A horrible, haunting murder has this week prompted the usual hand-wringing on news programmes and online.
Why should women take responsibility for their own safety?
Is there something intrinsically wrong with men? Or sentencing? Or the police? Or the press?
To me, it is very odd that the one group never brought into the argument is the entertainment industry. There, now more then ever, murder and violence are good for business.
If you think that’s a bit harsh, take a look at the drama schedules for the BBC, ITV or Netflix. Check out forthcoming films. Again and again, the staple plot-line revolves around violence and fear, abuse and abduction. The violence is men’s; the fear belongs to those who are seen as vulnerable – almost always, women or children.
This jolly little genre used to be known in the trade as ‘women in jeopardy’. Now it goes under the snappy title of ‘femjep’.
Eight years ago, having watched an episode of the BBC drama The Fall, I wrote a column in the Independent pointing out that plotlines around men murdering women were not just a cliché – they were harmful and creatively lazy.
‘Here the murder of women is a stylish business, as lovingly choreographed and as tastefully lit as any love scene. Abuse is presented, without any crudely explicit detail, as an intense sexual experience, at the excitingly taboo end of things.
The killer himself may be a misfit but, conforming to a cliché handed down from one generation of thriller-writers to the next, he is also sexy, and troubled in the interesting, charismatic way which has been obligatory since the success of the psycho-daddy of them all, Hannibal Lecter.
One episode of The Fall opened with a long, lingering sequence in which the killer’s games with a dead, semi-naked female body are intercut with a scene of the glamorous police detective having hot, one-night-stand sex. No one could accuse the programme-makers of subtlety.’
A few months later, I was invited to speak at a BBC conference for writers, hosted by its drama department. I was part of a panel which, apart from me, consisted of TV professionals , including the BBC’s Head of Drama.
It was a disaster. When I made my point, the hall was united against me. The professionals explained that I didn’t understand the industry or how drama worked. The Head of Drama lost his rag completely and yelled at me.
Extraordinarily to me, not one person in the hall was prepared to admit that there was problem in TV’s depiction, and glamorising, of violence against women. (I later wrote about it on the writer’s trade magazine The Author.)
Meanwhile, the writer of The Fall Allan Cubbitt, when my article was mentioned to him, reported that he found it ‘personally insulting’. Explaining the rationale behind casting a hunky underwear model as the killer – the actor later quipped wittily that shooting the series had been ‘seven months of tying up women’ – Cubbitt explained that the idea behind his series was –
‘Particular criticism of patriarchy and the way male violence sits in the patriarchy.’
Ah right, that will be it then. That will explain the stylishly edited intercutting of a woman being killed and a sex scene, the casting of an attractive male as the killer. It was all a criticism of the patriarchy.
The real murder this week of a woman walking home will soon be yesterday’s papers, a horrible statistic. In the meantime, writers and directors will be cheerfully pitching their latest ‘femjep’ ideas to the networks.
What will it take for us all to dump this genre, and admit that it is dishonest, exploitative, irresponsible – and, when the wrong person is watching, identifying with a charismatic screen murderer, lethal?