Features Essays Published 9 April 2018

On (not) watching gendered violence on stage

Five years ago, playwright Eve Leigh made a decision not to watch plays, movies and TV shows that involved violence against female bodies. She unravels her thoughts, in list form.
Eve Leigh
'Lela & Co' - a rare female led exploration of gendered violence at the Royal Court, 2015. Credit: Helen Maybanks

‘Lela & Co’ – a rare female led exploration of gendered violence at the Royal Court, 2015. Credit: Helen Maybanks

  1. In 2013, I started trying to consciously avoid watching plays, films, and TV shows that included a lot of images of violence against female bodies.
  2. You will have clocked that some art that includes violence against women is very brilliant, insightful, and entertaining. Some of it is even made by women, dramatising the dynamics of casual violence they deal with all the time, amplified by questions of intersectionality and privilege. (When a queer former sex worker like Virginie Despentes dramatises sexual violence, it’s not exactly the same thing as when [insert high-profile middle-class white male theatremaker here] does it.)
  3. I still decided to try and avoid it – categorically and without exception. Narrative art being what it is, I still saw loads of it (and let’s not even get into how much I saw in advertising).
  4. At the time, I saw it as a sensitivity – an oversensitivity, even.
  5. I wasn’t experiencing very much sexual violence in my own life at that time.
  6. Now that I think about it, though, I had just been part of a very horrible devising room, in which our boss made a woman who’d been raped publicly confess it and tell the room if she’d reported it to the police, and criticised another woman’s devising offering until she cried. And that’s sort of the tip of the iceberg.
  7. Still, I was convinced the rawness I felt when I watched scenes of violence against women was fleeting, almost dysphoric, that I’d give myself a little break, and I’d be back on the Tarantino/McDonagh/all the other ones train.
  8. What did I feel when I watched – for instance – a woman being shot in the breasts onscreen (as in Seven Psychopaths, a film I started watching without knowing it contained violence against women and kept watching because I’d been enjoying it up to then, and the person I was watching it with didn’t seem to mind)?
  9. A squirming? A – discomfort?
  10. Tension in the stomach. Heart going quicker. An impulse to escape.
  11. Is that a feeling that matters?
  12. Onscreen: a woman being shot in the breasts. Next to me: someone who I know is very much opposed to shooting women in the breasts. Me minding, him not seeming to mind. But then maybe I didn’t seem to mind.
  13. Something important: the breast-shooting is framed as a meta joke about the lack of concern the film has for its own female characters. Ironic misogynistic violence. And, still: a woman getting shot in the breasts. A woman watching.
  14. Onscreen: how many takes did they need to get the perfect, hilarious, shot-in-the-breasts image? What did Abbie Cornish, the actor playing the woman getting shot, do while they were shooting to let everyone know it was all fine and she was cool with it?
  15. (I feel sure she did something – you normally do if you’re the only woman on the set, the only person of colour or working-class person in the room when they make that joke. Everyone looks to you and looks away quickly. Not many people, in an industry that runs on relationships, are bold enough to let the majority sit in their own discomfort rather than reassuring them that they’re cool with it.)
  16. If something in the room feels dangerous – dangerous, and not in the way it’s easy for white men to fetishise, genuinely dangerous – is that always a feeling that matters?
  17. (The danger of the room in which we rehearse the rape scene, the danger of someone taking a remark “too seriously,” the danger of not being instantly absolved by any oppressed people within earshot.)
  18. Let’s move, for the moment, away from the working environment and address the work itself. To say that a piece of art gives me the feeling that I am in danger, and that this feeling matters – to me, to you, between us – that it matters socially – is not necessarily to say that it matters critically.
  19. I saw [this] and it made me feel that its violence was also directed against my body. Noticing that, letting it register, is vital work. But. And. Reasonable people disagree on whether a narrative with violent misogyny in it creates a misogynistic situation, in the present tense, among the people watching.
  20. (In researching this article I kept coming across writings defending representations of misogyny by noted artists and critics who themselves have been outed, in these last months, as serial sexual harassers.)
  21. (It feels cheap to make that point.)
  22. (It feels dishonest, insane, to ignore it.)
  23. Maybe this is a good moment to define misogynistic violence. I’m using it to mean violence directed at women because they are women.
  24. To further clarify: my choice not to watch work with misogynistic violence in it doesn’t prevent anyone from making whatever work they want, or watching whatever work they want. It also doesn’t meaningfully answer the question of how to grapple with putting gendered, sexualised violence onstage and screen.
  25. And it is such a big part of life. And it is such a common form of violence. But how do we do it? Some artists are very much engaged in finding new somatic representations of violence against women (Sue MacLaine in Can I Start Again Please, Imogen Butler-Cole in Foreign Body, Yael Farber and the cast of Nirbhaya, Ellen McDougall’s production of Othello, to name only a few).
  26. I didn’t see any of these productions. I read reviews. I like a review. You don’t disturb anyone else’s viewing experience if you get up in the middle and walk away.
  27. Something I’ve noticed, in and out of my own work, is that images have a nasty way of getting out of the grasp of context and creating meanings we don’t intend. What will stick in the audience’s mind is not context. What will stick in the mind is the image, playing out in front of us, of the sex worker being smacked and spat on, of the actual human woman in the same room as us pretending to be another woman being smacked and spat at every day at work.
  28. Lela and Co is a play about sex trafficking. By all accounts it was wonderful. It was based on a true story. It was written, directed, and designed by brilliant, thoughtful artists (Cordelia Lynn; Jude Christian; Ana Jabares Pita) whose work I admire. I couldn’t bear the thought of being trapped in a theatre watching it. So I didn’t go. I have the playtext but I haven’t read it yet.
  29. A resolution that involves ignoring the brilliant work of your peers must, by its nature, be provisional. Mustn’t it? It’s so unsatisfying, to just not watch.
  30. When I started this little experiment – this short break, as much as was possible, from gendered violence – I would never have thought it’d go on until now. But it has.
  31. Here’s why: I still can’t fucking bear to watch a rape onstage.
  32. There’s more: the field of what registers to me as gendered violence keeps growing.
  33. Condescension. Male characters explaining things to female characters that they should know already. A certain giddy, childlike insight; “manic pixie dream girl”-ery. When the only female character is a maid/sex worker. Wanting a baby so much it drives you literally out of your mind. Pretty much everything that Michelle Dockery had to do in “Network.” Women turning up only to liberate or enlighten the protagonist. Nope. Nope. I might not get up and leave because you’re watching it too, and I don’t want to block your view, or ruin your night, or have this dumb argument again.
  34. But. And.
  35. If all of that isn’t taking up space in our heads, if the huge ugly edifice of capitalist heteropatriarchy isn’t blocking the entire view
  36. what might we do with all that empty sky?

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Eve Leigh

Eve Leigh is a playwright, theatremaker and dramaturg.

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