A still from the movie Maniac with Elijah Wood. Photo: LACEY TERRELL
[TW: trigger warning for discussion of violence against women in film and television.]
Although I’m usually loath to subscribe to the notion of “trends” in filmmaking (at least outside of amusing collective unconscious collisions like After Earth versus Oblivion), I can’t help but feel that horror and action violence seems to be taking a decidedly sexualised turn for the worse, as viewers are put upon with increasing frequency by films (almost exclusively written and directed by men) in which women meet grisly fates in such a way that seems designed to titillate.
News from the film festival circuit is especially grim. Take the upcoming Maniac, in which Elijah Wood murders (and scalps) women, the film shot entirely from his point of view, turning what would otherwise be a grimy horror movie into a virtual reality first-person slasher. In Nicholas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling’s Only God Forgives, the bad dude’s nefarious nature is established by having him murder a young prostitute in astoundingly brutal fashion (all the while shot in Winding Refn's trademark “stylish” fashion with a “cool” score by Cliff Martinez).
A few months ago there was Raze, in which jailed women have to bare-knuckle fight each other to the death. And on TV, there’s Game Of Thrones, a show whose level of sexualised violence against women I am fast reaching my tolerance for.
There are plenty of far lower profile examples, many of them far more sickmaking in the way they present violence involving women: as something that’s a bit exciting.
It goes without saying that women’s being portrayed as victims of violence on-screen is nothing new; after all, Carol J. Clover’s notion of the “Final girl” trope has been a huge part of cinema, particularly horror, since the 1970s.
It’s also true that men are arguably as, if not more, disposable in film - particularly action - than women. Witness any scene in which our hero mows through dozens or even hundreds of nameless dudes in the pursuit of victory (Rambo’s 2008 return is one especially memorable, if alarmingly colonialist, almost entirely male bloodbath).
Generally speaking, I am inclined to agree with Clover’s idea (as expressed by Donald Totaro’s essay on the topic) that “the audience, male and female, is structurally 'forced' to identify with the resourceful young female (the Final Girl) who survives the serial attacker and usually ends the threat (until the sequel anyway). So while the narratively dominant killer's subjective point of view may be male within the narrative, the male viewer is still rooting for the Final Girl to overcome the killer.”
That may be true even today, but the current problem is twofold: the violence itself is presented in an ambiguous, slightly sexy way, and female characters’ disposability seems to be increasingly and inextricably linked to sex.
Look to Game Of Thrones for what appears to be the showrunners’ gleeful enthusiasm for dispatching sex workers and “sluts”. Female characters who meet a grisly end are either sexualised and then disposed of, or disposed of in a manner that has a quease-inducing patina of sexualisation: Joffrey ordering Ros to beat her naked co-worker, Daisy, for example, followed a season later by Ros’ untimely and abrupt (and naked) end at the hands of Joffrey and his crossbow.
Readers of George R. R. Martin’s books will know that while there is violence against women in A Song Of Ice And Fire, it’s the HBO adaptation’s showrunners David Benioff and D. B. Weiss who’ve amped it up and on occasion invented it where they see fit (indeed, Ros was entirely their creation, so her “fridging” was their decision alone), and the directors who’ve regularly framed it in such a sexualised fashion.
(I wracked my brains for similar examples involving men on screen and could only come up with William Friedkin’s 1980 shocker, Cruising, in which a serial killer targets men he picks up at gay bars - but even then, any violence is relatively straightforward and free of sexual frisson - “no homo”, as the phrase goes.
On-screen acts of sexual violence against women are also increasingly presented in an ambiguous manner. The way in which David Fincher handled his Girl With The Dragon Tattoo adaptation’s rape scenes is a compelling example; they are shot in such a way that seems to be edging towards eroticism, rather than simply presenting sexual brutality as something abject.
A common defense of recent horror/thrillers in which women are indiscriminately done in is that they are, in some way, “empowering”. It’s hard to see this as little more than what Feminist Film describes as “Horror Film Dude Trying To Make Right With The Women. That kind of director doesn’t take a shot at producing a feminist film by, say, workin’ real hard to write a woman character and trying not to flash her tits too much. Most of them, instead, try to craft a feminist redemption by fleshing out sexism, abuse, rape, misogyny, and then inserting a female character that is allowed to overcome these things.”
(I expect that’s the spin that will be put on Raze if and when it finds a wider release; that its “women beat each other to death” narrative is in some way a triumphant example of girl power.)
In the end, it’s not so much the issue of violence against women being depicted on screen (that’s another twenty or so articles in itself), but the way it’s being carried out. In the mainstream slasher flicks of the ‘80s and ‘70s, “sluts” might have been done in by killers, but it all seemed about arousing pity and terror rather than just arousal. Or is that just nostalgia talking?
It’s always tempting to let hindsight bathe the past in a rose-coloured tint; it makes present horrors easier to bear if we don’t have to think of them as the grinding inevitability of “how things have always been” and rather as a recent spate of awfulness that we might be able to undo. It’s less difficult to imagine eradicating some aspect of our culture when we can convince ourselves it’s something new.
The critical discourse surrounding rape culture speaks to this notion; seeing rape culture as a hallmark of the 21st century makes the battle against it a lot less insurmountable than viewing it as something that’s existed since the sixth century BCE, when Greek poet Hipponax wrote, “There are two days on which a woman is most pleasing---when someone marries her and when he carries out her dead body.”
In this sense, it’s tough to determine whether there is a genuine groundswell of violence against women narratives, or if it’s just another “colourful” chapter in a long history of hideousness. And I’m not sure which answer is more depressing.