Gender violence

Is ‘she’s sexy when she’s dead’ the only way noir writers can depict crimes against women?

When will writers stop serving readers and, instead, think about the women who become victims?

In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, “Utopian thinking: How to build a truly feminist society”, author Naomi Alderman reasoned wisely: “…on the subject of women being raped, I’ve given up watching any television that includes a posed female corpse or starts with a naked, bruised woman – ruling out a surprisingly large number of shows. I wouldn’t censor; creators must be free to create, and we viewers can make our own choices.”

That a significant number of writers across media continue to think that the image of a helplessly lifeless, ruthlessly bruised (but still strikingly attractive) figure lying carelessly on the ground, clothes ripped, long hair tousled wildly, striking a strong symbol of vulnerability and moral ambiguity is the sure shot way of creating a bestseller is telling.

A similar line of thought wound its way to the Noir Literature Festival late in January 2017 at Delhi’s Oxford bookstore, where over two days crime writing played hero on some 20 panels. What caught our eye – and ear – in the crowd of authors holding forth on how to crack the perfect recipe for contemporary noir was the attempt by a panel to unravel another great mystery: what’s with the highly overused and inaccurate imagery (in popular fiction, and non-fiction) of a woman at the receiving end of a crime?

“She’s Sexy When She’s Dead”, the title of this conversation, thus proved chillingly fitting, and keenly argued by feminist publisher Urvashi Butalia and filmmaker/writer Paromita Vohra. Crime fiction all over the world, let it be said, has often been a way to talk about sex, but ends up as a morality tale far too often. “The usual line is, ‘She was a victim of her own beauty’”, Vohra said, referring to a line we’ve only heard innumerable times as a way to excuse violence against women.

But aren’t men at the receiving end of violence equally, argued moderator Avantika Mehta, quoting statistics that claimed more men were victims of violent crime than women. Butalia, ever the crusader of sharp feminist perspectives, wasn’t convinced: “We need to question the statistics. We know that the biggest killer of women is domestic violence, which is most often missing from statistics, including marital rape, which is legalised. It’s like if you do not see the violence in public space, it doesn’t count. What goes on behind close doors is very dark, why aren’t we talking about it?” Further, she added, “Now that women are stepping out of the house more, it is leading to another kind of violence, and then they say, ‘You stepped out, and look what happened.’”

How we report is how we write

While that kind of hostility continues to swell in conservative quarters against women who dare to step out of “safe zones”, is there more sympathy, in the eyes of the writer and reader, across fiction and non-fiction, for victims who are dead, as they cease to have control over their story? Not necessarily, felt Butalia, citing the kind of immediate reporting on the Delhi gangrape on December 16, whose victim died 13 days later. Since then, many other women in public eye have written and talked about being abused, and strengthened the wave of feminist discourse in the process.

That hasn’t, however, translated into adequate leaps in how we write and what we write about. Sure, there is more space for sexual crimes to make headlines and more women willing to speak up against those crimes. But in a larger sense, felt the panel, those in control of the written word have not risen above the inherent hypocrisy and patriarchy.

The average narrative around sexual violence is still startlingly off the mark, displaying palpable discomfort when faced with cases of caste rapes, rapes of Muslim women, and others, too, such as the late Suzette Jordon, who openly spoke about being molested while on the way back from a party.

Also, there is a lot more to the women’s movement than sexual violence, which is being ignored. “There was a moment when the popular conversation and ongoing activism came together, but then it got redirected to talking about only sexual violence,” pointed out Vohra, and added Butalia, “The stress on sexual violence in media masks other issues like domestic violence, and the need to change the symptoms of these issues.”

The responsibility of the crime writer

It’s easy to ignore the symptoms because our ideas, often too deep seated, are informed by a fictional, moral landscape, and in such a scenario, how do you represent violence without its becoming pornographic? It’s a basic question every writer of crime – fiction and non fiction – must ask themselves: how do I write about a violent act without being insensitive and unethical?

This becomes a tricky question when you think about an audience, one who loves salacious, voyeuristic stuff to read. One for whom a book or a report on crime brings on in equal measure fascination, disgust, shock, outrage. The same audience will feel deeply affected when the case seems close to home.

Butalia had tips: “It is a real responsibility to write about a woman survivor of crime who does not have the vocabulary to describe what happened at a time she is most vulnerable. You have to listen to the silence, preserve their privacy, which is not just about withholding their names, but other details as well. We need to be truthful, ethical, responsible. It’s important to have data but also to have the heart of the experience.”

And while they’re at it, writers should perhaps wonder whether what they write is pushing the narrative or just reinforcing clichés – such as: a woman needs a man to rescue her, when he is really no guarantee of safety; or that a woman caught in a violent crime must have brought it upon herself in some way.

The question to ask at the end of the day, declared Vohra, is this: As writers, artists, influencers, are we presenting things in a way that makes people see women and men differently? Am I doing this by not necessarily pushing the same issue (such as sexual violence), while ignoring other issues again and again? Are we able to represent those involved as professionals and individuals, rather than viewing them through the lens of morality? The answers could reveal a fair lot about ourselves.

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