The narrative of women in fear and pain

My spouse and I started watching Fringe to see if we would like it. The first episode was cool except for the cliched and unnecessary “put the female lead in her underwear” scene. Undressed scenes are what killed my interest in watching the US remake of Nikita with Maggie Q because I could not get past the gratuitous bikini and lingerie scenes in the pilot, which were evidently needed to undercut the fact that she is meant to be a dangerous and out of control assassin and perhaps to attract a male viewership evidently deemed (by the producers and writers) too sexist to be willing to watch a show with a woman lead unless she is undressed for them. I don’t know, maybe some other reason. What I do know is that the plot did not need the undressing for the scenes to work.

But then in the second episode of Fringe they went right for a “serial killer of young attractive women” plot for no reason other than there is evidently something in Hollywood or maybe our culture that gets off on these scenes of young women in poses of sexual passivity being terrified and mutilated and screaming screaming screaming. I had to walk out of the room because not only am I sick of it but it creeps me out.

I’m not creeped out by the knowledge that terrible things happen to young women (and old women, and children and men and all manner of people especially those who are vulnerable and unprotected). I’m outraged and saddened by that knowledge, and I honestly think there is an important and even vital place in our literature (books, film, etc) for strong, fearless depictions of suffering and injustice, so we don’t lose sight of what we must strive to change. The people who suffer must not be silenced because of the discomfort of others who don’t want to be forced to acknowledge, to see, that suffering and injustice exists.

But I *am* creeped out that images and portrayals of young women in positions of sexualized passivity who are in fear and in pain are used over and over again AS ENTERTAINMENT, to give us a thrill, to make our hearts pound.

I remember the time a couple of years ago I went with my daughter, then 20, to a video store (remember those?) to get a movie to watch for the night.

After about five minutes she said, “Mom, I can’t stand to look at all these DVD covers because so many of them show women in poses of fear or pain and it really disturbs me like it is telling me that this is the story I have to internalize about becoming a woman.”
And I realized I had gotten so used to it–had gotten myself used to it–that when I browsed through a video store looking at film posters & DVD covers filled with shocking images of objectified and sexualized women in fear and pain, I just skipped my gaze right over it like it was ordinary and nothing to remark on. I had learned to stop seeing it as much as possible. It had become ordinary and nothing to remark on.

That brought me up short. I had hardened myself to it, and I had just assumed that my daughter would grow up learning to harden herself to it. But she couldn’t, or maybe she didn’t want to. Maybe she thought she shouldn’t have to.

It made me think about how when I write I have to struggle against the idea, sunk down deep inside me, that when I write about women they have to be afraid or they have to be in pain.

Too often when the stories of women in fear and pain are told, we are seeing them in pain, we are being pushed into the perspective not of the woman who is suffering pain but into the perspective of the person inflicting the pain.

We’re constantly being asked to identify with inflicting pain on others.

Of course we are. You don’t just take over the other person’s life and body; you also take their voice, their dreams, their perspective. You take their right to speak and leave them with only the power to suffer, a suffering that can be lifted from them by death or by rescue but always by an agency outside themselves. You take their eyes and turn them into your eyes, your gaze, your way of looking at the world. When such stories are told in this way, they reinforce the perspective of the person who is watching the voiceless have no voice.

But while it is important to say “let’s stop telling those stories then because they exploit women and furthermore perpetuate the view of women as victims whose only role is to suffer fear and pain,” I would go on to suggest that it is not quite that simple. It isn’t binary; it’s not either/or. And furthermore, all stories of women’s fear and pain are not the same because it does make a difference from what perspective we see.

In her memoir Mighty Be Our Powers (written with Carol Mithers), Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Ghobee of Liberia talks about discovering the need to find spaces in which women could tell their stories. Some of the stories she heard were stories that came out of the civil wars  that wracked Liberia, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone; others were stories that had to do with untold experiences within families, the kind of thing no one wants to talk about no matter where it happens. She writes:

Each speaker wept with relief when she finished; each spoke the same words: “This is the first time I have ever told this story . . . ”

Does it sound like a small thing that the women I met were able to talk openly? It was not small; it was groundbreaking. . . . Everyone was alone with her pain.

Everyone was alone with her pain.

