Violence Against Women: Male gaze liable for normalizing abuse and rape on screen, change lies in awareness

Research shows that media content reproduces sexist stereotypes that link male identity to violence, domination, aggression and power, while women to emotions, vulnerability and dependency

                            Violence Against Women: Male gaze liable for normalizing abuse and rape on screen, change lies in awareness
'Gone Girl' (20th Century Fox), 'Game of Thrones' (HBO), '90210' (CBS)

Violence against women is a global issue and one that has been ongoing for centuries. In the 21st century, there is more awareness, yet, every year 66,000 women are violently killed globally, accounting for approximately 17% of all victims of intentional homicides. MEA WorldWide's (MEAWW) Violence Against Women campaign will examine different aspects of the issue and society's role in addressing it.

In July 2020, the #BlackAndWhiteChallenge took over social media as women across the world put up black and white selfies to signify women supporting women. It was not until after the challenge went viral that many began to learn the significance behind the challenge which was focused on femicide in Turkey. While the challenge did not originate to commemorate the women who were killed in Turkey, many began to associate #ChallengeAccepted with the rising number of women killed in Turkey in the aftermath of the implementation of lockdown measures.

 According to the United Nations, it is estimated that 35% of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (not including sexual harassment) at some point in their lives. Of the 87,000 women who were intentionally killed in 2017 globally, more than half (50,000 or 58%) were killed by intimate partners or family members, meaning that 137 women across the world are killed by a member of their own family every day. More than a third (30,000) of the women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by their current or former intimate partner.

What is the role of media — specifically television and movies in this "shadow epidemic"? Perhaps the first show that comes to mind is HBO's 'Game of Thrones', though it goes much beyond that. In 'Game of Thrones', gender-based violence was mostly used as a plot device — take Sansa Stark's (Sophie Turner) treatment at the hands of the Lannisters or Daenerys Targaryen's (Emilia Clarke) at the hands of her brother. Even Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) was brutalized when she was shorn, stripped and forced to walk amid a crowd in King's Landing as many called out "Shame". In 'The Handmaid's Tale', which was adapted from Margaret Atwood's feminist novel of the same name, the third season depicted women being punished in a wasteland known as “the Colonies” and multiple rape scenes throughout the season, something that even critics considered as "pointless cruelty".

'Game of Thrones' (HBO)


You might say that this was necessary for the plot, but was it really? Many scenes serve to dehumanize female characters, especially ones that are considered antagonistic. Take Naomi Clark (AnnaLynne McCord) who was raped by her teacher in the second season of '90210'. For much of the story until then, Naomi was the "bad bitch" of the show, after her rape ordeal, she is shown to be much softer and friendlier.

This is not a one-off plot device. "Difficult" women are often put through similar ordeals to make them easier to sympathize with. If you take a closer look, you would be hard-pressed to find the same plot devices used against unlikeable male characters. The problem with this trope is that it is mostly written by male writers for shows that are produced by studios that mostly have men at the helm, and these scenes are often written for the male gaze. Research has shown that media content reproduces sexist stereotypes that associate male identity to violence, domination, independence, aggression and power, while women are linked to emotions, vulnerability, dependency and sensitivity. 

This is not just on television or movies. In the comics genre, the example most often referred to is the treatment of Batgirl in the 1988 comic, 'The Killing Joke' by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland. In it, Batgirl aka Barbara Gordon is gut-shot, stripped naked and photographed by the Joker as a plot to terrorize her father — again, this is a trope commonly used in fiction wherein the close female relative/friend of the main male lead is subjected to torture as a way to further the male lead's storyline. This torture is often sexualized — as in the case of Batgirl and Cersei — where the characters are stripped or raped. This is, of course, something that is seen in real life as well. Rape is often used as a tool of war, where the invaders brutalize the women of the land they conquer. As Noah Berlantsky wrote for The Guardian, "Women are sexual objects; violence against them creates conflict between men because men have an interest in controlling women’s sexuality. That’s a good thumbnail definition of patriarchy."

'Gone Girl' (20th Century Fox)


While this pervades all genres, perhaps the thriller genre fares worst of them all — think 'Room' and 'Gone Girl'. In fact, violence against women is the most common trope in thriller movies and novels that a prize was launched to award thriller novels “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”. Founded by the author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless, the Staunch book prize aims to influence the source material for many popular films today.

In her book, 'Domestic Violence in Hollywood Film: Gaslighting', Michigan Tech University professor, Diane Shoos argues that what we see onscreen has a significant impact on what we believe about domestic violence, mainly because domestic violence typically happens behind closed doors. Shoos examined six films — 'Gaslight' (1944), 'Sleeping with the Enemy' (1991), 'What’s Love Got To Do With It' (1993), 'Dolores Claiborne' (1995), 'Enough' (2002) and 'Safe Haven' (2013). While she thinks each contains positive elements, she believes there are certain characterizations and narrative patterns in these films that have become so established and ingrained that "we seem to be stuck with them, inside and outside the theater”. Some portray an unrealistic and dangerous form of victim empowerment that involves running away and changing one's identity before ultimately standing up to the abuser. Some show that resources to deal with domestic violence are not only inadequate, but they also are total failures and this throws everything back onto the woman’s shoulders. Some make it seem like it's relatively easy for a woman to leave an abusive relationship, and in almost all Hollywood films, the woman in question would be white and cis-heterosexual.

'90210' (CBS)


So, what can be done to combat this problem on the silver screen? One obvious method is to include more diversity in front of, and behind the camera. Another form of rectification — especially for television shows — might be to lengthen the story arcs to portray that the healing process is one that takes time. Movies and shows also need to raise awareness of the resources available for women who experience violence. Most importantly, there must be trigger warnings at the start of the show/film.

The stereotypes also need to be recognized so that we can address the myths of violence against women. Writers and filmmakers need to explore the grey areas of characters — there are no good guys or bad guys, just complex characters with flaws and traits, as most of us are. Stories also need to go beyond the idea of women needing men to save them from other men. While many television shows are making huge strides in the depiction of consent — 'Switched at Birth' is a great example — especially in the post-#MeToo era, there should be more diversity in the depictions of sex and sexual assault.

Violence against women must also include discussions about violence against trans people on film and television. On film and TV, trans people are either shown as the killers or victims of violent crimes. Trans people must be represented fairly, with the complexity and depth they deserve. More opportunities need to be created for trans people to be represented as completely separate from themes of violence. 

If anything you read here makes you want to talk to someone, call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing may use TTY 1-800-787-3224. Additionally, advocates who are Deaf are available 24/7 through the National Deaf Hotline by video phone at 1-855-812-1001, Instant Messenger (DeafHotline), or email ([email protected]). If it's not safe for you to call, you can use a live chat service here.