Reel Debate: Violence and Women
Visceral is a word that is used by countless reviewers to describe movies that are hard-hitting, emotionally gripping, or exceedingly exciting. I tend not to use this word. Why? Two reasons. One, it’s often overused. The second reason is more logical: I don’t have visceral reactions to many movies. After years of on-screen violence, torture, gore, and emotional distress, it takes a lot to rattle my cage. I say all this because I finally found something that did.
The pulpy/trashy “trailer park murder story” made headlines for it’s NC-17 rating, a wildly against type performance from Matthew McConaughey, and a whole bunch of potentially offensive material including violence and nudity. I knew all of this going in and prepared accordingly. While the general air of the movie was creepy and full of dread, I was able to take it all in stride. And then we hit the film’s most infamous scene. And I couldn’t watch. My gut tightened as if I was watching a crime happen in front of me that I was powerless to stop. Below I’m going to describe the scene to give you some perspective.
Note: this scene is both graphic and upsetting
*Heavy spoilers ahead*
In this scene, Killer Joe (McConaughey) has discovered that Starla (Gina Gershon) aimed to steal $100,000 from her family. This upsets Joe since the family needs that money to pay him. Slowly but surely he badgers Starla into confessing. When Starla begins to curse him out Joe responds with a vicious punch to her face that likely breaks her nose and shoots blood all over her face. He then forces her to simulate oral sex on him with a piece of chicken with gyrations and reactions fully intact. All the while Starla’s husband watches from the corner.
The scene left me numb with a terrible feeling in my stomach. And the more I thought about it I began to realize why. As far as I was concerned, I had just watched a rape. It didn’t matter that the act itself didn’t involve sex organs or that the victim had done something terrible. I watched a sexual assault from start to finish and it put a pall over everything else in the film that I could have found intriguing.
This is not a condemnation of the film. I’m not in favor of censorship and considering the cast of well known-actors this is a role Miss Gershon could easily have turned down. However, I do think movies like this should stir up debate about the violence women fall victim to in movies and how we react to it.
Gender Differences in Violence
Overall, men and women fall victim to very different forms of violence on-screen. Men suffer through physical or indirect mental violence. The physical violence includes torture and wounds during heroic actions etc. The indirect mental violence is usually an attack on family members. A common and vicious attack on a man’s family: threaten his wife or daughter with rape. Keep in mind, the man’s worst nightmare is to have his wife or daughter sexually assaulted. This is common place in hits like Taken, Lethal Weapon, and plenty more.
The level of violence against men is also about equal between heroes and villains. Good or bad, men get tortured for information or lose limbs in machete fights.
Women, on the other hand, have to worry about physical violence, sexual violence and psychological violence. Now in the physical violence department, women tend to be off limits. Any film that features a woman being hit is usually a hard-nosed drama and the blows themselves are often less brutal (slaps vs. punches).
Disturbingly enough, sexual violence is exceedingly more prominent and seemingly accepted. While on-screen acts like that in Killer Joe are a rarity, rape hangs in the air every time a woman is taken captive, or is left alone with an unfamiliar man. Even villains with a moral code have at least one henchman in the back with a terrifying look in his eye. The threat of rape is common and actual assaults, even if off-screen, are frequent.
And then comes the weighty psychological violence, usually in the form of threats, or in the aftermath of an actual attack. Threats comes in three forms and they get progressively worse. The first is a threat of bodily harm. This is terrifying for anyone, but this is similar to what men are subjected too. The second is threats against their family. Now arguing over who feels worse, husband or wife when the other is threatened is a fool’s errand, but when women enter the equation children become a massive bargaining chip. The maternal bond is something I will never fully understand, but considering the tales of adrenaline-fueled car lifting by mothers to save their children, the possibility of your child being harmed must be agony.
And finally, there’s the threat and/or after-effects of a sexual assault. Once again I’m drifting into territory I have no experience with, but the effects of one incident like this can utterly change a person. It makes them feel sub-human. It makes them feel ashamed even though they did nothing wrong. Many movie women refuse to tell their boyfriend or spouse what happened because they don’t want to be looked down, on or god forbid relive it. It is a haunting experience that no amount of physical torture can match. And yet it is prominent in our movie culture.