That line stabs me in the heart. I do not want me, or you, or anyone to be alone with the pain.

Yes, I get angry and creeped out when I see and read stories about women in fear and pain, seen from the outside, looking down on them, inflicting pain on them through the gaze of the story.

I get especially angry when I’m told that these are the only or the most realistic stories, that they trump any other way of looking at the lives of women. Because they don’t.  This perspective looks in only one direction; that makes it an incomplete, biased, subjective, and even warped perspective.

You see, I worry that it is another form of silencing when women’s stories of fear and pain are not given voice when the voice is theirs or when an incident of violence or fear is told from the perspective of the person who undergoes that experience, who must live with it, be changed by it, internalize it, fight against the injury it has done to her, build or continue her life, live defined by herself and not by her injury.

I worry that it is another form of silencing when all such stories are seen as the same without considering from whose perspective they’re being told. It is not a small thing to speak up and to hear stories and voices that have long been silenced.

There are indeed too many stories that fixate on women’s fear and pain, and more than that, in my opinion too often it is the wrong stories that get the attention, the wrong stories that are held up as the right ones, the only ones, the most authentic ones. The truth is usually difficult and complex and often so painful that it is easier to look away. All too often, silence is the ally of the powerful.

So, yes, I will rage against the exploitative portrayals of sexualized violence, of women in fear and pain. But I will also remember the women who never told their story because there was no one to listen.

32 thoughts on “The narrative of women in fear and pain

  1. First, on the specific front: Fringe gets better than its initial episodes would have you believe. I don’t remember the first season very well, but I know there were repeated incidents where the “damsel in distress” tied up and experimented on by the mad scientist was in fact Peter, and I have a vivid memory of a later episode that put Olivia in to what would ordinarily be a “passive suffering, rescued by others” plot, only to have her rescue herself by virtue of her wits and ability to hold together. In the long term, she’s one of the better female characters I’ve seen on TV lately.

    But more generally: yes, absolutely. I am absolutely sickened by the “torture porn” subgenre, that seems to be all about women screaming and crying and suffering and dying, but of course that’s only the most extreme end of a more general pattern. Again and again, we get dead wives or girlfriends as the reason why a man becomes a hero. We get female characters being raped, and the act beings depicted in way that are titillating instead of horrifying. We get story after story where women are victims, until victimization starts to feel like the natural state of affairs — and, whaddya know, that bleeds over into real life, too.

    It isn’t that male characters don’t suffer, too. But they suffer differently. They shed a poignant tear and move on, rather than becoming the fetishized focus of our sadistic gaze. (I’m talking about general patterns, of course, not all specific instances.) Men’s suffering isn’t used to preclude them from also being agents in the story. I’ve done bad things to my female characters, but I strive to always, always make sure they still have voices and power in the story. We have too many examples of the other approach already.

  2. Excellent post! As someone who writes predominately female heroines who tend to get themselves into rough spots, this is something I constantly question and consider.

    Fringe DOES get better (those first few episodes they kept stripping Olivia down totally bugged me as well). The Olivia/Peter partnership turns into something rare on television: Olivia very clearly steps into the role of protector/person who holds the power, while Peter falls into the brains role. They both have their strengths, and they play off each other, and definitely take turns rescuing each other. It’s a very interesting dynamic they evolve into.

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  4. Yes, this.

    With epic fantasy, forex, how would it change the way the books read if writers made an effort to flip their gaze. It can make people really uncomfortable if they are forced to inhabit a place they don’t want to go.

    There is a lot of talk about “rapey” fantasy and to a great degree I agree entirely with the view that it is often depicted in, as you say, a way that titillates, that sexualizes violence. I just don’t want to see the consequences of war swept under the rug, as it were, that it’s important in a world where so many people are “collateral damage” (to use the old Reagan era term) to acknowledge that people are harmed in so many ways. Just not from the same perspective over and over again, in that creepy way.

    re: Fringe. There were things I quite liked about the show, including the female lead (Peter kind of bored me, but he may get more interesting). I may try it again later.

  5. What do you think happened on the show? Different writers? They got comfortable with the premise? The actors themselves worked into their roles such that the writers began to write to some degree for the way the relationship seem to be playing out? Or?

