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Murder, She Blogged: Violence on Screen

Violence is integral to the detective genre: most police and crime stories are about violent crime, and you can probably count the exceptions aimed at adults on your fingers (even shows like the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which is decidedly on the light-hearted end of the spectrum, are not exactly gore-free: Precious may investigate cheating husbands, fake industrial accidents and track down missing dogs, but she also takes on more serious cases, such the sale of a child's finger in the pilot episode). 

In most cases, watching the violence unfold is part of the entertainment draw, and there is clearly a big audience, even among some of us who are activists working to combat violence in the real world. 

I'm not going to go all Mary Whitehouse, don't worry. But I do think it's pretty revealing how detective stories deal with violence, and I'm going to particularly talk about how violence against women is represented (short answer: gorily often and often gorily). 

The handling of rape and domestic violence in fiction all-too-often mirrors the way real crimes are reported in the press. The vast majority of cases aren't newsworthy: the sheer number of cases of domestic violence, for example, makes the statistically average cases banal and run of the mill—only if there's a particularly unusual story or brutal case is it worth reporting for most news outlets. Other times, fictional representations of crimes like domestic violence have a twist or a role reversal.

I want to talk about LA Noire a little again, because quite a few of the tropes of how violence against women is portrayed come up in the game.

Screengrab from LA Noire

As I've already mentioned, you play a police officer working his way up the ranks of the LA force. During his time in the homicide squad, you're set to solve the Black Dahlia case. Here is disconcerting element number one: As your character investigates the crime, one of the tasks is to examine the body. By killing three I'd had my fill of making the character zoom in on bloody, mostly naked corpses, and manipulate their bodies looking for clues. For some reason, this is much more gruesome when you're playing a game where you're in control of the character than it is watching a drama unfold on screen. Although, to be fair, some elements of the murder have been toned down from reality (Google the real Black Dahlia case if you really must know the grim details).

In this interpretation of the Dahlia story, there is evidence that the killer sets up the victims' (violent) husbands to take the fall. Your partner makes incessant comments that in these cases it's usually the husband or person closest to the victim who dunnit (which is true as it happens), mixed in with various victim blaming and sexist comments

So the player "gets to" enjoy solving a mystery based on a real-life violent murder; the voyeuristic details of a series of women being slashed to pieces, seemingly motivated by misogyny, are laid out in interactive form; there is a constant background chatter of misogynist comments; the representation of the few living female characters is sketchy at best; and the violent, abusive boyfriends and husbands are innocents, at risk of being locked up in a miscarriage of justice. 

The presentation of extreme brutality towards women (often young, attractive, white women) as a bit of titillation is a common occurrence in detective and crime stories, in whatever medium.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books are a much-examined example of this,as are some of the best shows I've talked about in this series, such as Prime Suspect. Meanwhile, some other shows tend towards playing murders and violence for comedic effect, rather than ultra-violent titilation.

I don't have any easy answers here: I enjoy a lot of these shows too, and yet there's something disconcerting about the way the function these images of dead women and violence towards women plays out. 

But gore doesn't have to come at the expense of a message to the reader. In 2666, a novel I am smack in the middle of, by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, the violence is every bit as grim as anything in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. A large part of the novel is set in a fictional town on the Mexico-US border called Santa Teresa, which is seeing waves of murders of young women, mostly workers in the maquiladoras. The story is obviously based on the femicides in Juárez. One part of the gigantic novel follows what is happening in the investigation, and the lives of the people in the town, with the story regularly interrupted with the clinical and chill description of yet another victim of murder and rape. The dismissal of the victims by the police and the media, particularly those that had been sex workers, is made completely clear, and contrasted with a depiction of the casual misogyny of the wider culture. In one incident, we hear about the police raping sex workers they have arrested. The serial killer victims intermingle with descriptions of the "usual" victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.

Unlike in many of the brutal depictions of rape and murder that appear in detective fictions, in 2666 there seems to me to be a clear political point being made. How can we as readers shy away from a representation which is so close to the truth of what is happening in the real world? It's extremely hard to continue reading the book, in completely contrast to the page-turner, action-adventure-politial-intrigrigue story of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example, even though that book was overtly marketed as a feminist tome, under the Swedish title Men Who Hate Women

I'm not saying that violence should never be shown or described. We need our movies and TV shows and games and books to address issues of the violence in our culture, and violence against women is included in that. But some of these examples just play into the same old misogyny—without asking anything more of the audience—which is a shame and a missed opportunity.

 

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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Even when done in contempt

Even when done in contempt and at the disgust to the audience, there is an inherent sexual element that thrills many men when seeing a woman battered, raped and murdered. Media culture can justify and cover up this fact by vilifying the murderer/rapist but the damage is done and business is profited thereby.

