#WomenInMediaMonth Day 30: Torture Porn, Media, & Strength Through Survival

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Trigger Warning: this post discusses violence against women — specifically rape, domestic violence, physical & mental abuse — and how media uses this to sell media forms. Please proceed with caution.

If media has taught me one thing, it is that there is a lot to say about the difficult narratives of our lives.

Media — books, movies, television, music — is how we decipher the mess of our own lives. It’s how we find the cultural or societal temperature on what is weird, what is normal, and what is to come. It’s how we begin to identify ourselves in other representatives of humanity and carve out our own spaces. But what does it say when violence against women is normalized and treated as a spectator’s sport for ratings? How are viewers, especially those who identify as survivors of these horrific crimes, expected to identify and find themselves in this minefield of disturbance and violence? These are questions I ask, looking at the trend of.

I mentioned before on how superhero comics add to the climate of using violence against women as profit, but they aren’t the only industry in media to do so. As women are seen as objects and not well-rounded, three dimensional individuals, it makes it that much easier for our pain to be seen as points to sensationalize a product to make it most appealing to watch. In comics, the most notorious example of this has been The Killing Joke, where Barbara Gordon’s victimization at the hands of the Joker is turned into a conflict point in Batman’s narrative to stop the villain. As is mentioned in this read, “torture porn” has been rising in nerd culture and mainstream media circles as a way to put products on the cutting edge and stand them apart from the other similar products on the market. It literally reduces female and other marginalized characters into objects for which this torture can be inflicted on for maximum audience reaction. Though it has been done explicitly in comics (depowering superheroines and linking this infliction of pain with sexual undertones), it can also be seen in films — often horror, like the SAW franchise or in other genres — and television.

Popular shows like True Blood, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, and have examples of violence against women being used as commodification and selling points. In True Blood, we see this over and over again in Tara’s storyline. She is continuously dehumanized (this can be seen as a consequence to her being the long Black Female character in most of the series) and her character survives physical, emotional, sexual abuse, rape, and even captivity. We also see this trend be included to other female True Blood character’s storylines, even heroine Sookie, but it is almost never done as routinely or explicitly as it is with Tara.

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Tara in season 3 with Franklin. Credit to LadyGeekGirl.[/caption]

Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, the cult classic by Joss Whedon, also uses violence against women to sensationalize the show. As this Mary Sue article explains, domestic violence is used in Buffy’s relationship with Riley, which is “problematic” at best since it’s introduction. As the relationship progresses, there are other signs that it does not portray a healthy, empowering relationship at all but a toxic and domestically violent one:

He refuses to respect her boundaries, forcing a conversation Buffy makes clear she does not want to have. He manhandles her, grabbing her and using physical force to compel her attention multiple times. He blames her for Dracula’s attack in the season five premiere (considering the historical connection between vampirism and sex, the “Dracula” episode serves as a metaphor for sexual assault) and admits to wanting revenge on her for “letting” Dracula bite her. He superficially acknowledges becoming a thrall was his fault, but nonetheless shifts responsibility for his actions onto Buffy — if she’d just expended the effort to convince him of her love, he wouldn’t have done it. Then he then outlines all of the ways that she could have “proved” her love for him. Finally, he hands her an ultimatum: unless she “gives [him] a reason to stay,” he’s leaving that night.
-The Mary Sue

The article goes on to explain how Buffy’s reaction to Riley’s declaration illuminates to the problem of questioning victims of domestic abuse when they don’t immediately leave their perpetrators. It’s seen as commonplace for media to use dangerous stereotypes and troupes in their storylines and characters. It’s a disservice, because this speaks volumes on the cultural temperature of oppression and what is expected of any given group or individual based on what they identify as. For women, this means that we should not only expect to be victims of violence in some way, but that we have no power to escape or move forward from it when it does happen to us.

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Credit to Defeating the Dragons.[/caption]

What is most disturbing about this trend is that it seems to come as a backlash to the “rise” of feminist/Strong Women characters and awareness about violence against women that has been becoming more prominent. The Internet is littered with arguments that Buffy, Tara, Sookie, and other SciFi heroines fit neatly into the “Strong Woman” archtype that is so toxic to the progression of gender equality in media and our society at large. A woman is so much more than her capacity to fight crime or vanquish evil, or even to wear skintight leather while doing so. It’s disappointing — no, angering — when we allow the disempowerment of these ladies to occur for the sake of making progress in storylines or to just keep the plot fresh. We need to do better — not just for the victims of violence that are media consumers, but because we owe it to everyone to take a stand against violence, especially when it’s used for entertainment.

We can agree that violence against women is a problem that needs to be better addressed. And there have been efforts to do so. Shows like Scandal include victims of violence in genuinely empowering roles, and show these women’s full humanity outside of simply being classified as a victim. However, the culture of gender oppression continues to limit and overshadow these small victories that we might be able to claim.

Til next time,

CG

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