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That’s Enough Eroticisation and Degradation of Women as the Go-to Plot Line Thanks
25 / 05 / 2015
This month we welcome Amal Awad to the Sheila’s stable. Amal is a Sydney-based writer, ask journalist, cialis author and public speaker. In 2010 she published her debut novel Courting Samira – a tale of Muslim courtship and coming of age in the modern era. Amal recently contributed to the anthology Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia, unhealthy and she is currently working her second novel, This Is How You Get Better. In her spare time, she tunes into same blockbuster series as the rest of us; increasingly disturbed by what she finds there.
I grew up in a household where we changed the channel when a “bad scene” came on. This applied across the board – things could get awkward, fast, if there was a heartfelt sex talk on a sitcom or – heaven forbid – an actual screen kiss. This was when SBS was the high priest of sex, gloom and violence, and TV still had a whiff of ‘AO-after-9pm’ innocence.
Now we have HBO. And Netflix. The internet. And the ability to take well-loved volumes of fictional books to a visual medium and really go crazy with the storylines because in a world where porn is a pop-up ad, the boundaries of decency have not only been stretched, they have been redefined.
Since its premiere, Game of Thrones has been at the receiving end of both praise and censure. Nary an episode has gone by that, astounding production values aside, we were left to swallow our late night snacks uncomfortably while another character was subjected to torture, sexual violence or they got their head chopped off.
Light fun, really. While the violence doesn’t discriminate against women alone, they certainly get the pointier end of the bloodied sword.
The truth is, I’m not a reader of George RR Martin’s tomes, though I have no doubt he is a wildly imaginative storyteller. But I wanted to love Game of Thrones, the TV series, because it looks amazing. Yet, by the time I got, with increasing reluctance, to a scene where a young royal, Joffrey, forces a prostitute to beat another prostitute for his amusement, I just felt literally and utterly sick.
Perhaps I am sensitive soul, but I just don’t get it. I don’t know how to watch disturbing events, prestige drama or not, and stomach them with ease, diminishing its value to popcorn entertainment. Entertainment for me telegraphs ideas and understanding of people and the world we inhabit. It’s not harmless to depict Bad Things. It seeps into the collective subconscious and teaches us that life is not only hard, but that we are going to suffer if we are not the ones wielding power.
And this is the thing – even if it’s set in a fantasy realm, or is a futuristic sci-fi piece exploring religion (e.g.Battlestar Galactica), there is no hiding from one simple fact: the eroticisation and degradation of women through rape and violence seems like the standard go-to plot line. It tells us, in serious, sepia tones, that for a woman to be a Deep and Meaningful Character with a Past, something terrible must have happened to her. This is almost always that she is a victim of sexual violence.
On the other side of that plotline lies the “dead woman” motif. A crime scene, bloody body, investigator’s forensic deduction that “she was raped first”, etc and so on. This gives the killer the mysterious darkness that will torture said investigator. The female victim is dispensable. She is a plot device to depict a criminal mastermind. We don’t think about her much.
I wish I could yawn about it, but the truth is, this easy alliance between sexual violence and storytelling scares the crap out of me. It makes it seem normal. It irresponsibly reinforces the idea that women must be raped or sexually compromised to have depth, or that in general, women cannot be safe. I worry that these shitty storylines are too common, and that generations younger than me will grow up in this strange multimedia dystopia, their natural human fear multiplied.
Meanwhile, even though rape, violence against women, and yes – death at the hands of a man – are frequent, and age old, we minimise the extraordinary pain and trauma of true life victims every time we use this trope to titillate audiences.
This well and truly hit home for me when I decided to watch Outlander, the critically-acclaimed Starz series based on Diana Gabaldon’s hugely successful book series. It’s been likened to Game of Thrones, with predictable and less-than-subtle adjustments for the fact that a woman stands at the centre of the action (a feisty one, too – huzzah!), and that it involves time travel, so it’s Westoros with science fiction.
It’s not, though they have much in common. Whether or not viewers will stick around for the stories to their full completion is yet to be seen. I have already switched off, quickly reminded of all that bothered me with Gabaldon’s books.
Spoiler alert: the heroine, Claire, her daughter in a later book, lots of females, and even Jamie, Claire’s beloved Highlander, all get raped or threatened with rape. And then there’s the explicitly detailed violence. In one scene, Jamie, whom we are supposed to adore given his sweet hero status, punishes Claire for endangering their crew of men. In the books, the scene is disturbing enough. Starz’ treatment? Let’s put cheeky music (I think it was a fiddle) to make it a little more playful when Jamie leaps after a frightened Claire, puts her on his knee and spanks her.
Hilarity ensues. She can’t sit on a horse for too long the next day. Being beaten with a thick leather strap will do that to you. But she’s one of the boys now, so we can laugh about it.
In the book, Jamie is turned on. He almost forces himself on her.
There is no denying Gabaldon’s skill as a storyteller. She writes beautifully. But I read her books as a naïve twenty-something, and I followed, wide-eyed, as she documented horrible crimes against her characters. They weren’t necessary scenes. While it’s not my place to suggest we shouldn’t explore rape and violence against women in fictional worlds – I would certainly wager that it can be done more responsibly than in the present epidemic of sexual violence against women. But the detail in Gabaldon’s stories, the expression of the very acts, feel like an indulgence. It is meant to shock and be daring and show how horrible life was for people back in the late 18th century. Yet, so many other things deliver that realisation.
So I’m pissed off that this is how women are showing up in fiction. That we are seemingly part of a movement that seeks to subjugate us, and minimise the importance of power and struggle. I wish, though cannot expect, female actors would turn down parts that see them gratuitously taken advantage of and minimised to a tragic, blood-stained chalk outline.
Statistics show that the majority of rape victims knew their assailants. They knew them. They weren’t walking down a dark alley and assaulted randomly, even though this has, tragically, also been the case.
Yet, it is the stuff of porn-fuelled fascination, showing women as vulnerable and incapable of their own self-mastery. It is not a romantic fantasy, an exploration of erotica. It is unjustified. These plotlines do little if anything to move the story along. It has become a lazy plot twist device. A convenient way to shock audiences and hold them hostage to a world of darkness and madness, where bad shit just happens.
It’s easy to think it’s new, but really, when you consider the source material – volumes that ask readers to engage with material that sees beloved characters consistently fighting for their freedom against torture and depravity, you realise that it’s perhaps only more horrifying when you see it played out by humans, as opposed to in your mind, where your imagination can dilute the horror.
I have always been told that it doesn’t matter what you do, it matters what you meant. Intention is everything. This is especially true for storytellers. What is the purpose of scene, and is it worth the negative reinforcement it will produce?
These days, scene after scene, I am left wondering about this absence of meaning. And without needing to be prompted, I just change the channel.
Amal Awad is a Sydney-based writer, journalist, author and public speaker. In 2010 she published her debut novel Courting Samira – a tale of Muslim courtship and coming of age in the modern era. Amal recently contributed to the anthology Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia, and she is currently working her second novel, This Is How You Get Better. You can follow her on Twitter here @amalmawad.