shows have a ‘come and see what no other program will show you’ element to them.  It’s unusual and mysterious. And as much as it pains me to say it, there is probably a small minority of misogynists who take pleasure in watching women get hurt.

I think, though, there is a large contingent of fans that are after something altogether different: reassurance.  You see, crime dramas, by definition, position players in the justice system as central characters.  You are meant to like these people. Root for them. And by and large, they don’t disappoint.  They are very, very good and catching the bad guys (usually at record speeds, with incredible DNA-inspired certainty, no less) and are almost always on the victims’ side.  They are honourable, respectable and righteous, and their sole purpose is to make the world a better place. On SVU, Detective Olivia Benson is a strong woman, out to get justice for every victim she meets as a way to avenge the rape of her mother. Her partner, Detective Elliot Stabler, hates men who hurt women: he is big and strong and beats up ‘perps.’  They want to make criminals pay, and most of the time, they do.

In a world where police officers are sexually assaulting and harassing one another, failing to respond when women go missing en masse, and ignoring repeated tips about who is probably killing them, we are desperate for good-cop characters.  In a world where judges hand out probation to rapists, court-appointed psychiatrists refuse to label priests who collect child-porn as pedophiles, and lawyers re-traumatize women during sexual assault and abuse trials by attacking their character and humiliating them on the stand, we are begging for a sign that at least someone in the justice system actually cares about the victims, and that they’re not all out to keep protecting and excusing men’s sexist violence. When it comes to dealing with violence against women, the real world often fails us. So we turn to Law and Order to reassure ourselves that maybe it’s not all bad.  Maybe sometimes the system works.

Of course, we know these stories can be bad for us.  That the latter category of violence is seen as ‘true-to-life’ is obviously incredibly problematic.  First of all, most shows that address violence against women operate on the stranger attack storyline – the myth that most gendered violence is perpetrated by a stranger.  It’s not.

Moreover, because of racist and sexist structures in Hollywood (white, traditionally beautiful women are almost the only women who make it onto television), the victims in these programs are therefore mostly white and beautiful – the typical ‘good girl’ we are supposed to sympathize with, and not the ‘bad girl’ who we blame for her own attack and whose motives we question (victims of colour, poor women, immigrant women, women who’ve ever broken the law or women in the sex industry). Needless to say this is an incredibly narrow profile of the victim that reinforces stereotypes and re-produces social hierarchies.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, most cases on these kinds of shows are solved by the end of an hour-long episode.  Detectives catch the killer, a jury convicts the rapist, or some kind of satisfying vigilante justice is carried out against a molester. In the real world, a tiny fraction of domestic violence and sexual assault cases are deemed credible and investigated, and an even smaller fraction of these actually result in charges and convictions.

As much as I’ve hated on SVU for perpetuating harmful stereotypes and rape myths, I have to credit where credit is due.  One of the most stirring episodes for me was about a trans woman who killed someone in self-defense. She was convicted, but because she was pre-op (she still had male genitalia and thus, in the eyes of the state, was still a man) she was sent to a male prison. She was brutally gang-raped. The episode begged the question, how does the justice system fail and endanger transgender people? What should be done to make it safer?

Other episodes have been more documentary-like – your average battered wife story or rape tale, depicted close-up, in painstaking detail. Unlike melodramatic storylines, these episodes were a genuine depiction of what it’s like. What it’s like to try and leave your abusive husband, only to have to cut off communication with your loved ones, check in to a shelter (with a curfew, and without privacy), and lose all your resources and try to get by without a cent because he insisted you  be a ‘kept’ woman, reliant on his income. Or what it’s like to report a rape to police – what it’s like to have your home turned upside down, your body inspected and photographed, your choices questioned, your experience being recorded over and over again, your boyfriend not understand. These two examples in particular are a direct response to the all-too-common questions, why didn’t she leave? and, why didn’t she report it?

Other episodes make explicit reference the incredible rates of sexual abuse amongst women with disabilities. Others tell stories of abusers within the institution itself – prison guards who rape and abuse female prisoners, judges who sexually exploit and blackmail, and yes, even cops who rape and coerce women in prostitution.

The bottom line is violence against women in the media can be gratuitous and disgusting, but it can also be compelling.  It can be ridiculously sensational, but it can also be accurate – ripped from the headlines, based on real cases, rooted in some kind of reality that we all would benefit from acknowledging. There is no one answer in how to deal with it, and even if there was, it wouldn’t necessarily be to swear it off altogether. Instead, as we watch our favourite TV shows or go to the movies, we need to ask ourselves (and the ones we are with): why was violence included in this storyline?  What is realistic about it, and what isn’t? How do these characters reflect the ‘real world’? And most importantly, what am I feeling as I consume it?  Why am I consuming it?