Why The Violence Happens
The second major discrepancy between genders is the reasons for violence in the first place. Men, in general, put themselves into violent situations. With villains it’s pretty simple. They’re bad people that use violent means to get what they want. Therefore, a violent death or dismemberment makes sense due to proximity if nothing else. With heroes they’re usually in dangerous professions. They’re cops, superheroes, or average joes that decide to take action. Nine times out of ten the hero has every chance to either walk away or let things play out differently. They choose to get involved and from a legal standpoint take on all the risk that comes with that. This applies to heroes or guys who get in deep with bookies.
Women, however, are brought into violent situations because “they started it” or as leverage. The “they started it” tag typically applies to femme fatales or villains who like their male counterparts enter violent situations or make horrible decisions. This is arguably the situation Killer Joe’s Starla finds herself in because she decides to enter a criminal enterprise and tries to rip off her family. She is not a “good” person by any means and therefore violence against her is more “justified”.
But women are commonly used as leverage against the hero in situations they had nothing to do with, or that they could have gone through unnoticed.
To sum it up in Die Hard style, John McClane is a cop that decides to take violent personal action against a series of terrorists and gets multiple injuries in the process. Holly McClane may interact with Hans Gruber as a group leader but seems safe from harm….until Gruber discovers she’s John’s wife and she is subsequently taken hostage and used against John. Being a hero may not be easy but being the wife of a hero might be worse.
The Power To Prevent
Finally, we hit possibly the biggest discrepancy in on-screen violence: the power to prevent it from happening. Just to make things easier we’ll have this category only apply to heroes.
Male heroes might take their lumps but they’re just as capable, if not more so at dishing them out. Even when they’re strapped to chairs, male heroes have a plan and a means to escape a violent death.
Females often aren’t so lucky. In fact most of the time, women are dependent upon men to come and save them from a violent fate. More often than not, women are simply spectators on the sidelines waiting to see which team wins and get to hope it’s theirs.
How To Handle The Disconnect
There’s no one perfect way to handle the disparity in violence between genders, but there’s a couple steps I would recommend to future and current screen-writers.
Step #1: Don’t Bring Rape Into The Equation
I know that rape is an awful part of our society, and that film is a reflection of said society, but it doesn’t need a permanent residence in our movies. Too many times there’s just one henchman who can’t seem to contain his sinister urges and attacks a helpless woman. If it’s not crucial to the narrative just leave it out. There are plenty of other ways to demonstrate villainy or seem frightening, and this is something that should only come up in extreme cases.
Step #2: Bring In Strong Females Characters
Though he is by no means the only writer capable of doing this, we’ll just call this the Joss Whedon rule. Mainly because Whedon is excellent at putting women in action movie situations without taking away their humanity or their strength. His rendition of Black Widow is a great example. While perhaps underused in the Iron Man-heavy Avengers, Widow is never a damsel, never pleads for help, or gets threatened sexually. It’s clear that she’s got a checkered past and might be deathly afraid of the Hulk freaking out on her but she’s still a damn good professional operative. In fact, those who presume she’s weak end up getting played. The main villain Loki, who has goaded the entire room of supermen, is taken apart by a show of perceived female weakness and subsequently gives away his plan. Even when she’s tied to a chair and being dangled over a ledge there’s never any question who’s in control. It’s Widow.
Step #3: Consider The Implications
No one of sane mind and body will leave Killer Joe thinking what was done was right. However, the thing that disturbed me the most about it is the implication of the “deserving” victim. Though everyone in the movie is pretty despicable, Starla’s betrayal is used to justify the violence against her, and some people might not see a problem with that. This entire concept is a slippery slope regardless of context, because the “she was asking for it” mentality is still so prevalent. I’d recommend that every male filmmaker at least consult one or two women before they bring out scenes like this. Not because they shouldn’t be made but because they may not be seeing it with clear eyes.
If you ever need a clearer example here’s Dustin Hoffman on his startling realization while filming Tootsie.