Shade Grown Hollywood: Why Is Violence Against Women In Films So Popular?

ColumnWhere celebrity goes conscious.

The first time I saw real violence against a woman through film was in a movie theater, but not in the way you might think. It was during a viewing of Star Trek: The Undiscovered Country and Kim Cattrall was onscreen as the Vulcan intellectual, Lieutenant Valaris. She was powerful and in control of her snazzy polyester Federation uniform. Striding around the Enterprise, she ordered two underlings to “snap to it” and perform some Star-Trek style action. Maybe they were blowing tribbles out of air locks, I can’t remember. The point is, she was cool.

But what I do remember is a fellow theater-goer getting so bent out of shape by Cattrall’s Star Trek character that he punched his fist into the back of his hand. And yelled out, “Bitch, I’ll give you something to snap to it!” while his buddies laughed. Granted, it was 1991 New Jersey. As much as I hate to admit it, the stereotypes my home state has foisted onto the nation did start from somewhere. Nonetheless, my fledgling-feminist mind whirled at how upset Star Trek Kim Cattrall had made my fellow movie watcher.

Twenty years later, I haven’t forgotten this guy who was so threatened that he had to punch himself, shout out a challenge to the screen, and possibly grandfather the monster that is now Jersey Shore. Could a movie really incite a guy to violent thoughts, or was it just that he was pissed off to see a powerful woman in a movie that featured William Shatner phoning it in? So what happens when we’re dealing with horror films, where women are routinely sadistically sliced and diced for our viewing pleasure? Won’t someone think of the sensitive movie goers exposed to the antics of Leatherface, or Jigsaw, or Michael Myers?

There’s no denying that movies influence us. The Production Code of 1930, otherwise known as the Hays Code, was installed after movies “came to be regarded as a baleful influence on public morality.” This later evolved into the Motion Picture Association of America’s letter rating system of movies, allowing filmmakers to submit their movies for a good old morality grading. Consequently, as movie goers, we were enabled to make more informed decisions about our film choices.

But our argument goes beyond the adult choices we make to entertain ourselves. The point is, does sadistic violence against anyone on film ever have a point? Media shapes our understanding of sexual violence, and there’s a line between art house and torture porn. (For the record, I’m going with the definition of torture porn as “a subgenre of horror film that deliberately focuses on graphic portrayals of gore and graphic violence” and is exploitive for its own sake.)  After all, what really is the social value of gratuitous violence? I’m not proposing we start censoring films. But let’s call a spade a machete and be aware that senseless portrayals of violence against women on film are anything but a senseless portrayal of sexist sadisms.

So why exactly do we think violence against women on film is stupid?

Because it perpetuates “male eroticism as wedded to power.” Aren’t we better than that?
There’s a line between inherent decency and entertainment. Do you think seeing a woman get hung up on a meat hook enables any of us to live better lives? As Mark Mackay wrote in his essay, The Meat Hook Mama, the Nice Girl, and Butch Cassidy in Drag,” “in her classic essay on rape, Susan Griffin points out that ‘in our culture male eroticism is wedded to power’ (Rape: The All American Crime, Ramparts, 10:3, Sept. 1971, p. 3). The superiority that men feel when they see a woman being dominated in some way on the screen is merely an extreme exaggeration of the sex roles that our culture considers normal.” Further, Mackay points out that the violence in these movies “allows male members of the audience to feel more powerful than and, hence, superior to women, makes them feel indispensable, and keeps women in their place.”

Because there’s never a moral message to justify brutally beating a woman to death on film.
In Michael Winterbottom’s film The Killer Inside Me, Jessica Alba plays a prostitute named Joyce who is beaten to death both graphically and savagely. As Natasha Walter writes for The Guardian, “It’s tough watching a woman whimpering “Why?” as her eye is punched out of place and her bones crunch.” Walter further notes that Winterbottom was caught off-guard by the criticism of this violence, at first defending it as par for course in mainstream filmmaking. As Walter writes, “I asked him why it was that his film chose to show such detailed violence, he replied: “It’s more moral to make it unwatchable.” Indeed, one writer told Winterbottom, in Interview magazine: “At my screening, I think I was smiling for most of the time.”

Because it’s just lazy filmmaking.
There’s violence in films depicting certain events, such as those pertaining to horrible tragedy. Like war. Like the Holocaust. Then there’s hanging up a live woman by a meat-hook, courtesy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Does every film have to have fete culture on some artistically positive level? No. But give us a point to it. Or at least not one that impales a female character.

Because if you want to play a rape video game, you seriously need help.
Sure, this technically counts under the broader umbrella of new media. But did you know there are video games that allow players to rape and torture women? As CNN reports:

The game begins with a teenage girl on a subway platform. She notices you are looking at her and asks, “Can I help you with something?” That is when you, the player, can choose your method of assault. With the click of your mouse, you can grope her and lift her skirt. Then you can follow her aboard the train, assaulting her sister and her mother. As you continue to play, “friends” join in and in a series of graphic, interactive scenes, you can corner the women, and rape them again and again.

Because violence against women really happens in the most horrible ways imaginable.

One in four women has experienced domestic violence in her lifetime. Nearly three out of four (74%) Americans personally know someone who is or has been a victim of domestic violence.  Four million women and girls are trafficked annually. Every two minutes, somewhere in America, someone is sexually assaulted.

Ultimately, this is a humanist issue and not just a feminist one. Like their screaming female counterparts, men are likewise brutalized in films such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the Hostel movies, and the Saw franchise. Romans cheered on gladiators fighting to the death centuries ago – and it seems we’re still cheering them on.

Image: trugassi

Katherine Butler

Katherine Butler is the Beauty Editor of EcoSalon and currently resides in Los Angeles, California.