Over J-term, in the midst of an acute television binge, I happened upon a trailer insipid enough to jolt me out of my Jersey Shore stupor. The movie in question: The Bounty Hunter, starring Gerald Butler in the eponymous role as a vindictive, muscled man who violently kidnaps his ex-wife with all the sadistic merriment audiences have come to expect from the former King of Sparta. The trailer, in which a stiletto-clad Jennifer Aniston is stuffed in a trunk, handcuffed to a bed, and tackled, has such an air of comic exuberance that one almost expects to hear a laugh track looping in the background. The presumption that these scenes of intra-couple rage will inspire anticipation rather than disgust begs the question: when did violence against women become so trivial—and so hilarious?
In American film, gender-based violence is, unfortunately, business as usual, though it usually assumes a more somber tone. From Hitchcock’s indulgently Freudian Psycho, with its infamous shower slashing, to Demme’s Silence of the Lambs, with its copious shots of bludgeoned women, misogyny and cinema make comfortable, even gleeful, bedfellows. On television, procedural crime dramas such as Law and Order repeatedly render graphic, almost gratuitously gruesome, scenes of brutality against women, which take sadism to creative extremes.
Indeed, in the shared language of the media, battered women double as entertainment. More often than not, the female is figured as a perpetual victim: as the passive, the “done to,” and the “acted upon” rather than the actor. Women cannot represent but are, instead, represented, their subjectivity eroded to the point of death. Seducing the audience with the macabre-made-sexy, such images remain complicit with the stereotypic representations they relate, reinforcing, rather than disrupting, cultural myths of the feminine as immanence and contingency. Replayed again and again, these pictures remain more powerful than their attendant plotlines—so powerful, in fact, that they prove almost impossible to puncture. The pairing of sex and violence, femininity and victimhood, becomes normalized, creating a culture where women die by the dozens in primetime.
According to psychoanalytic film critics, violence is a characteristic trait of photography and cinema, as evident in the very language of “aiming” a camera and “shooting” an image. Enmeshed in the sexual economy of the gaze, vision too exercises a system of control over women’s bodies. Positioning the self against an inassimilable (female) other, the eye serves as an explicit instrument of objectification and mastery. As feminist Luce Irigaray theorizes, the supremacy of looking over all other sensory experiences—hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—has effected an impoverishment of bodily relations. Deflated to the two-dimensional surface—the film, the television screen, the billboard, the magazine advertisement—the female body has lost its material weight: thus abstracted, it has become an object that can be bound, gagged, and raped in virtual reality with near impunity. Viewed within this theoretical frame, media renderings of violence against women enable a particularly potent, and particularly violent, form of voyeurism. Reducing the female body to decayed and decaying flesh, then subjecting it to a distanced gaze, these productions provide an inherently sadistic pleasure.
Case in point: in its eighth season, America’s Next Top Model aired a “crime scene” photo shoot, where each contestant appeared as a supine victim, having been variously electrocuted, decapitated, or stripped of internal organs by a fellow model. The judges received these images, unequivocal in their eroticization of the brutalized female body, with banal one-liners, extolling their elegance, beauty, and “fierceness.” One chastised a contestant for lacking “some sort of spark,” opining “you just gave up and thought that that was being dead,” and correcting all of us who had naively confused being dead with, well…being dead. Eerily akin to Warhol’s “Car Crash” series, these images conflate simulated death with sexiness and transform the morbid into an overt spectacle.
In our culture, where bounty-hunting begets romantic comedies and bloodied female bodies moonlight as erotica, sex and violence remain hopelessly confused. Tellingly, our most emotionally charged verb—“to fuck”—denotes both sexual intercourse and intense hostility. Metaphors of rape pervade our airways, while the dating game is analogized to a vicious “hunt.” Children are socialized to believe that the sexes are at odds: a fact testified to by the timeworn mantra “girls rule, boys drool.” When women win, men must lose, or so the logic goes; hence, feminism necessarily threatens both manhood and manliness. Only when we treat gender-based violence as a crime rather than a spectacle can we accept that sexual relations are not a zero-sum game—and restore our cultural sanity in the process.
Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.