Quality Television and the Violence Against Women Problem

If the recent murder spree of Elliot Rodger has taught us anything, it is that there is a massive vein of murderous, violent misogyny simmering beneath the surface of American culture.  Although many men have come forward to disavow the sentiments expressed by Rodger and those like him, just as many have also, somewhat shamefacedly, admitted that they have sometimes harbored similar feelings of resentment at their lack of ability to gain a sexual partner.  Although Ann Hornaday rightly drew attention to the seemingly endless run of comedies that encourage men to relentless pursue and objectify women, I think it is also important to take note of the ways in which quality television not only unreflexively includes violence against women, but positively relies upon it as a means of establishing its “quality” designation.  For my purposes, I will focus on Game of Thrones and FX’s new series Fargo, though the problem of violence against women within quality TV is as far-ranging as the genre itself.

Two disturbing trends emerge from the violence against women perpetrated within these series.  On the one hand, as the Game of Thrones example reminds us, people are willing to go to practically any length to disavow or attempt to water down the importance of the representations they produce, but only after public outcry has practically forced their hand.  As if the infamous scene wherein Jaime rapes Cersei were not bad enough, many of those responsible for the scene, including the director, brushed aside criticisms of the rape scene by arguing that, with these two characters in particular, almost anything that occurs carries with it a sexual charge.  Of course, the brutal rape of a woman who attempts to assert agency is par for the course with HBO and other creators of quality TV drama, but that is precisely what makes this such a profoundly troubling moment in an even more troubling trend in the televisual landscape.  Perhaps things might have been somewhat better if the series had attempted to explicate the consequences of Jaime’s rape of his sister but, alas, it moved on to bigger and better things (which, of course, continued to contribute to its quality designation).*

FX’s Fargo also features the brutalizing of a woman in its first episode, as Lester Nygaard (played with supreme skill by Martin Freeman) strikes his nagging, shrewish wife with a hammer and then proceeds to bludgeon her to death.  Most troubling of all for me as a viewer was the fact that the episode went out of its way to make me loathe practically everyone on screen, including and especially Nygaard’s wife, whose incessant comparisons of Lester to his wife serves to thoroughly emasculate him.  Just as viewers are encouraged to hate (and then, perversely, encouraged to be titillated by the rape of) Cersei Lannister, so are they urged to see Kitty Nygaard’s death as deserved and Lester as the man driven to the edge by a culture that views him as a failure as a man.  Once again, we are supposed to feel sorry for a man who lashes out in violence and murders his wife, all because society’s unreasonable expectations have left him no other way to express himself other than through outbursts of deadly violence.  Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

Just so we’re clear, I actually enjoy watching these shows and that’s part of what makes them so troubling to me as a feminist film critic.  How can I still enjoy a work of fiction when it seems to go out of its way to brutalize and perpetrate violence against women?  Part of the reason, I suppose, is that the “quality” of these TV series often translates into narrative complexity, which in turn enables viewers to provide their own explanations for why this type of violence occurs, reasons that may not be spelled out in the series but are nevertheless made available.  However, such a negotiation requires a certain kind of viewer trained in reading in certain ways, and many viewers would no doubt prefer to take their entertainment at its (problematic) face value.

If we want to seriously address the horrible position that women occupy in our culture–both in representation and in reality–then we need to start thinking about and requiring our representations and our realities to seriously, thoughtfully, and reflexively engage with the status of women in our society.  While TV and film may not necessarily teach young people in a straightforward way, they do gain their intelligibility by both relying upon and emphasizing those most problematic and destructive tendencies in our culture.  It’s high time that we realized that and started to do something about it.

*Note:  It is worth pointing out that Cersei is as unlikable in the original novels as she is in its television adaptation.  The problematic status that she occupies as one of the few women in the series to actually hold a position of political power is a subject for another blog post.

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