    Others have mentioned that the show gets sttronger as it goes on, which is pretty reasonable. The first few eps both actors and writers are getting their feet under them.

  6. When Charmed started on TV (three witches in adventures against evil), I tuned in because there wasn’t much of that. First season was great. But as the show progressed, someone upstairs must have said, “Let’s attract the guys,” and all the cast started turning up in skimpy clothes, lowcut clothes. I tuned out after the first season. I tried to revisit every now and then, but the clothes ended up being a detracting factor.

    I’ve also been disturbed by the trend of crime shows to have a woman killed by a serial killer. It seems to send the message that women are victims, which the crimes horrific and sexual. Men are very infrequently victims of these crimes in the stories.

  7. By the second season, the showrunners realized what they had — a mythology, character driven show, instead of a monster-of-the-week horror show. The monster-of-the-week never completely went away, but it receded, to the benefit of the show. And the showrunners finally started moving out of the X-Files shadow to do their own thing.

    In my personal (not universal) opinion, Peter stays pretty bland throughout the show, but Olivia greatly improves, as do Walter and Broyles. The show’s major ongoing failure is its refusal to do much of anything with Astrid; the actress is excellent when they let her do stuff, which isn’t often.

  8. Torture porn, for me anyway, commits the worst sin of entertainment:

    It *bores* me. How much of that stuff can a person watch, anyway.

    Above and beyond that, everything you say is true. We should demand better.

  9. The serial killer trope is weird. It’s like the fallback for unimaginative tv writers, I guess meant as a short hand way to “create tension.” As you say, it almost always involves young women in a sexualized way.

  10. As I say in a comment above, it has become a shorthand by lazy hollywood writers who seem incapable of building suspense by traditional means. Forms of this sort of shorthand exist in all genres, of course, but that one is particularly pernicious.

  11. We’ve been discussing sex trafficking and sexual abuse and harassment in my Human Sexuality course in college, as well as the “rape culture” evident in most of the world.

    Most popular media depicts women in three female archetypes: maiden, matron, or whore. (There’s an interesting book, Dagger-star by Elizabeth Vaughan, which explores this explicitly in a fantasy setting.) Men have a far wider variety of roles in fiction (though they are, of course, bound by archetypes as well).

    What saddens me more than the ambivalence adult audiences have to this kind of violence is the effect it has on children. Young women take their role models from the adults around them and the media they’re exposed to. If children don’t have the fortune to have a strong woman in their life, and all they see on TV are women who are or have been victimized, with large portions of their plotlines affected by this trauma, they will internalize this as the status quo of life for women.

    I know I personally went to Tamara Pierce’s young adult books and similar material for role models until well into high school, because there were no women who were what I wanted to be — autonomous, intelligent, and proud of their femininity — present in my life or on TV. Media is gaining such importance in children’s lives, it worries me what they’ll come to believe as they grow and determine their own identities.

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  13. So agreed on the issue of role models. Which also makes me think of the super-thin and super-airbrushed figures of actresses and models, whose bodies are all of one type and furthermore not even real in photos.

    The idea of girls absorbing these twin messages — of sexualized violence and unobtainable and very rigid narrow standards of “beauty” – is an unpleasant one.

    Like you, I’ve often relied on books for role models.

  14. I think you can skip most of the first season. I would watch the last couple of episodes of the first season because they set up the second season. Everything else you need from the first season will be shown in “previously on Fringe” clips anyway.

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  16. RE: With epic fantasy, forex, how would it change the way the books read if writers made an effort to flip their gaze. It can make people really uncomfortable if they are forced to inhabit a place they don’t want to go.

    Am currently reading Banner of the Damned, which is completely different sort of big, epic fantasy. I knew it was different, but I couldn’t exactly figure out how and you just explained it. Emras is our POV, who has no sexual agency of her own being “elor,” and it has altered how we view men, women, heroism, and so many other things. Her ability to cope with extreme culture shock has also colored the narrative, I suspect. Thanks!

