dead women sell: detective stories from page to screen

I tried to watch a historical fiction miniseries on Netflix the other day, but I had to give up. Two episodes in, I’d seen at least five sexual assaults: one rape, three attempted rapes, and two different scenarios wherein unctuous men fondled women’s breasts against their will. Granted, the story took place in the fourteenth century when ideas about women and violence were somewhat different than they are now, but I’d had more than enough. Instead, I turned to Emma, letting Jeremy Northam‘s Mr. Knightley and the clueless but wonderful Miss Bates (“Pork!”) cleanse my brain.

Years ago I read Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, in which Inga Muscio urged readers to stop watching movies that depict rape. I did that for a while, and then I gave up. For one thing, I didn’t always know a rape scene was coming. For another, there were some really good movies and TV shows that sometimes addressed rape, and I hated missing them even if I didn’t want to watch the rape scene. Though I suspect Muscio is probably right that we should just completely reject rape scenes.

I watched The Sopranos, well after it aired, and nearly tapped out in season three when the violence, especially against women, reached its peak. I’m glad I stuck with it because The Sopranos was a phenomenal series, but I wonder what it does to me to witness staged violence so regularly and what it does to the actors who portray it. And I wonder about anyone who can sit through a rape scene and not feel a crushing weight. Moreover, through TV and cinema, we typically see women as victims and men as aggressors, both tiresome and harmful gender stereotypes.

Admittedly, I am a big fan of British (and European) detective shows. From Miss Marple and Pouirot to Inspector Lynley, Lewis and Hathaway, and now (or then) Endeavor Morse, I devour Masterpiece Mystery. Who knew Oxford dons could be so murderous? Rather obsessively, I raced through all seven seasons of Prime Suspect, in love with the indomitable Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison. I followed Kenneth Branaugh’s gloomy Kurt Wallander around the Swedish countryside and Mireille Enos’s intense Sarah Linden as she followed clues through drizzly Seattle in The Killing, though I have yet to watch the Scandinavian originals of both. I loved Idris Elba as Luther and Malin Crépin as Annika Bengtzon.

But I am tired of women being beaten, tied up, raped, strangled, stabbed, and wrapped in plastic. I should also point out that these women, like the detectives who work on their cases, tend to be white, as though we couldn’t possibly care about people of color being attacked.

And I’m tired of worrying about deranged men who plan to sneak up on me while I’m unlocking my car door or break into my house while I’m sweetly slumbering. (I don’t actually worry about these things that much, but, to some extent, that’s the message some of these shows send.)

Off screen, most women do become victims of violence at some point in their lives, but their lives are about so much more than victimhood. On screen, women are often reduced to victims or defined by the physical attacks they endure. Furthermore, by impressing upon us the idea that attacks by strangers are so common, these shows (by these shows, I mean all  shows  that center on violence against women, especially US detective shows that have spawned iterations in multiple cities; Masterpiece Mystery is the least offender) undermine the seriousness of the violence most women face: intimate partner violence and “date rape,” which I put in quotes because the common terminology also implies a less serious form of violence than “rape.”

A new British show popped up on Netflix recently. In The Fall, Gillian Welch plays Stella Gibson, a bad-ass detective superintendent called to Northern Ireland to review a murder case. Stella is the next-generation Jane Tennison: sharp, focused, purposeful, demanding, and fully in control of her own life. She ends up tracking a serial killer, who, by day, is just a normal family guy working as a bereavement counselor! No one in his life has any clue that he’s a devious killer! I loved Stella so much that I finished the first season despite my utter disinterest in serial killers, my disgust with the focus on the killer’s detailed methods and trophy-stroking, and my absolute disbelief that no one has noticed that this man lives two completely different lives. I’m pretty sure there would be some red flags.

I appreciate a female detective–or a group of women code breakers, as in The Bletchley Circle. I appreciate a show that follows one case for the entire season instead of showing us a new murdered woman each week, a show that has plenty of male victims like a regular detective’s job, and a show that doesn’t shove every graphic detail in your face. But outside of most Masterpiece shows, which are tame enough for a PBS audience, this isn’t enough. And on US networks, there is little in this genre that I appreciate.

I still close my eyes or sometimes leave the room when a woman is being beaten (unless she’s a ninja or spy or boxer or superhero) or raped. My stomach contracts, and I hold my breath, willing the moment to end. But loads of people continue chomping on their popcorn and staring at the screen.

So here’s my question:

Can film and television address the issue of violence against women without normalizing, sexualizing, glamorizing, or unintentionally promoting it; punishing women for making choices; reifying the idea of woman as victim; and playing into traditional ideas of femininity and masculinity?

Is that too much to ask for?

Most of the shows I listed by name were originally books. I’ve never read them. Is that weird? I always like to read a good book before seeing the movie or TV version, but when it comes to detective stories, I’ve just never bothered. I did read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo after watching the Swedish movie to see how the book dealt with violence against women. It was easier to take in written form but still quite rough.

It turns out that killing women sells a lot of books. In fact, they have their own genre: fem-jep, as in female jeopardy. It’s a subject that has generated some controversy over the last few years. There are interesting discussions among feminist crime fiction writers and readers about women victims, book critics who can’t take another bloody breast, and writers who speak out against “gratuitous literary rape.”

I don’t think violence on the page has the same effect as violence on the screen simply because watching violence will always be more visceral, but it’s still problematic. In literature, the representation of violence against women can still contribute to rape culture by normalizing violence, playing on a passive/aggressive binary determined by gender, and encouraging us to connect woman with victim. Therefore, I ask the same question of literature as I do of film and television.

I welcome your ideas. In the meantime, here are some excellent considerations for writing about violence.