Violence is integral to the detective genre: most police and crime stories are about violent crime, and you can probably count the exceptions aimed at adults on your fingers (even shows like the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, which is decidedly on the light-hearted end of the spectrum, are not exactly gore-free: Precious may investigate cheating husbands, fake industrial accidents and track down missing dogs, but she also takes on more serious cases, such the sale of a child’s finger in the pilot episode).
In most cases, watching the violence unfold is part of the entertainment draw, and there is clearly a big audience, even among some of us who are activists working to combat violence in the real world.
I’m not going to go all Mary Whitehouse, don’t worry. But I do think it’s pretty revealing how detective stories deal with violence, and I’m going to particularly talk about how violence against women is represented (short answer: gorily often and often gorily).
The handling of rape and domestic violence in fiction all-too-often mirrors the way real crimes are reported in the press. The vast majority of cases aren’t newsworthy: the sheer number of cases of domestic violence, for example, makes the statistically average cases banal and run of the mill—only if there’s a particularly unusual story or brutal case is it worth reporting for most news outlets. Other times, fictional representations of crimes like domestic violence have a twist or a role reversal.
I want to talk about LA Noire a little again, because quite a few of the tropes of how violence against women is portrayed come up in the game.
As I’ve already mentioned, you play a police officer working his way up the ranks of the LA force. During his time in the homicide squad, you’re set to solve the Black Dahlia case. Here is disconcerting element number one: As your character investigates the crime, one of the tasks is to examine the body. By killing three I’d had my fill of making the character zoom in on bloody, mostly naked corpses, and manipulate their bodies looking for clues. For some reason, this is much more gruesome when you’re playing a game where you’re in control of the character than it is watching a drama unfold on screen. Although, to be fair, some elements of the murder have been toned down from reality (Google the real Black Dahlia case if you really must know the grim details).
In this interpretation of the Dahlia story, there is evidence that the killer sets up the victims’ (violent) husbands to take the fall. Your partner makes incessant comments that in these cases it’s usually the husband or person closest to the victim who dunnit (which is true as it happens), mixed in with various victim blaming and sexist comments.
So the player “gets to” enjoy solving a mystery based on a real-life violent murder; the voyeuristic details of a series of women being slashed to pieces, seemingly motivated by misogyny, are laid out in interactive form; there is a constant background chatter of misogynist comments; the representation of the few living female characters is sketchy at best; and the violent, abusive boyfriends and husbands are innocents, at risk of being locked up in a miscarriage of justice.
The presentation of extreme brutality towards women (often young, attractive, white women) as a bit of titillation is a common occurrence in detective and crime stories, in whatever medium.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo books are a much-examined example of this,as are some of the best shows I’ve talked about in this series, such as Prime Suspect. Meanwhile, some other shows tend towards playing murders and violence for comedic effect, rather than ultra-violent titilation.
I don’t have any easy answers here: I enjoy a lot of these shows too, and yet there’s something disconcerting about the way the function these images of dead women and violence towards women plays out.
But gore doesn’t have to come at the expense of a message to the reader. In 2666, a novel I am smack in the middle of, by the Chilean writer Roberto Bolaño, the violence is every bit as grim as anything in Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. A large part of the novel is set in a fictional town on the Mexico-US border called Santa Teresa, which is seeing waves of murders of young women, mostly workers in the maquiladoras. The story is obviously based on the femicides in Juárez. One part of the gigantic novel follows what is happening in the investigation, and the lives of the people in the town, with the story regularly interrupted with the clinical and chill description of yet another victim of murder and rape. The dismissal of the victims by the police and the media, particularly those that had been sex workers, is made completely clear, and contrasted with a depiction of the casual misogyny of the wider culture. In one incident, we hear about the police raping sex workers they have arrested. The serial killer victims intermingle with descriptions of the “usual” victims of intimate partner violence and sexual assault.
Unlike in many of the brutal depictions of rape and murder that appear in detective fictions, in 2666 there seems to me to be a clear political point being made. How can we as readers shy away from a representation which is so close to the truth of what is happening in the real world? It’s extremely hard to continue reading the book, in completely contrast to the page-turner, action-adventure-politial-intrigrigue story of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example, even though that book was overtly marketed as a feminist tome, under the Swedish title Men Who Hate Women
I’m not saying that violence should never be shown or described. We need our movies and TV shows and games and books to address issues of the violence in our culture, and violence against women is included in that. But some of these examples just play into the same old misogyny—without asking anything more of the audience—which is a shame and a missed opportunity.