  17. It’s interesting to me that I came across this blog post yesterday, and a few hours later watched a scene in Game of Thrones that exemplified everything you say here. While the entire series, as written, is full of graphic, gruesome violence, this particular scene was not in the books, and was clearly written into the series for television, exactly as you put it: “images and portrayals of young women in positions of sexualized passivity who are in fear and in pain are used over and over again AS ENTERTAINMENT, to give us a thrill, to make our hearts pound.” Perhaps they needed to meet their quota of nude scenes, but it really turned me off. Sadly, I may not have noticed (except to be horrified, as I was and as the show’s producers wanted me to be), if I hadn’t read this post.

  18. I’m a great admirer of Martin’s writing but I have not watched the HBO series for exactly this reason. HBO should know better as they have created some truly outstanding television. As you say, I think it likely they don’t even think about it. They don’t even notice. How unpleasant a thought is that?

  19. um … thanks. but the library has put the review blog on hiatus, so I am without a reviewing home (until/unless I start my own. time? what’s that?)


  20. Tell you what, Kristen, if you want to write a review of BANNER (because I am so interested in hearing what you have to say about how Emras’s asexuality alters how we view the narrative, gender, heroism, and etc) and I will post it as a guest blog here, if you’re interested. I haven’t had time to write a review of it, and I really wish it will find a larger readership.

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  23. Why bother to blame the producers, directors and writers of tv shows and movies when they’re just pandering to the generalized tastes and expectations of their audiences? As a criminologist and sociologist whose main area of study is sexual assault, I can tell you emphatically that trying to explain the dominant male paradigm to my (often very intelligent) college students is very difficult. Even most female students don’t want to admit this sexualized and powerless view of women exists and that it’s something that doesn’t have to be. Stepping outside our own culturally demanded viewpoint is something that many people can’t manage, and when they can, often don’t want to do, because it can be VERY uncomfortable.

    So I have a very hard time blaming the creators of such shows for doing what they do. They’re only doing what our capitalist way of life dictates- give the audience what they want so they can make the most money off of it. The audience must first demand change before it will happen. Maybe if we start by demanding a change in the quality and type of education our children receive (allowing history and other lessons to be taught from female and other minority perspectives) we’ll raise up the next generations to WANT to see something beyond titillating sexualized violence against women in tv, movie, and print characters. And maybe then I’ll be able to get my students to see rape from something other than the dominant male perspective that perpetuates such horrible myths (ie., women WANT to be raped or that they lie about rape and use it as a weapon to harm the men in their lives) about sexual violence.

    To me, it’s disheartening that as far as we’ve come in terms of women’s rights, we still aren’t allowed to move out of the dominant male paradigm and experience our world from a truly multi-gendered or ethnic perspective.

    For everyone who keeps trying though, I applaud you. Sometimes it’s like being a lone voice in the night.

  24. Stacy, thank you for this long and thoughtful comment. Thank you for being an educator.

    I agree that we have to change the cultural views of these things to change that dominant paradigm and that it will not fully change until that change comes.

    However, I would argue that there is a cycle going on that has to be broken as well: If the media and fiction perpetuate and envision sexualized violence as entertainment, people will continue to see it as normal. We are bombarded with this perspective constantly. So I believe that there are multiple vectors of responsibility and that creators can, if they wish, make choices about what they portray and how they portray it. That profit takes precedence over human well being is one of the problems I see in our capitalist society (like selling dangerous or faulty or shoddy products for as long as you can get away with it).

    Or at least I should say that for me, I have to create on those terms.

    Like you, I do get disheartened at time. And I mess up at times. And my own prejudices creep into my fiction even though I try be a better person, etc.

    But if enough of us are speaking up, then at least we are not (quite) alone.

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  26. This is very late, I know, but I was just brought here by a link from Nora Jemisin. I can’t help commenting because I actually did an entire post about changes in how Fringe handled Olivia and the objectification of female fear in the first season. The second episode of the series is really the nadir, with substantial improvement by the ninth episode.

    You probably made up your mind months ago, and I no longer encourage people to watch Fringe anyway, because of the way massive gender issues in later seasons — but I do find the first two seasons interesting because there’s such a clear difference in the conventional male-gaze cinematography in the first few episodes and the much more female-subjective cinematography very soon after.

  27. Thank you! I may revisit the series knowing that there is a substantial change (the second episode is really awful). But there were other things about it that I wanted to like.

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