SVU returns with a new episode on January 18th.  I guess that gives me a few weeks to figure that out for myself.




Tags: , , , ,

17 Comments on ““You watch that?” Why we consume violence against women as entertainment”

  • gingerest

    “there is a large contingent of fans that are after something altogether different: reassurance.” That is exactly, exactly it. It’s fantasy, and wish fulfillment, but that’s exactly what I (unconsciously until this very moment) seek from these crime shows, particularly the ones based around an ensemble of brilliant scientists.
    There’s more than one major problem there, of course, in that my false reassurance is bought at the price of using depictions of the brutalization of women and children for entertainment. Moreover – despite occasional episodes featuring ordinary sexual violence – the general storyline highlights “especially heinous” acts of violence, which seems to me likely to diminish attention to daily, ubiquitous, run-of-the-mill patriarchal violence. By defining the weird stuff as “heinous” and “special” (yeah, okay, it’s the victims who are special, but damned if I remember that after the title card’s gone), we consign the real tragedy of sexual violence to ordinary status, unworthy of remark, and we inadvertently condone the everyday weaponization of kyriarchal privilege.

    So, YEAH. Ugh. I’m guilty right along with you. Sentence: stop consuming this crap, and keep on facing harsh reality.

  • leslie


    probably worth touching on it again though. good post.

    • Natalie Hill

      Wow, great minds! Thanks for posting this Leslie. I looked back on F-Word posts for the past year to see if this topic had been covered…. if I had gone a few more months I would have found it.

      It would appear that we’re both on the same page. A little guilty about watching the show, yet also able to see its progressive elements. However as a friend of mine commented (on my Facebook, when I posted this), there’s not enough that’s positive in these shows to justify the graphic violence they constantly portray. As much as it pains me to admit it, she’s right.

      I appreciate how you critique these shows for representing violence as isolated attacks by individuals (the ‘lone wolf’/crazy psychopath theory trotted out all the time to dismiss VAW) that can be solved as long as we keep locking up the perps. It is never, of course, a larger system of power, dominance, sexism and misogyny.

  • Eric Hodge

    I am left with a problem. After coming to the conclusion that I was a patriarchy-brainwashed privileged white male idiot, I started making changes to my life. As I’ve studied and learned and grown, I’ve started noticing more and more of the horribly sexist and misogynistic undertones and overtones of some of my favorite escapes from reality, i.e. music, movies, video games, TV, books, et cetera. The entirety of fiction in all its forms and outlets is tainted by patriarchy, and I am left with nothing to fill up the hole. I went to the following website to try and find feminism friendly media:


    Most of these don’t seem to be all that feminism friendly. Game of Thrones especially seems chalked full of patriarchal stereotypes and horrific misogyny. So what should a well-intentioned male trying to unpack his privilege and become a decent human being do? Where does he go to find his escape? Because frankly, I’m lost…

    • Anna

      I’m late finding this post but I just want to give my two cents…

      @Eric Hodge – Where should a well-intentioned female do? Where do we go to find our escape? The answer is simple – we take our pleasures as and when and where where we can get it, and what we consume, we consume critically. Welcome to our world.

      . I don’t watch L&O SVU – I’ve never watched an episode of L&O, just because I have this idea (that may be totally off-base) that it’s the kind of police procedural that isn’t arc-heavy enough for me. But your professor sounds like a asshole. How is it feminist to attack a junior female colleague in that way? Seriously. She’s perfectly entitled to her tastes, but jeez – way to ‘make a conscious effort’ to police other people and make them feel shitty. Not cool.

    • Shannon

      @ Eric,

      Keeping in mind it’s been over a year since the last comment, I thought to share a few shows my partner and I enjoy. The common thread is that it is chosen programming, usually British and unfortunately not fictional. (You nailed it with that fictional bit o’ criteria). I’d love more suggestions from other members of this blog/forum.

      My fav: Top Gear, BBC– I love cars. Jeremy Clarkson can act an ape. Disregard it, if and when you care to. Write a letter when you don’t. I’ll say this, the BBC responds and reads them. As a woman who loves partner rally races, it’s the most entertaining show re: autos.

      Neil Oliver–narrative historical documentries, (Vikings, History of Scotland) BBC

      The Butterfly, French film : Kitchen Stories, Norwegian Film

      Games? My husband was a champion of the arcade StreetFighter games, in the 90′s. He won’t touch them or most other games. We met, playing online chess. Settlers of Catan is an awesome game to play with others. Not digital. Worth the investment and more memorable to have a game night with people a few times a month.

