We Need to Talk about Gendered Violence in Films

By a guest writer.

Films have never been more accessible. Services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO, and Hulu are limitless. We are no longer restricted to Blockbuster’s three movies weekend offer; instead, we have endless options. But the accessibility of films means violence becomes an everyday encounter. Yet, rarely do we connect these things to real life.

According to UN Women, 1 in 3 women will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. Moreover, ActionAid reports that 73% of women in Brazil, Britain, India, and Thailand have experienced sexual harassment in the past month. In 2017, #MeToo became a social media movement addressing the scope, scale, and seriousness of sexual harassment. According to the NGO Stop Street Harassment, 45% of American Facebook users had friends who had written a #MeToo status update within days of the hashtag launch. While it is crucial to vocalise gender-based violence (GBV) and violence against women (VAW), it begs the question: why in the past year-and-a-half have we undermined and/or ignored the role of violence in films?

Needless to say, we have genres selling and profiting on violence – action, horror, and true-crime productions all use explicit scenes in their storylines. However, this does not change the fact that violence is ever-present in most motion pictures. A closer inspection of genres such as drama, comedy, and indie movies reveals both explicit and implicit GBV. It does not take long to find evidence of silencing, power dynamics, and emotional abuse to the point of gaslighting. Also present and commonplace are verbal humiliation and insults, public harassment, unwanted (even normalised) sexualisation, physical violence, and in some cases overt sexual violence. If we are to talk about #MeToo and VAW, we ought to look at the pictures we are exposed to daily.

Retorts to this argument could include: ‘but it’s just a movie’ and ‘watching violent content does not make people violent.’ While there is some empirical evidence to support this, research also shows that people who are exposed to overtly harmful images for prolonged periods are more likely to harass and sexually coerce women. To only pay attention to the first argument implicitly ignores an underlying cultural approval of violence transmitted by motion pictures, and indeed disregards the broader social implications.

Indeed, another frequently cited response to VAW in the media is: ‘men are victims of violence too’. To clarify, I am not inferring they are not targets of violence. On the contrary, men are often subject to direct and physical violence. However, while these scenes often become heroic rites of passages – a sign of asserting their masculinity in an epic battle against the villains, VAW is more likely to be sexualised and emotional; rather than being heroes, they are portrayed as fragile and vulnerable.

James Bond movies have been glorified for decades. It is an intergenerational franchise, and everyone knows the iconic ‘Bond. James Bond’ line. James Bond is the ultimate image of hegemonic masculinity. His English accent, dapper style, and gadgets seem to enchant every woman he approaches. He became a symbol of being a gentleman. On the other hand, ‘Bond girls’ are a beauty ideal for women. Note that they are called ‘girls’ not ‘women’. The younger, slim, passive, woman is explicitly a sex symbol. Even her name has sexual innuendos – for example, Pussy Galore and Kissy Suzuki. Evidently, the cult series reproduces a narrative of Bond, the male agent and player who immediately finds a new sexual (not romantic) interest in the next movie, and a supporting female character who is supposed to be clueless of the developing affairs, and focuses exclusively on her sex appeal. His enemies sometimes kidnap the woman, and she experiences physical and sexual torture while he saves the world. She is reduced to a sex symbol that generates conflict between Bond and his enemies. Many of these women experience sexual abuse in the movies, and some are killed by Bond’s enemies. In fact, out of 66 Bond girls, 20 died shortly after sleeping with James.

Ultimately, a cultural narrative is produced with men as heroes and women being in need of a strong man. The other side of this is that men are repeatedly told to ‘man up’, ‘be strong’, ‘don’t show emotions’, and that violence between men is normal. Moreover, Noah Berlatsky remarks that while all genders can be victims of violence in movies, the violence is not the same: ‘When women are targeted for violence, that violence is overwhelmingly sexual’.

As a result, a toxic narrative equating men as aggressors and women as victims is produced, and then reproduced. The normalisation of this narrative gives birth to a vicious circle of the reproduction of gender-based violence norms. If we are to change the gender-based violence narrative in movies, and in real life, we ought to look at images we are exposed to on a daily basis. We must deconstruct the binary of men as heroes and women as victims. We must address the fact male violence is seen as epic and heroic while VAW is highly sexualised into a binary of the dominant and the submissive. We need to talk about gendered violence in films.

This post was written by a guest writer, Mie Astrup Jensen.

Photo by U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class Ashley L. Gardner

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