Representation Matters – Women and Violence on Screen
We are in the midst of awards season and the recently announced Oscar nominations have renewed discussions around representation and ethics in the film industry. Questions have been raised – again – about the treatment of women; Greta Gerwig was the only woman nominated for the coveted Best Director trophy in 2018 whereas this year no female directors have been nominated. Last year’s ceremony was also a visible platform for both the #MeToo movement, started by civil rights’ activist Tarana Burke, and the TIME’S UP campaign for those speaking out against abuse and power in Hollywood and it looks like these discussions are set to continue. Bohemian Rhapsody, which won a Golden Globe for Best Picture and has been nominated for five Oscars, has been boycotted by the Glaad Awards following allegations of sexual abuse of young men by director Bryan Singer.
Conversations have also centred on race. Jordan Peele’s 2018 win for Best Screenwriter was a landmark first as he is the only black writer to achieve this accolade in the Academy’s 90 year history and it reinvigorated #OscarsSoWhite conversations about the marginalisation of people of colour in the film industry. This year, opinion is divided on the portrayal of racism in Green Book – winner of three Golden Globes and five Oscar nominations – and with Black Panther racking up six nominations, it will be interesting to see if Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster can shake off its lowly superhero associations and be recognised by the Academy even if Coogler himself has been overlooked as Best Director. Mainstream discussions have also questioned the absence or stereotyping of people from the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities and other minority groups on film.
Despite these discussions, the issue of representation in the media is often met with ambivalence – so what if there aren’t many central female characters in cinema blockbusters, or if women are relegated to love interests and background decorations on screen? Even though diversity in the media can and does provide us with more interesting stories (do we really need another white, straight cis man saving the world?), it is also dismissed as political correctness and seen as a minor issue in light of other social injustices.
Yet media representation matters, incredibly so. And it is of particular importance in relation to gender equality and violence against women and girls.
The Media Shapes our World
The media is a huge part of many people’s lives through news reporting, TV shows, cinematic releases, streaming services and internet content. What we see on film and TV influences our opinions of people, events and social issues, especially if the same messages are repeatedly presented to us in different formats. The media tells us who is good and who is bad, what is acceptable and what is not. It can repeat and reinforce oppressive myths that permeate society – such as that men are superior to women, or that women are hysterical and prone to lying – but it can also challenge these stereotypes and better inform people’s understandings of complex social issues such as gender inequality or violence.
The media plays an important role in informing viewers. In-depth discussions of social issues are often restricted to academic, research or policy environments and are therefore not accessible to everyone. The media can be used to explore complicated topics through documentaries and current affairs programmes as well as within fictional narratives and allegories. As a recent example, TV shows such as The Handmaid’s Tale have ignited conversations around gender and oppression, engaging and inspiring people who might not otherwise have chosen to read feminist texts or take part in political discussions around inequality.
Considering the ease of access to various forms of media and their potential influence, it is crucial that we analyse the messages that are presented to us on screen to see if they do offer avenues for understanding and social change or merely replicate problematic messages and stereotypes.
Women on Screen
Traditionally, the roles available to women in film and TV have been restrictive, both in terms of the types of characters that women could play and the routes that women have had to take to secure those roles (as the stories of ‘casting couch’ culture have revealed). The Geena Davies Institute researches gender inequality and unconscious bias in the media and their findings suggest that although women and girls make up 51% of the population, men appear on screen three times more than women. Female characters are often one-dimensional props intended to bolster male characters or further the plot and when this trend is repeated in multiple TV shows or films, it sends a clear message to viewers: women are not as important as their male counterparts. Conversely, the Institute also identified the positive impact of female characters, such as the ‘Scully Effect’ (1); women who watched The X Files were more likely to embark on careers in STEM fields than those who did not watch the show and they cited Agent Scully’s character (played by Gillian Anderson) as a direct influence. It seems that having smart, complex and capable women on screen makes a difference to the choices and opportunities that women and girls see as available to them. Thankfully, this trend continues today with Shuri in Black Panther, Amy in The Big Bang Theory and the all-female Ghostbusters reboot, although these characters are still exceptions rather than the norm in mainstream media.
