Why crime thrillers need to show women more respect

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Francesca Brown
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Fed up with faceless women being killed and mutilated in the name of entertainment, the crime genre is getting an empowered reboot. Stylist’s Francesca Brown investigates…

“Vomitive”, “misogynistic”, “vile”, “pathetic”. With repeated scenes of mutilation, a woman’s breast being sliced off and children shot in the head, last week’s Cannes screening of Danish director Lars Von Trier’s new film, The House That Jack Built, ended in widespread condemnation. 

Described by one critic as “two hours in hell”, 100 people left the cinema in disgust. In the current zeitgeist people are finally voting with their feet, turning away from the glorification of violence against women in culture.

Such fetishising isn’t new. In the past 10 years alone, shows such as The Fall (which had a predominantly female audience), Mindhunter, Game Of Thrones, The Killing and Luther all used the rape, torture, mutilation and murder of women as central plot devices (Game Of Thrones alone featured 50 rapes in just five seasons). Out of the eight films nominated for Best Picture at the 2016 Academy Awards, four of them featured the rape of women or children.

It is a long, dated tradition. In the very first detective story, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Murders In Rue Morgue in 1841, the central mystery was the brutal murder of two women, while Agatha Christie’s female victims outnumber their male counterparts two-to-one. 

Director Lars Von Trier (centre) at Cannes with the cast of The House That Jack Built 

The trope of the disposable, anonymous dead woman was cemented as serial-killer thrillers flooded the Eighties and Nineties: “Books such as James Patterson’s Kiss The Girls centred on the troubled-yet-heroic male detective with countless female characters as silent victims in the background, senselessly murdered or waiting to be saved,” comments Sam Eades, editorial director of Trapeze Books.

The ballsy women of Prime Suspect (1991-2006) and Silence Of The Lambs (1991) tried to redress the balance in their own way, but these were more anomalies not a sustained rethinking of the genre. Even one of the biggest breakout critical hits of the past few years, 2014’s True Detective, lingered again and again on the posed naked body of a dead girl trussed to a tree.

The sight of a naked, prone female body being fished out of a lake, found abandoned in woods, displayed on photos in the crime scene room or discovered in the no-longer-safe space of her home are all-too familiar. Despite veering into cliche, they reappear in pop culture over and over again – even when, in reality, it’s ironically men who make up 71% of homicide victims.

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in HBO's Game of Thrones
Sophie Turner is returning to TV in Survive.

A change is coming

But as the lead consumers of the genre (in April, market research company Nielsen revealed 53% of crime titles are bought by women), we’ve had enough of the sensationalising of killers and their crimes while their female victims are left disempowered and voiceless.

“The male gaze has ruled the cinema forever and continues to dominate, with 94% of big box office films directed by men,” says screenwriter and critic Kate Muir. 

But the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements – and the powerful actresses supporting them – have made Hollywood take a long, hard look at its ingrained habits which, since before Hitchcock, have required a beautiful blonde victim. Preferably naked.

It’s a habit that is ever so slowly being broken. “Female-directed films such as Revenge [in cinemas now] show what appears to be a weak woman, who takes bloody revenge on her rapists. It’s like watching Lolita turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger in a black bikini. 

“Also, while male-directed films such as I Spit on Your Grave gave us a full 30 minutes of gang rape before the revenge element, Revenge director Coralie Fargeat makes the rape low-key and off screen. Lynne Ramsay’s recent You Were Never Really Here is sort of a modern version of Taxi Driver, but her male protagonist is rescuing young girls from sex slavery. She does not feel the need to show any gruesome detail involving the girls, but allows the killings of the predators to be shown.”

While cinema is yet to fully embrace the concept of the male victim – although upcoming thriller The Nightingale, directed by Jennifer Kent, does focus on the 1825 murder of the protagonist’s husband – these examples show a much needed shift in perspective.

Matilda Ann Ingrid Lutz in Revenge (2018)

Rewriting the narrative

In literary circles there is a similar shift. In January, writer Bridget Lawless launched the Staunch Book Prize, which will be awarded to a book in which “no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”.

“I was judging a range of screeners for an awards ceremony and was horrified by how many of them featured rape,” says Lawless. “This year, with the rise of #MeToo, I decided to abstain from judging in case I inadvertently rewarded someone who would later be revealed to have been abusive towards women. I put up the prize money myself because I just wanted to make it happen, and we’ve been inundated with entries.”

Despite opening up the conversation, the Staunch Prize has come in for criticism from established writers. Best-selling Scottish crime novelist Val McDermid commented, “As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed”, while Sophie Hannah wrote in The Guardian, “We need to be able to write stories in which that harm is subjected to psychological and moral scrutiny, and punished.”

Lawless counters: “If you’re a victim of crime, you don’t seek it out. A lot of people have written to me saying this is so needed and so timely – this is an alternative.”

