How Do We Deal With Violence Towards Women in Film?

The depiction of violence towards women in film is a complex one which has been discussed extensively in recent years. Here we explore some of the key aspects of this discussion and how we can better understand it.
How Do We Deal With Violence Towards Women in Film?

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The topic of violence towards women being depicted on screen is one that flared up again in light of the #MeToo movement, around the time I proposed my research project for the Laidlaw Scholarship. My initial proposal was much more general - something about how women are portrayed on screen - but in light of the rising discussion, I realised that gender-based violence and its depiction in film was something I, like many people, only had surface-level thoughts about. The closer the project drew, the more I was drawn to this subject and determined to educate myself on its complexities, and my project ended up being ‘Portraying rape recovery of a female protagonist in film’. 

Here are some of the things I learnt during that process, and in the two years since writing scripts.

It’s not as simple as “we should or shouldn’t show it”

The two extremes of showing or not showing violence towards women on screen are flawed; as usual, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. 

One side says, “By showing violence towards women on film frequently, it has been normalised and lost its impact, even sets an example.” There is a long history of needless violence towards and killing of women on-screen (and in many forms of storytelling). This essay from script reader Kate Hagen discusses the extent of scenes of sexual violence towards women she’s read in spec scripts (unproduced screenplays) in her time as a script reader - and it may shock you how rife it is still today. This extreme frequency, especially in the case of unproduced works from developing writers, means the likelihood of each depiction being carefully considered and impactful becomes lower and lower. I recommend reading the essay.

Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver (1976)

Film (as well as other art forms, most notably video games) has even been blamed for violent acts committed in the real world, for example when John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, with whom he had become obsessed after seeing Taxi Driver, a film in which the lead character, who is incredibly protective of Foster’s character, also attempts a political assassination. But this draws a simplistic line of cause and effect between the two events - and anyway, historically, banning something just makes people want to do it more, and by less traceable, more dangerous means.

Another key retaliation to the argument for omission is that by banning the depiction of violence towards women on screen it prevents discussion of the violence experienced by women in the real world; film is a medium through which we look at society and ourselves, and we shouldn’t prevent these stories being told. Author, blogger and screenwriter Lucy V Hay argues brilliantly here against the Staunch Prize, a literary competition which allows submissions of “a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”, making the point that while the prize may cause writers to think more carefully about why they include violence towards women in their work, that’s the limit of its advantages.

One can see the points in both extreme arguments, but creative work is more complex than this binary thinking allows. Really, the heart of this debate is in quality of material, artistic intention and audience interpretation.

Quality of Material

While many films have been made over the years, they vary in quality, and this is true throughout film history. The general idea that older films portray women poorly because of the perceived gender roles at the time they were made holds true, but only in that sense - generally. Attitudes from the time films were made will inevitably reflected in the films of the time - try watching Breakfast at Tiffany’s without feeling very uncomfortable when Mickey Rooney shows up.

Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)

But something I learnt watching films for this project is that there are many fantastic examples of well-drawn women amongst those which reflect the parts of society which have since changed. Holly Golightly is still fascinatingly complex today. The gem I discovered was Wait Until Dark, a home invasion thriller from 1967 which surprised me so much with its success in its depiction of complex female characters, above and beyond much of what we see today, that it’s now one of my favourite films of all time. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t great female characters written today either; there is always a breadth of content quality, and so there will always be a breadth in the quality of female characters and the skill with which violence towards them will be depicted.

Artistic Intention

The next biggest factor which affects the success of a depiction of violence towards women is in the artistic intention. In film this starts with the writer, whose screenplay is a blueprint for the final film and sets the tone for the final piece, including the tone of scenes of violence. If a director reads a screenplay which tackles violence towards women in a way that aligns with their own values, the vision comes together in the final film of what they want to say by showing it.

The complexity here is that some authorial voices are stronger than others; films at one end of this spectrum have a very clear message from their creatives teams (most often attributed to the director), coming down on one side or the other of the issues they depict. In extreme cases, such films can be considered “preachy” or over-simplistic. Other directors leave much more up to the audience, inviting them to deduce the message or merely opening a discussion rather than proposing one point of view definitively.

Which is where the audience comes in.

Audience Interpretation

Audiences are difficult to predict and difficult to please. To a certain extent, the intended audience for a film can be targeted in marketing campaigns, but there’s no way to guarantee that your film will be seen by people who wholly share and understand the artistic vision. You’re inevitably opening yourself to criticism simply by making your film available, and this means that, especially in an ultra-connected world, every opinion has an impact. 

