Posts By Natalie Hill

“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.

 

 

 

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Miss Representation: A critical review

Amidst a sea of accolades and five-star reviews (examples: here, here and here), Natalie Hill offers a dissenting opinion on Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s new film on the representation of women in the media.

 

 

You might say the representation of women in the media is somewhat of an obsession of mine.  Whether at journalism school or studying at the graduate level, research on stereotypical media narratives about women has always been my focus.  I was also recently lured into the core organizing team of the Vancouver chapter of WAM! (Women, Action and the Media), an organization designed to bring journalists, academics and activists together in progressive dialogue about the media.  For all of these reasons I was thrilled when I heard about a new documentary that explores the abhorrent way women are depicted in the media – Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s Miss Representation.  I promptly put together a Facebook event and headed off to a screening with some fellow WAM! members and our collective high hopes for a refreshing take on an age-old issue.

The thesis of the film is clear.  As Margaret Cho, one of its featured interviewees, puts it: “The media treat women like shit.”  Accordingly, the highly offensive content gathered by Newsom – a Hollywood actress turned activist – is  assembled in depressingly cohesive montages: Jessica Simpson writhing on a soapy car in a crimson string bikini; rapper Nelly showering a faceless woman’s pulsating crotch with dollar bills; a young girl featured on Toddlers and Tiaras, no older than six, adjusting the enhanced bust of her glitzy pink pageant costume while her mother glues on fake eyelashes and touches up her bubblegum lipstick.  These make it all but impossible to protest.  In establishing that we do in fact have a problem here, the director succeeds brilliantly.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the way Newsom treats the rest of the doc’s content, comprised primarily of interviews with a select group of experts.   The group with the most face-time includes: Pat Mitchell (MA, President and CEO for the Paley Center for Media, former President and CEO of PBS); Jennifer Pozner (Executive Director of Women in Media & News); Caroline Heldman (PhD, Associate Professor of Political Science at Occidental College); and Marie Wilson (founding President of the White House Project); with more famous faces including Jane Fonda, Geena Davis and Katie Couric.

Don’t get me wrong – these women are very smart, and incredibly well versed on the subject matter.  They are leaders in their fields, accomplished and powerful.  They are exactly the type of role models the makers of the film want to highlight as counter to the sexualized, degraded, objectified women rendered voiceless by other media makers.  But as inspiring as it is to listen to these women speak, the very juxtaposition is a problem.  The film aims to challenge the tight corners the mainstream media likes to paint women into, and yet, in a way, Newsom does it herself: educated and knowledgeable women/uneducated and ignorant women; respectable women who wear turtlenecks and pants suits/sleazy women who wear extensions and tight clothes; women whose opinions matter/women whose opinions are never even considered. Continuing the mainstream media’s attitude that the only people worth quoting are those with PhDs or a long list of Hollywood credits is neither innovative nor productive.  If you want your film to start a revolution, be revolutionary; not just in your message, but in whom you get to speak to it.

The key slogan for Miss Representation is “you can’t be what you can’t see,” meant to drive home the fact that girls cannot become successful, self-assured, empowered and civically engaged if they do not see women who embody these traits on television, in the movies, and in the pages of magazines.  It is a powerful message.  But again, Newsom seems to commit the very sin of which she hopes to rid the world.  Who don’t we see in Miss Representation?  Women with disabilities, for starters, whose large-scale exclusion by the mainstream media contributes greatly to the discrimination they experience every day, as their abilities and intelligence are routinely under-estimated or outright dismissed.

We also see a whole lot of privileged white women doing most of the talking, which means we don’t see a whole lot of anybody else.  Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and a few others (on camera only briefly) are great speakers – women of colour with great insights and experiences.  But they play supporting roles.  Bit parts, if you will.  Just like the world of Hollywood she comes from, Newsom lets the usual suspects take the lead, with a smattering of diverse voices included on the periphery.  In prioritizing academic arguments over down-to-earth truth-telling (in one of the few times Cho appears on screen, she tells of how, after being pressured to lose weight to remain on air, she was eventually replaced by Drew Carey “because, you know, he’s so slim”), Newsom reinforces the typical practice of making formally educated white persons’ knowledge and experiences central and everyone else’s supplementary.  This view was echoed by some of the women who attended the film with me – smart, well-spoken women of colour – who lamented seeing yet another feminist documentary in which time that was afforded to people like Gloria Steinem meant little was left for minorities.