      It’s harder and harder to experience entertainment without it being at such a price. The fact you choose is fantastic.

  • rachel

    I believe that shows like Law and Order; SVU are not for everyone due to the graphic nature but open people’s eyes to the reality of heinous crimes against MEN AND WOMEN in our society.

  • tammy

    I’ve gotta say, my reasons for hating SVU is personal. I watched that show and was brainwashed into thinking that the court system really was like that, it made me put faith in it. Then, I was raped 3 years ago and i felt safe about going to the cops about it because of the show. Sounds like a good thing so far right? well..there were 5 of them, detective sat on her ass the whole time and only let dna do its job and the rest she ignored even after i gave her tips,she never did anything about them. AFter that, my rapist only got 4 months and got released after 2 months on good behavior. THat is the reason i have such a burning hatred for SVU is it’s such a tease for real victims, its a slap in the face for those of us who know just how shitty the system actually works. Making us believe that they’ll try as hard in real life to catch a perp as they do in the show.

  • tammy

    *there were 5 of them and only one got caught only thanks to dna even after giving her many tips that could’ve helped her find them.

  • Anna V.

    Let me start by saying that I am a big L&O SVU fan, and like you have seen it all and am waiting for the storyline to get back in gear, writing-wise. I stumbled upon this while doing a search.
    I personally feel that Law & Order SVU is an incredibly important program. It’s a show that gets people thinking about, talking about sex crimes. Sex crimes, as you know, are frightfully common. The statistics you hear, one in four college women, one in five women, this percentage of children, etc. We’re talking about crimes that, historically, haven’t been considered “real” crimes. It’s only in the last half a century or so that we’ve really called these things what they are, that we’ve started telling women that it doesn’t matter what you wore or if you kissed him or even if you married him–you’re allowed to say “no”.
    And that’s what SVU teaches people. Even if you never talk about it, it makes you think about it, recognize consciously the wrongness of these crimes. Anyone can understand why murder’s wrong, why it’s heinous. And really, anyone can understand why child molestation is an atrocity. But I don’t think everybody, especially men, understand instinctively that rape isn’t just something that happened to a girl one night, that it can affect a person in unimaginable ways. Not that it always does; all rape victims don’t turn into basket cases or get PTSD. But some do, and no matter who you are, I can’t imagine being assaulted having absolutely no effect on a person.
    SVU does more than tell semi-realistic stories involving rape, child abuse, pedophilia, etc. It makes important attitudes more mainstream–especially the “It’s never the victim’s fault” attitude. That alone makes it a show worth watching, and a pro-feminist show at that. With plot lines centered around women fighting back against victimization, helped of course by Olivia Benson, our strong female lead and (until last season) Elliot Stabler, a man who truly respects women. I think a show where characters stand around discussing things like a woman’s right to say no in any circumstances can only be described as pro-feminist.
    Your professor wants to avoid consuming “gratuitous depictions of violence against women”? Then she should shut her eyes. We live in a world in which gratuitous violence against women is a reality, an every day reality. Sure, most people don’t see it every day; it’s not something that you walk down the street and witness. And because of that, it’s easy forget about it, to file it away as some boogeyman that can’t ever touch you, when the reality is that it can happen to anyone. Crimes CAN be prevented with increased awareness. Not always, but sometimes, and that’s enough. The only way to increase awareness is to talk about it. And let’s face it–a lot more people have access to cable than to other forms of education on the subject. Most people wouldn’t even know where to go to be made aware. Of course, that presumes they already know that they’re unaware.

