All in Good Fun?

June 30, 2008
By Brittany Werner, Hastings, MN

Three innocent girls are kidnapped after soccer practice by the neighborhood sociopath and held in his basement. There, they are informed that only two of them will be leaving alive and that the choice of who dies is up to them. Sound like another twisted plot ripped from headlines to primetime? That’s because it is. This particular storyline is the product of the series Criminal Minds, currently one of the highest rated shows on the air and one of the many programs capitalizing on violence against women. Competition among networks is fierce and writers are constantly trying to come up with thrilling and engaging television; but at what cost? The increasingly frequent and grisly assault on women in television begs the question: Why is it that when there is a time slot to die for, more often than not women end up dying? While many of the executives at top networks claim that they are just doing their job by creating innovative new crimes, the truth is that they are exploiting the shock value associated with these crimes against women in order to garner ratings while at the same time perpetuating negative stereotypes and adding unnecessary fuel to the fire that is violence against women.

After the Super Bowl incident involving Janet Jackson and the now infamous “wardrobe malfunction”, the FCC’s media bureau began to crack down on television and its standards of decency. Without these spontaneous moments of nudity and/or profanity, viewers had nowhere to turn for their cheap thrills and ratings suffered as a result. Writers and producers were stumped. If they couldn’t add more sexual content to get ratings then what could they do? Eventually, they realized that in the entertainment industry today sex isn’t the only thing that sells. Shock value is a major component of successful television; and what is more shocking and enticing to viewers in “Anytown USA” than tuning in for a relaxing evening in front of the tube with the family and seeing a woman’s severed head being extracted from a newspaper crate? Fox programming executive Peter Liguori defended the network’s programming decisions in a recent interview with Lisa de Moraes of the Washington Post by explaining that “the intent is actually to create creative, fun crimes”.
So when writers need to find a storyline so chalked full of fun that America will sit up and take notice they “go towards crimes against the especially vulnerable or the especially innocent” and who fits the bill better than the stereotypical female on television? People cannot sit back and ignore acts of horrific brutality committed against those we consider most vulnerable; and it shows. CSI rakes in an average of 28 million viewers a week with its storylines of slain Las Vegas call girls and tourists. Now it seems the only way that other networks can even compete with CSI’s following is to amp up the cruelty towards women on its shows; one producer even joked “There was actually a mandate from the network saying, ‘We only want shows that perpetuate violence against women ’”. By exploiting the disturbing effects of these heinous crimes not only are producers gaining their coveted ratings, they are also perpetuating dangerous stereotypes about both women and men in our culture.
This is not a new trend in the entertainment industry. Despite various advances in other fields women are still viewed, for all practical purposes, as “better victims” in the business of television and cinema. According to Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington D.C., “Exploiting the damsel in distress as a marketing tool has worked since Fay Wray ,” and television has exploited these negative images of women to no end by not even allowing the female characters a chance to fight back. In the words of activist Jennifer Pozner “Women have no agency. They exist to be maimed, tortured, to be the sexy rape victim and the pretty dead girl.” In the Fox series Killer Instinct, a woman is paralyzed by spiders and subsequently raped and murdered with no chance of escape . In another series, The Night Stalker an expectant mother is plucked out of her shower and has the fetus ripped from her womb before her imminent demise. While executives claim that they are just trying to have a little well intended fun one has to wonder who is defining the term “fun” and where to draw the line between popcornish violence and perverse gore.
Women are not the only ones suffering from their portrayal in the media. Men are also subject to stereotyping in this year’s television season. Very few of the serial killers and rapists featured on these shows are women and very few of the victims are men.We as an audience are taught that women are always in the role of the pleading victim and that male characters are almost always deranged misogynists complete with some intense “Mommy Issues” (the one exception being the character of the male police officer). In this way, television programming is not only saturating our weeknights with scenes of “femicide” it is also robbing viewers of positive male characters.
Yet, despite the effects of these negative stereotypes, producers still rely on network executives to tell them when enough is enough, “When we’ve gone to far they let us know,” says CBS Entertainment President Nina Tassler. However, given that we live in a country where, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics Crime Data Brief, more than three women are killed by their husbands or boyfriends each day and murder is among the leading causes of death among pregnant women haven’t we gone far enough? This new wave of programming which glorifies and glamorizes violent crimes against women is more harmful than its producers give it credit for. It condones violence against women as a form of entertainment whereas crimes committed against people because of their race or sexual orientations are considered discriminatory.
At the end of each episode of CBS’s Without a Trace the photo of a missing person shown with a number asking for information about the victim’s whereabouts. While this is an effective way to help gain support for victims and their families one can’t help but think about how many crimes have just been inspired by the preceding episode. Studies show that men who are frequent viewers of violent television are “significantly more likely than other men to have pushed, grabbed or shoved their spouses”. So while this appeal to the viewers may be in earnest, it is still a drop in the bucket compared to what needs to be done to protect women from domestic violence and murder.
While TV’s executives would like us to believe that these bloody crimes are just good clean fun the truth is somewhat less amusing. It is clear that violence against women in the media and violence against women in general are in direct correlation to one another and only by making changes in what we view as entertainment can we help to change the fate of countless numbers of women throughout the United Sates.

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