WAVAW’s Victim Services Medical Support Worker and Counsellor, Arlana Green, joined the panel on Portrayals of Violence Against Women in Film and Television at Women in Film and Television‘s International Women’s Day event. Thanks to the organizers for posing great questions and thanks to Angela, Hilla, Natalie and Jarrah for a wonderful discussion! Arlana and Ariana Barer (Outreach Coordinator) teamed up to bring you the responses below!
Does portraying violence against women in movies and television help raise awareness about the issue?
I think we’re a little past “raising awareness” here. People know that violence happens. Let’s focus on root causes. This is not usually the intention in films. It’s usually used a plot device to fuel men’s revenge stories or sexualize women and violence. I think we can do a lot without showing it. We haven’t thought of everything yet. People have been telling stories in really interesting ways for a long time. We can handle the subject matter without catering to male sexual fantasy and “rapey,” porn-informed scenes. We can do better.
In your line of work, do you feel that the portrayals of violence against women in film and television is having an effect on the communities you serve?
Of course, it normalizes violence. It’s compliance to participate in a rape culture. Women are routinely invited to compete for everything (including safety), throw each other under the bus, and be pitted against each other. Men are invited to feel entitled to women’s bodies. And we are all invited to see some communities (racialized, queer and trans*, and Indigenous communities) as less human, other, deviant, and easier to hurt. It all perpetuates violence. It’s easier to do violence to those we see as less human, less valuable than us. We don’t intentionally hurt or disrespect those we truly value. In the legal system, this can influence who gets seen as a “credible”/believable victim.
In certain TV shows and movies, we see women experience a form of violence and then they exact their revenge. How does this effect the narrative of portrayals of violence against women in television? (ex, Game of Thrones, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Suckerpunch, etc.)
We can start to see an aggressive act as the only possible act of resistance. Women are only considered powerful if they take aggressive (male) acts of revenge. This creates a single story – in the male imaginary behind the Hollywood machine, this is the only conceivable form of resistance to male violence. There are many ways that women can and do resist.
It seems that nearly every TV show focused on a youth audience has an episode focused on sexual assault–everything from Girls to The O.C. Do you think it is important or useful to show such experiences for viewers who also might have experienced violence?
We definitely need to tell the stories of what is happening in youth’s lives and we know this is a huge problem for all genders. For survivors to actually feel less alone, less to blame, not triggered, and presented with options for support and healing and an understanding of the context of the violence… we would need some representation of how rape culture functions and what we can do about it and what people are already doing about it! [Thanks to Hilla from Rape Relief for suggesting having characters actually pick up the phone and call a rape crisis centre!] Enough already with showing only the problem – and particularly a narrow and skewed version of the problem where it’s only seen as an individual consent issue and not a systemic form of oppression.
In film and television, we often see that these fictional survivors or victims tend to have similar experiences–their race, class, size, sexual orientation, etc. Do you think this contributes to commonly held myths about violence against women?
Anything that narrowly defines who is -or what it means to be- a survivor is not useful and contributes to myths. If you only ever see depictions of a certain type of person who is valued and believed, that can be really harmful. [We need to be finding creative and well-informed ways to depict the role of white supremacy, homophobia, colonialism, misogyny, trans-misogyny, and war in propping up a capitalist westernized heteropatriarchy through sexualized violence.]
Do you think it is important or realistic to show portrayals of explicit verbal consent and/or ‘healthy relationships’ in film and television?
The part between the sparks and the falling into bed (you know, the consent stuff) can be interesting! We just don’t see a lot of that being shown. In romantic comedies, we keep seeing the same heterosexual story of the powerful female executive who doesn’t have a man, but then meets a man who wears her down, and gets her into bed and suddenly we see her wearing sweater sets. She lets her hair down like a “proper” woman doing femininity properly in a consumable, non-threatening way.
If certain caveats are met–say that a TV show or movie has a mostly female or diverse cast, every show passes the Bechdel Test, is made by a mostly female crew, etc–does the portrayal of violence against women become more or less problematic?
Women perpetuate patriarchy too. This doesn’t necessarily mean that oppressions are not in the room with us. Patriarchy (white supremacy…etc.) are ingrained in all of us. It means more to have a cast and crew of all genders working actively to uproot and resist these oppressions.
Do you think having women behind the camera could or does influence the portrayals of violence against women we see on screen?
Maybe, but do they have a feminist perspective? They’re not in a vacuum. I’m more interested in how they have been supported to tell stories in a way that is feminist and useful.
If a film or TV director feels it is necessary to portray violence against women in their production, what is your advice to them?
Listen to women. Believe women. Take women’s leadership. We can and have to do better because film and television is obviously a huge influence on our culture, which is a rape culture. Do you want to contribute or resist? Be more creative! It can be harmful, but it’s also boring! Enough of the same narratives. These are supposed to be some of the most creative minds!
We can do better.