At the base level, audience members will like or dislike a film’s depiction of violence towards women. Scenes such as these are often moments when an audience member, especially those who have had a similar experience themselves, will either be drawn further into the film or completely turn against it, which is why an artist’s choices in depicting in are so important, and research is essential in that. 

In depicting issues such as violence towards women we should also strive to tell the stories of those whose voices have not been heard often in film, open a discussion and, bit by bit, change the general impression of film’s treatment of women.

It all comes down to research

The biggest lesson I learnt from my scholarship was that research is essential in storytelling because it allows you to understand and ultimately command your subject and your artistic vision. When you watch a film and a character has a similar job to you but on screen it feels nothing like your job, it falls flat for you as an audience member. The same holds true for depicting traumatic events; if you are going to depict something of which you have no experience, you should do your due diligence to ensure that what you’re writing or directing holds true to lived experience. 

Aside from striving to keep your audience engaged, which in turn impacts factors such as word-of-mouth marketing and the overall financial success of a film, in depicting issues such as violence towards women we should also strive to tell the stories of those whose voices have not been heard often in film, open a discussion and, bit by bit, change the general impression of film’s treatment of women.

As much as we yearn to change the narrative, this can only be done one story at a time, most often one character at a time.

You can’t tell every story

The next biggest lesson I learnt was that, as much as we yearn to change the narrative, this can only be done one story at a time, most often one character at a time. With short-form storytelling, it’s easier to illustrate a situation which a large number of people have experienced as short form can use joke structure (setup and payoff/punch line) to make a point - for example, I’m a Sound Designer for an upcoming short film called Losing Grace, filming in February about a woman and her daughter fleeing her abusive husband and makes a point about what many people in this situation face - but in long-form, we turn to three act structure which draws on specifics of character; their experiences, history, personality.

Isabelle Huppert in Elle (2016)

One of the two films I studied closely, Elle (2016), was a perfect example of this; Michèle, the protagonist, is assaulted in her own home at the start of the film and we follow her personal responses to and recovery from the attack. The script, and the book it was adapted from, are clearly very well researched as Michèle copes by accommodating her experience (believing that the attack was the fault of her attacker rather than believing she brought it upon herself), which leads to paranoia that it will happen again and feelings that she has no control over it, which impacts on her relationships. However, the complexity of Michèle’s relationships before her attack is also revealed and the assault is one texture in a multifaceted character whose whole story is unique to her. You can read my full report here.

Knowing what I know now

Since completing my project, I have gone on to write multiple screenplays with my partner Patrick, with whom I now run a film production company, Dark Avenue Film, in the Isle of Man. One of our screenplays (Chrysalis, written for my third year dissertation and developed/rewritten with Patrick) has now placed in four competitions and counting. My Laidlaw project remains relevant throughout my work in that I value research and character complexity extremely highly, and I now have the confidence to confront heavier topics in my writing and educate myself through research. 

This is only a brief overview of what I learnt, and there’s still a lot I don’t know; I encourage everyone to read around and inform themselves, and other creatives to tackle subjects which they find difficult and use art to explore it and form opinions. We are already changing the narrative one story at a time.

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Go to the profile of Penny Foster
over 4 years ago

Really interesting reflections Bethany on how women are depicted in film, and brilliant to hear how what you have learned is also informing your own film-making. I also love Wait Until Dark!

Go to the profile of Bethany White
over 4 years ago

Glad you like it Penny! And so happy to have a mutual fan of Wait Until Dark - most people I mention it to have never heard of it, well worth recommending.

Go to the profile of Nikol Chen
over 4 years ago

Love this, Bethany! I wonder what your thoughts would be on the depiction of violence against women in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (especially the Swedish version of the film)? 

Go to the profile of Bethany White
over 4 years ago

Thanks Nikol! I’ve not actually seen the Swedish version, or read the books yet, but I have seen the David Fincher remake. What was interesting to me was that I’d heard so much about the character of Lisabeth, and she has this vigilante reputation in our culture, but she starts from such a vulnerable place. I found the scene where she is raped very difficult to watch, which was Fincher’s intention and very effective in my view. As I say, yet to see the original (it’s on my list!) and I’ve not studied the Fincher version in depth. I’m sure there’s studies out there! What was your take on the Swedish original?