Monday, 1 April 2013

Is it OK to show violence against women on TV?

Of course we have to depict violence against women on TV, in print and on stage. Violence against people is a fact of life, so we must confront it, and it would be ridiculous to decide it was alright to show violence against men and not women.

But there is a certain kind of fetishised on-screen violence, exclusively directed towards women, which receives far more screen time than it needs to.

The delightful King Joffrey, on a thrones made of knives

Game of Thrones

I am watching the second series of the medieval fantasy TV show Game of Thrones. In one episode the adolescent King Joffrey is presented with two prostitutes, in the hope that a night of revels might make him slightly less unpleasant. However, instead of gratefully resigning his virginity, he gets his rocks off by instructing one of the prostitutes to beat the other, in increasingly vicious and painful ways, until she is either dead or severely wounded.

The strongest effect of the scene is to make the audience dislike Joffrey - previously he was a deeply unpleasant teenager, whereas this reveals him as something much more sinister.

Eroticised violence against women

Game of Thrones doesn't at any point condone these kinds of violent sex acts. But the context in which it presents this violence - a luxurious bedroom, with two attractive and entirely naked women, prepared to do anything to satisfy the demands of their adolescent client (although they are slightly reluctant to beat each other to death) - is fetishised.

Whilst the main message is that this young man is bad for wanting to do this to women, there is a subtext that suggests that abusing women is a form of pleasure for some men.

I read a piece about the BBC's Ripper Street, when it was on a few months ago, which suggested there is an appetite for seeing horrible things happen to beautiful young women. These kinds of eroticised violence against women are presented to both disgust and titillate. And it's not a new thing - if you don't believe me read the Marquis de Sade, he reaches levels of abuse and depravity that Game of Thrones couldn't go near.

I can't think of an example that is the opposite way around, with women deriving pleasure from inflicting serious physical pain and damage on men (please tell me if you think of one).

Censoring violence

The episode left me feeling uncomfortable, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - I want my light entertainment to challenge me a little bit (although Game of Thrones is not an obvious choice for intellectual challenge).

It's not the violence that disturbs me - there's a lot of gore in this series - but the sexualised way it is presented somehow makes it worse than all the torturing, maiming and killing that goes on elsewhere.

I wouldn't censor TV, I think there is a responsibility to depict the real world, and even though Game of Thrones shows a made-up world where most of the population has a claim to the throne and a woman can give birth to dragons, the human behaviour it depicts, is realistic enough.

But I think that programme makers should think seriously about the ways in which they present violence against women. If violence against men isn't presented as a sexual thing, then must violence against women be shown so frequently in this way?


  1. I can think of a hundred movie scenes in which a queen/empress/high-power female figure is seen delighting in watching heavily oiled muscle-men in loin cloths fighting to the death for her amusement and titillation...pick any early Jean-Claude Van Damme movie at random and you'll find such a scene. And it makes 'sense' in the same way as does the Game Of Thrones scene you describe.

    It's a depiction of what happens when you amplify human urges to extreme/psychotic levels, urges we all have to a greater or lesser extent, and can therefore empathise with, however uncomfortable that fact may be. Stabbing someone to death with a biro is something very few of us will ever do, and yet you'd struggle to find an office worker who hasn't thought about it at least once, and would therefore relish such a scene in a movie. What goes on in our heads, the fantasies and aspirations and resentments are a thousand times more extreme than our modern western society will allow, and so we indulge vicariously through the media. I don't think these kind of violent/sexual scenes introduce anything new to our collective psyche, and in fact it takes considerable skill and forethought on the part of a screenwriter to make such things engaging and shocking, desensitised to it as we increasingly are.

    Actively promoting violence against women is of course intolerable, and I think a movie that did only that would sell very few tickets. But exploring the minds of those who commit or encourage such things, and being unnerved by how even our modern society is only ever a hair's breadth away from such regression towards our baser instincts...that's interesting. That's worth exploring and discussing. Boobs and bodycount do not a blockbuster make, and if that's all you'd seen in that Game Of Thrones episode, I very much doubt you'd have written a blog about it!

  2. I think maybe I should have watched a few more Jean-Claude Van Damme films! I think there are a lot more examples of sexualised violence done to women than men, but that's probably a reflection of real life. I agree, the fact that it makes me uncomfortable doesn't necessarily mean these scenes shouldn't be shown, but in my opinion it does mean that they should be analysed, and criticised.

  3. I'll warrant Jean Claude and his buddies are far more in charge of their violence too. Sex and violence are both used to titilate, but sexual violence is somehow more disturbing.

  4. My approach to GoT has been less sophisticated: I concluded after season 1 that George R R Martin is a total misogynist!

    (Though he does describe himself as a feminist - )

    This had been the main thing putting me off season 2 until reading your blog. Aaaargh. Let me know if Joffrey gets whacked and I might give it a go.

  5. Game of Thrones is a man's world, but that's kind of in keeping with the medievalness. It does have strong female characters however. I think if the girls were all wussy and boring I wouldn't enjoy watching it. Joffrey alive and kicking so far.