  • Sally Archer

    Your post tells the truth that TV shows (much like treacly or kinky romance novels) paint a fantasy women desperately want to believe or escape into, against all evidence to the contrary about thousands of years of unrelenting violence by the male sex class against the female sex class. The statistics to not lie. The week’s news reports do not lie. The Inquisition and witch-torture-burnings did not lie. Twenty-first century gonzo porn and torture porn, which men invented and a majority of men watch online on a regular basis in the US and other internet-connected countries, does not lie about an inherent problem of men as a sex class getting off on enacting violence against women. If they didn’t like it, they wouldn’t watch it. Google something like “rape until she screams for her life” and see the free online offerings men watch daily. Today’s online porn showing torture against women will make you vomit in its cruelty, because you are a woman and not a warped part of the male sex class who invented sadism. So men as a sex class benefit by socio-cultural domination via cruelty existent against women by men. Of course, not “your” man. But he benefits indirectly at work, in traffic, and at the grocery store by women in general knowing that men in general are dangerous to women. Women have to smile, expend their energy placating and paying attention to men, give men a wide berth. (Or pretend to be pleased at fatuous displays of male chivalry based on male ego.) Let’s quit fantasizing, shall we, about men, and learn to keep ourselves safe as women. Consider men to be dangerous to women — men are. Do not trust any seeming male appearance of self-control; male rage can flash against a woman on a hair-trigger point. I would steer clear of a ravening wolf, and I similarly steer clear of any man unknown to me. At work, in social situations, I watch the ones I know “act as if” they are more morally decent than murderous and rapist men, and, yes, they are behaviorally better. They might only interrupt when women speak, deride women subtly and tell sexist jokes (“it’s just a joke”) instead of killing or maiming women. Better. It feeds the egos of “good” men to feel that they are better than the garden-variety abusive male. But if men as a sex class aren’t doing major activism about the problem of statistically valid major levels of male violence including impregnation by rape and torturous physical abuse against women, girls and female babies world-wide, then even the “good” men are really still part of the problem of the statistically and globally incontrovertible serious violence of their sex class. There I’ve said it. Somebody needs to. The Emperor wears no clothes, his lies are transparent, women have had enough.

  • Alison

    I am a feminist who has watched these shows for a long time. In the beginning they did not show such graphic depictions and this got worse as the shows went on. Now the shows seem to be as much about ‘finding the criminal’ and ‘getting justice for the victim’ as the site of raped and murdered women covered in blood. These images haunt nearly every episode. Its one thing to have a show about violent crime but its another to depict it in that way. I started to feel that it was totally gratuitous and that misogynists and even potential killers could be watching it and getting of on it. Essentially the television producers are making big bucks off of scenes of dead raped women. So now I don’t watch them any more.

    However, watching these shows has made me really afraid of such violence, and this fear has made me more aware. I am always careful now about who or what is around me. I pay attention to my surroundings and I listen to what people say. There is no question that watching these violent shows has made me much less likely to be a victim of violence.

    So I feel that consumption of this kind of violence on television is something which is a personal choice and which can be useful. However I think we do need to watch our consumption to make sure we are not supporting these depictions as entertainment.

  • glenys
    June, 6, 2014 I can’t watch shows that depict violence without my guts turning over. Curiously this sort of incident happens in real life. We don’t see it, but the media reports it for a consumer society. How men and women consume this and even get some vicarious thrill beggars belief. there are wars going on against women all the time in all part of this world on an increasing scale. Why are we like this?

  • Sarah Lee

    Honestly, I stopped watching the show ages ago when it just got too victim-blamey. Every episode was something along the lines that she “deserved” it somehow, like she actually almost raped herself. Like one episode (and correct me if I’m wrong since I watched all the Law and Orders and various crime shows at once), there was a woman who tried to frame her lover so it looked like he raped her. It got so intense she actually lit herself on fire so that he would look like he tried to murder her. This was about the time they realized she was framing him the whole time. And, of course, she dies.

    And I’m thinking who the hell would ever go to such lengths to get their lover thrown in prison? No one!

    It was pure misogynist fantasy that women pretty much beat and rape themselves and blame some poor guy for shits and giggles. Umm, no?

    Yeah, got out of that shit pretty quick after that. I actually just googled it, and yes, that was an actual episode, and I shit you not that is how it went.

    Seriously, if nothing else that episode alone should put people off that show for good.

    • Lara

      I don’t completely understand your problem with this. The series is about rapists, and murderers, the worst people on earth. Then there is one episode in which a woman is the’bad guy’ for telling she has been raped, and lying, and you freak out? I mean, it doesn’t say every woman reporting rape is a liar, it’s just an interesting, new story (and by the way, there ARE women like this even in real life. Not many, but they exist.) That would be like saying the show is anti-men because 98% of the criminals are male.

  • We are a gaggle of volunteers and starting a new scheme in our community.
    Your web site offered us with helpful information to work on. You have
    done a formidable activity and our whole group can be grateful to

  • I just like the valuable info you provide to your
    articles. I’ll bookmark your weblog and take
    a look at again right here regularly. I am slightly certain I’ll be informed plenty of new stuff proper right here!

    Best of luck for the next!

Leave a Comment

Blog Categories


The purpose of the blog is to create dialogue and debate around current issues related to women, feminism, and social justice.
We enjoy active participation in the blog, however, we reserve the discretion to remove any comments that are threatening or promote hate speech.

Search This Blog:

Site by Anne Emberline