Phoebe Waller-Bridge nails why seeing violent women on TV can be empowering

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Moya Crockett
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Phoebe Waller-Bridge

“I think people are slightly exhausted by seeing women being brutalised on screen.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge has made her name by creating funny, female-led TV shows that allow women to play in different shades of darkness. Her female characters are variously weird, selfish, twisted, lazy, mean, arrogant and raucously sexual – traits that we all have buried within our psyches, but often try to control.

And one of Waller-Bridge’s most striking creations is Villanelle, the stylish and bloodthirsty assassin played by Jodie Comer in Killing Eve. (The show is based on a novella series by Luke Jennings, but it’s fair to say that Waller-Bridge had a significant hand in the Molly Goddard-clad Villanelle we see on TV.) In a new interview, Waller-Bridge speculated as to why Villanelle has proved so popular with women around the world – and made an important point about how women tend to be depicted in crime thrillers.

“I think people are slightly exhausted by seeing women being brutalised on screen,” Waller-Bridge told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show.

She acknowledged that one could argue that showing violence against women on TV is simply a reflection of reality. But the constant barrage of TV shows and films in which women only play corpses and victims can be dispiriting, she continued.

“We’re being allowed to see women on slabs the whole time and being beaten up, and in some ways that’s important to see because it shows the brutality against women,” she said.

“[But] seeing women being violent, the flipside of that is refreshing and oddly empowering.”

Phoebe Waller-Bridge with Killing Eve stars Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer 

Waller-Bridge also pointed out that Killing Eve isn’t just a gender-flipped version of a traditional thriller series, which might fetishize or glamorise violence against women. While the spy drama does show Villanelle murdering men, it is not overly gory.

“Strangely, there’s hardly any blood, there’s hardly any gruesomeness that we were allowed to show,” she said.

“There’s a man on the slab but no bits on show. We have just as much respect the other way around.

“BBC America, the original channel, said we couldn’t have that much blood on show, we couldn’t be too grotesque. The challenge was to make it feel very violent without actually showing anything. That’s a very different experience for the audience.”

There has been a debate for some time about the ethics of thrillers and crime dramas in which women are relegated to the role of passive, voiceless victims. As Francesca Brown pointed out in a feature for Stylist last year, the past decade has seen the success of shows such as The Fall, Mindhunter, Game Of Thrones, The Killing and Luther, all of which used the rape, torture, mutilation and murder of women as central plot devices. And out of the eight films nominated for Best Picture at the 2016 Academy Awards, four featured the rape of women or children.

“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,” Brown wrote.

“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.”

Against this backdrop, it’s not surprising that shows like Killing Eve – in which women get to play the psychopathic murderers and the flawed but canny investigators – feel so bracing. The second series is due to start on the BBC later this spring, and according to the show’s new showrunner Emerald Fennell, it will introduce us to a very different version of Villanelle. We can’t wait.

Images: Getty Images