The film also includes small clips from Rachel Maddow, who comically speaks to the amount of hate mail she receives about how she looks.  Here she hints – without saying it outright – at the challenges of being gay on TV.  The critically engaged viewer might take this comment a bit further and ponder the particular challenges women face when trying to make it in the media business if they don’t conform to the ridiculous universal standard of femininity.  Or, they might think of the harm done to young queer or transgender persons struggling to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the media they consume.  They might.  And if they don’t, well it’s safe to say the specific harm done to queer women by the media’s completely distorted view of female sexuality (which excludes them almost entirely, except when included in the context of male heterosexual fantasy) is left unexamined.  You can’t be what you can’t see.

So the key characters in Miss Representation were less than original, but so too was the film’s formula.  Newsom bookends the film with the narrative of her pregnancy and her hopes to improve her baby’s future by overturning the state of this media-saturated culture (complete with dream-like camera techniques and music almost certainly titled “Hopeful”).  In between she bombards the audience with graphic, sexist imagery, shot after shot after shot aimed to elicit gasps and furrowed brows and offended shaking heads (all of which I did while watching it, by the way).

One cannot help but wonder – is Newsom participating in the very objectifying she is trying to critique by replaying these degrading images?   It is an eternal dilemma for a journalist – the ‘if I show the violent imagery, am I further victimizing the subjects?’ question.  It is one that remains unanswered, but it would have been nice to see any proof that Newsom herself had considered it.

 Miss Representation’s format is tired and familiar: 80 minutes of depressing facts (including dozens of statistics with no identified source whatsoever), followed by 10 minutes of ‘we-can-do-it!’ Rosie the Riveter fist pumping designed to inspire the audience to go out and change things.  But what guidance do they get?  One woman speaks of the great mentorship program she created, where aspiring young female journalists rub shoulders with former press secretaries and the like.  The visuals show women in business attire chatting over h’orsdeuvres and white wine in what looks like a hotel meeting room.  That’s wonderful for the tiny subset of the population currently in journalism school or on track to become a press secretary.  But I ask, borrowing from friends currently occupying, what about the other 99 per cent?

Katie Couric laments that if women everywhere spent a fraction of the time they spent fretting about their weight volunteering at a soup kitchen, the world would surely be a better place.   She may have a point, but one that is likely better directed at the type of audience that would have spent the afternoon at a swanky salon, not in a theatre watching a documentary about the state of women in the media.  I for one think that hardworking and politically engaged women are the last group of people who need to be told to do more unpaid labour.

I suppose you are not expected to take all your inspiration from these two examples.  After all, Newsom ends with the Ghandi quote seen on bumper stickers and coffee mugs everywhere: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  That’s enough to prepare you for your journey taking down the massive capitalist, patriarchal mainstream media, right? … right?

There are things that Newsom does well.  The important, albeit brief, overview of how the deregulation of the communications industry in the United States has led to the rise of massive media conglomerates is crucial to understanding the larger political context of the content we consume every day.   Lifting restrictions and allowing the biggest names in media production and distribution to buy up smaller, community-based outlets – and eventually, each other – have resulted in a drastic decrease in diversity of narratives, both in the United States and in Canada.  Simply put, a handful of very powerful people (who, surprise, surprise, don’t exactly give a crap about women) control the majority of messages in the public sphere.  She is also bang-on in demonstrating how capitalist objectives are at the heart of this industry that refuses to veer away from what sells (women’s bodies), and arguing that we cannot approach the problem of the misrepresentation of women without addressing the inherent problems with capitalism.  Finally, a look at all of the subtle ways in which women are belittled and undermined in the news media (one example – reporters describing women politicians as having “whined” when they voiced criticisms, as opposed to the more neutral “said” or “stated” almost always employed in coverage of their male colleagues) was an intelligent and nuanced way to address the film’s thesis, and a welcome break from the montages of overt, blatant sexism far easier to point out.  These are great insights that not all viewers might have had.

But aside from these few educational, big-picture contextual components, the film comes off as a primer for high school students in desperate need of some media literacy, not for adults who have consumed at least a modicum of media in the last thirty years.  I think – or at least I hope – that the average person is fully aware that women don’t exactly fare well in the media they consume every day.  It’s time to move beyond stating the obvious.

In a handful of places in the film, Newsom includes footage from a focus group of teenagers discussing sexist media and the consequences.  They speak of their low self-esteem, their anxieties, their sheer anger and frustration.  I wonder if this incredibly articulate group of young people was given the time to brainstorm a response, to come up with realistic strategies, or to plant the seeds of revolution.  If they were, why didn’t we see it?   What an incredibly inspiring film that would have been – one in which the majority of production time and energy went into finding a solution.  Now that’s a film I’d like to see.

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