Another recent change is the mainstreaming of media criticism. Analysis of gender representation in different media products has become more commonplace with internet reviews, social media, podcasts and blog sites providing platforms for people to dissect what they are viewing. The accessibility of media criticism has also introduced some analytical concepts into common parlance. Critics often refer to the male gaze, the tendency for camera shots and frames to reduce women to sexual objects and body parts for male enjoyment, as well as the Bechdel Test, created by cartoonist Alison Bechdel as a way of assessing gender portrayals in the media through the presence – or absence – of two named female characters who discuss a topic other than men. It has also been noted that there is a tendency for female characters to be injured, killed or otherwise removed from narratives in order to give the hero ‘something to fight for’ and thus advance his story at the expense of hers (a process often referred to as fridging (2)). Such concepts enable us to be more discerning of the media that we consume and can help us to determine why certain onscreen depictions may not sit right. As consumers, it also gives us a way to feedback to producers and creators the things that we want in our media and, as importantly, the things that we do not want.
Violence Against Women
Violence against women is fairly visible on TV. Popular dramas such as Downton Abbey, Broadchurch, Top of the Lake and The Fall have depicted rape and abuse, and crime shows like Law & Order: SVU, Criminal Minds and Mindhunter often focus on female victims and survivors of male violence. Brookside, Emmerdale, Eastenders, Coronation Street and The Archers have all featured storylines around gendered violence and abuse, although some of these shows have been criticised as clichéd or insensitive in their handling of these issues. Media depictions of violence are often sensationalized or ‘sexed up’ for the sake of entertainment and such simplistic portrayals replicate the myths already surrounding rape and abuse, such as that victims and survivors are to blame for their violence, that rape is about sexual desire rather than power and control or that the impact on victims is minimal and not worthy of screen-time.
All is not bad news, for media depictions can also challenge these myths and some creators do try to present violence in more realistic and nuanced ways. The producers of Shetland consulted with Rape Crisis (3) and chose to focus on the experience of the victim-survivor, Tosh, rather than on the violence itself. Sensitive and accurate representations of sexual violence in TV and film can help viewers to make sense of and ‘name’ their experiences, whilst more rounded female characters challenge the negative stereotypes that are often applied to victim-survivors The media can be a powerful tool for holding perpetrators to account by raising the visibility of issues such as abuse and making it clear that responsibility and blame belongs with those who choose to commit these crimes and not with the people that they victimise. Perpetrators might even see themselves reflected on screen and realise the gravity and impact of their actions when viewed through a more detached, third-person perspective.
Perhaps most importantly, the media can also help people to reach out for support; it has been suggested that a storyline featuring domestic violence on The Archers’ (4) was partly responsible for a 20% increase in calls to Women’s Aid. Even fantastical representations can be influential, with the superhero series Jessica Jones lauded for its portrayal of power dynamics and consent in relationships and the impact of trauma on women. Horror films often confront forms of violence which are otherwise overlooked by the media, such as harassment, stalking and coercive control and in the #MeToo era, the genre is increasingly focused on the impact of violence against women and the creative (if horrific and extreme) ways that victims can survive and resist violence (see Revenge, M.F.A. and Assassination Nation as recent examples). (5)
Media representation does matter. If you are settling in with popcorn to enjoy the Oscars ceremony this year, perhaps consider if the films being celebrated would pass the Bechdel Test, or if the women on screen are merely there for the betterment of their male costars or narrative convenience. TV and film can raise public awareness around complex issues like gender inequality and challenge myths and misinformation but it can also perpetuate harmful stereotypes and maintain a status quos of inequality and oppression. Ultimately, we should not forget that the power is with the audience; we are not passive viewers but active consumers of media. We have a choice over which products and programmes we engage with (and pay for) and we can evaluate these products through viewing figures, reviews and word of mouth. Discussions around representation can send a clear message to the creators, producers and funders of our media that we are tired of the same old tropes and we want to see an onscreen landscape that is different and meaningfully progressive. Hopefully, such discussions will encourage creators to offer a wider variety of stories and characters and hopefully, we will continue to analyse them critically and shape our media world for the better.
For more insights from Amy on representations in film, you can find her blog here.
- The Scully Effect
- Guardian Article on Fridging
- Shetland Rape Storyline
- 4. The Archers’ Storyline
- Rape Revenge in #MeToo era