Author Leïla Slimani’s novel Lullaby subtly explores the relationship between motherhood and violence 

McDermid and Hannah make crucial arguments but it’s interesting to note that the breakout thrillers of 2018 so far have been Leïla Slimani’s Lullaby, Jane Harper’s Force Of Nature and Sarah Vaughan’s Anatomy Of A Scandal. All of these titles place women at the core of the story while exploring the causes of unexpected violence (envy, motherhood, trauma and coercive control) in complex and emotional ways while still creating the twisting pace and tension of classic whodunnits. Violence against women (if featured) is far less gory and more psychological.

These fiction titles are part of a bigger trend: one of the biggest New York Times bestsellers this year is late journalist Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone In The Dark about her pursuit for the elusive Golden State Killer linked to more than 45 rapes and 12 murders in the Seventies and Eighties. 

With an empathetic style and emphasis on who the victims were and how their families were affected, the book is a world away from the salacious serial-killer biographies that have traditionally flooded the market. A suspect – a member of law enforcement – was arrested last month thanks to new DNA technology: exactly as McNamara’s book predicted.

Similarly, last year’s non-fiction memoir The Fact Of A Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich has been lauded for its addictive investigation of a death-row murderer and the effect it had on the writer’s life, while new BBC World Service podcast Death In Ice Valley (which unravels the life of an unnamed dead woman found in Norway’s Isdalen Valley in 1970) hit number one on the podcast charts in Britain, Australia and Canada.

A horrifically violent rape scene is presented as art by director Stanley Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange (1971)

With all these releases, the main aim is not to perpetuate the infamy of the attackers but to give the victims and the vulnerable a voice. The sensationalism of traditional true-crime magazines such as True Detective, which feature faces of killers on their covers (sample headline: “I ate his brain… it was very nice”) and even podcasts such as Serial, where the emphasis was on Adnan Syed’s trial, is being replaced by a more nuanced and feminist approach.

“I loved Serial but what I came away with was the focus was on Adnan not Hae Min Lee [his victim], ” says Kiri Pritchard-McLean, who, along with fellow comedian Rachel Fairburn, produces the All Killa No Filla podcast exploring the lives of murderers. “This great, smart, vivacious woman was just extinguished but I wanted her to have the spotlight [a new documentary titled The Case Against Adnan Syed, directed by Amy Berg, is due to air on Sky Atlantic later this year].

“We’re reclaiming the narrative for the victims; we try not to cover killers who have killed a large number of people because we can’t say every victim’s name aloud. The victims are invariably sex workers, people of colour, homeless people and gay people because, all too often, you can kill them and get away with it because the world doesn’t care if they go missing.

“It’s a conversation about equality and representation and how we look after the most vulnerable people in society.” 

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) 

Thrillers and true crime are no longer about cheap pulpy entertainment; in exploring the worst aspects of society there are bigger ethical questions coming to the fore.

“As a female acquiring editor, I do feel an obligation to find stories where the female characters speak up,” says Eades. “Next year I’m publishing Degrees Of Guilt by HS Chandler, a psychological thriller about coercive control. The author wrote the novel as the #MeToo movement gained momentum and we found during editing that her characters and their story completely changed. The noise was impossible to ignore and her heroes discovered their voices.”

A female voice

What makes this new wave so resonant is that it’s being fuelled by a female readership: “Women remain the primary consumer, with surveys putting the female readership of crime fiction at around 60-80%,” says Eades.

Pritchard-McLean underlines it: “The audiences at our live shows are smart, funny feminists. They’re switched on and politically aware.”

One explanation for women’s love of the genre is that the twisting narratives appeal to our intellectual desire to solve problems. Alice O’Keeffe, books editor at The Bookseller magazine, says, “There are now so many amazing writers fusing literary fiction with thrillers such as Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series while Belinda Bauer’s new book Snap is heart-stopping. For me, the greatest crime writers are the ones who leave things unsaid so your mind fills in the gaps.”

Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill is a gratuitous showcase of one woman’s abuse 

One innovative new release underlining this cerebral movement is Foul Play magazine. Creators Emma Hardy and Grace Harrison describe it as “the first female-led, non-sensational true-crime magazine”, featuring beautiful photography and considered, long-form journalism.

“There’s been a seedy image for true crime that’s beginning to lift,” they explain. “With Foul Play, we wanted to explore true crime in a beautifully produced way. There’s no blood or pictures of murderers.”

Ultimately, it comes down to knowing that we’ve had enough.

“Murder is a feminist issue. Women are authoring it because we’re sick of the sexist narrative,” says Pritchard-McLean. “The notion that any woman is deserving of violence because of what she does for a living, what she looks like, how she chooses to spend her time… we need to create things for ourselves.”

Like the work of #MeToo or the Seventies’ anti-violence feminist movement, Take Back The Night, the thriller and true crime genre is something that speaks to our primal and our intellectual selves – and is therefore ours to mould. It’s high time we killed off the female victim once and for all.

Images: Getty Images / HBO / Canal+