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.