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“Why we need to stop using rape as a lazy plot twist”

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Lucy Mangan
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Stylist’s Lucy Mangan explains the problem with constantly depicting violence against women.

It was the moment two female characters were brutalised within a few minutes of each other – one with a fatal beating by men who had abducted her, another by her rapist army superior – in a recent episode of BBC drama Collateral that did it for me.

I normally barely even notice when violence against women appears on my screen in the name of drama. If I did, I would hardly be able to watch telly again. It’s the backstory on everything from The Americans to Strike (a largely sensitive production that still displays plenty of dismembered female body parts and shows the eponymous detective bonding with his sidekick Robin over her past rape). It’s window-dressing in the likes of Game Of Thrones and Westworld. And that’s before we even mention procedural dramas, whose battered victims blur in my mind into generic shots of bloodied, unconscious or weeping women being thrown into the nearest gutter, onto floors or out of cars after the worst has happened so that the cops can demonstrate their intellect and compassion and we all get our 45-minute fix of purgative problem-solving.

Perhaps my reserves of tolerance were low because I’ve been reading so many crime novels recently. After you’ve gobbled up the top tier (psychologically acute, with brilliant characterisation, no trivialising of the subject, the victim or the suffering – Tana French, Erin Kelly, Susie Steiner, Elly Griffiths and more all provide this unfailingly), what proliferates thereafter is sexual abuse. I read – though didn’t finish – three books in a row that turned out to hinge on incest. Stalking, imprisonment, torture, beatings and the murder of women are, at best, simple plot points. At worst, they are merely ways to motivate, screw up or show how sensitive in response a male character can be.

So pervasive has it become in all sorts of media that I have reached rape saturation point. I greeted the news that a new prize is being launched by author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless to reward writers who avoid using murder or other forms of violence against women as the basis for their stories with – if not delight, then at least relief.

It’s not, of course, that I think these things should never be the basis of books, TV drama, theatre or anything else – and I don’t think Lawless, who specifically noted this when she launched the £2,000 Staunch prize (which she is herself funding) does either. But I do think it’s valuable to have someone point out when a trope has become overused and its subject devalued.

Why? Because the depictions of women, the images and narratives used in our culture, affect us all. They send messages about our position within it. The current normalisation of graphic violence – and the readiness with which events that induce terrible and lifelong trauma are the go-to source for mass entertainment – tells us that women are not being taken seriously. It also tells us a lot about who still holds the keys to commissioning and who therefore still gets to frame the world from their point of view. Would we see quite so much female rape if it were women who greenlit more films and TV programmes?

I’m not advocating censorship. I’m advocating depicting violence against women as a central problem of our age. Not mere set-dressing or a useful prop for a hero. Because it’s our reality. Fiction needs to remember that.

Image: Richard Jaimes