Interesting point, sort of

Interesting point, sort of fits the theme that "Women in Refrigerators" points out: the use of violence/homicide against numerous women characters in comic books (and often grotesque or humiliating) are done in a way to give resolve to the male protagonist to get vengeance on the perpetrator (and numerous times the women are killed off to only be killed off or neutered, while men/boys like Jason Todd end up being more than just a victim). It's a simple pathos story element to bring to the table a more heart-wrenching story for the game's demographic, while violence and murder on men tend to be faceless or humorous.

@anon Sort of... but I think

@anon Sort of... but I think in these films/TV shows/games, mostly the dead mutilated female body s objectified as a lurid clue. Usually the detectives are motivated by a desire to solve a puzzle, rather than vengeance. The dead woman's background is only of passing interest, or of interest in as much as it provides information on who the killer might be.

That is what is so different about something like The Killing, and partly why it was so groundbreaking that the show dedicated as much time almost to the impact of the murder on the victim's family as on solving the case.

Like in House, when House doesn't care about the patient. That's a medical detective story with a living body instead of a dead one.

@Jess True, I didn't mean to

@Jess True, I didn't mean to imply that it's completely the same (especially since it's hard to stay completely dead in comic books, supernatural dues ex machina's or such). It's just that I can see the similarities between the two mediums and how the death/violence of women is treated on numerous occasions. While the detective is motivated by a desire to finish the job rather than a Superhero's vengeance, to the audience the victim is treated as more of "it's a dead woman, you don't need to know much about her other than her connection to whatever you're already interested in". Instead of trying to get us emotionally tied to a victim's fate by seeing what sort of life she had to leave behind, we're expected to instead just get emotionally attached to seeing her in such a grotesque predicament.

violence starts at home

Of late, I've become increasingly more aware of this trend toward violence in film and television.
This is probably due to the the recent discovery of a very real seriel killer in my own back yard (so to speak), Robert Pickton. He violently murdered approximately 50 prostitutes. The government has spent four hundred million dollars on his trial. The victim's families have asked for financial retribution and help for counseling etc. Sorry, no money available for that. Does putting it on the screen enlighten anyone to the brutal realities that women have faced? I don't know. Maybe.

When discussing a slasher movie, my beloved boyfriend said to me "I love watching nubile young women get murdered. If I can't have them, no one should have them. Ha ha ha." It shook me. This is the subconcious of the watcher? The lust for this kind of entertainment makes me realize that as humans, we are seriously flawed, doomed, even.

Eww! Hope he's not gonna come

Eww! Hope he's not gonna come after you in a murderous rage if you two break up. I hope the relationship is good enough for you in other ways, but dating any dude with such a spiteful and cavalier attitude towards women's physical safety and well-being doesn't seem like a good idea regarding one's sanity.

Just a quick reminder...

While I get that you're just trying to look out for a fellow commenter (which is great!) we don't know the reality of this situation and we should be careful not to make assumptions about another person's relationship or mental health status. Thanks!

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Kelsey Wallace, contributor

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Sorry, I was being

Sorry, I was being presumptuous. My bad.

No worries. It's all good.

No worries. It's all good. Thanks for your concern : )

song of ice and fire

This is similar to how I feel about the use of violence against women and rape in the series the Song of Ice and Fire (the first book being Game of Thrones) by George RR Martin. Martin, I feel, writes about these things in order to create depth to the world he writes in and the characters that inhabit that space, BUT I think that he has started to fetishize these horrors. He touches on them so often and sometimes with such detail that it seems to me to be less pointing out the realities of being a women/gender minority and more for titilation. It makes me very sad becuase he is such a fantastic writers with AMAZING strong female characters (and A LOT of them too!) but in the age of Gore Porn perhaps this is, unfortunately, to be expected from a creator of fiction.

@trj I'm in the middle of

@trj I'm in the middle of this series, and sure, it's dragony crack that I can't stop reading, but to be honest I think it's pretty much bollocks from a feminist perspective.

I think the point where it really devolved for me into unredeemed misogyny was a scene where Catalyn Stark is sizing up potential wives for her eldest son, and talking about them like breeding stock.

Then there are the endless endless rapes and brutality towards women. I think it betrays a sort of underlying misogyny that *of course* in a fantasy world pre-industrial revolution, it must have about the same gender politics as medieval Europe. I'm also bored of fantasy worlds that seek a return to (even more) sexist times, it's just lazy and unnecessary.

There are strong female characters, but most of them seem to get into a lot of trouble once they're given a little bit of power, and their bad decisions are shown as having some of the worst consequences; Catelyn Stark seizing Tyrion, her sister murdering John Arryn, not to mention ruining her son by over coddling him, Cersei is a megalomaniac.

Then there are the 'exceptional women', like Arya and Brienne, and I guess Daenerys? But they are only ever an exception. A bit like throwing a bone to female readers to have someone to root for, but actually it makes it about how that exceptional lady can cast off the gender expectations of her society, which is not about liberation for everyone, or all women's inherent worth as human beings.

Anyway, sorry, just had to have a mini rant about this! :-)