Clare Davies – Against our Will? Representing Rape on TV

Clare Davies is currently studying the MA in Welsh Writing in English at Swansea University, having graduated with a degree in English Literature from Swansea University in 2013. She has a keen interest in constructions of masculinity in the works of Welsh women writers.

I don’t watch a lot of telly. I’m usually too busy reading/worrying about how much reading I have to do. So when I do sit down to watch telly, it’s a treat, and a bit of harmless escapism. However, when two shows I never missed portrayed rape scenes, I was shocked. Not only at the rape scenes themselves, but the context of the attacks. One of those was the Welsh-language soap opera Pobol y Cwm (don’t judge me – I’m learning Welsh. I watch it for educational purposes). While I don’t think it is right that writers should shy away from serious issues such as rape, I also don’t think rape storylines are treated with the level of gravity that they should be. My problem is with the representation of the victim’s behaviour prior to the event. I’ll roughly sketch what happens:

Sheryl goes out with Garry. Sheryl used to go out with Kevin. Kevin goes out with Debbie. Sheryl and Kevin’s friendship grows more flirtatious, which Kevin believes is a sign of Sheryl’s love for him. Garry gets jealous. Sheryl stresses nothing is going on. Kevin thinks he and Sheryl are falling back in love. Kevin rapes Sheryl.

This is clearly an issue that needs to be dealt with sensitively – but the whole story descends into melodrama. The way it was represented was just BAD (I’m no TV critic, so it isn’t really my place to judge acting) but it was just unconvincing. Sheryl is represented as not putting up any sort of fight, nor does she scream or move away from him. While she clearly says ‘No’, it was made to look that she simply let him and then cried rape at the end. I would argue Sheryl does not make a forceful refusal, and is made to seem passive, which creates uncertainty in the mind of her rapist – but perhaps even in the mind of the viewer too (the reason Sheryl gives for not crying out is that she didn’t want her “anger issues” boyfriend Garry, who used to hit her, to kill Kevin). Kevin doesn’t realise he has raped her – until he then makes comments indicating no one will believe her. So, obviously, she hits him over the head with an iron, and her and Garry aim to hide his body. Except when they go to check on it the next morning, it isn’t there! Because Kevin isn’t dead! He’s wandering around with a sore head, waiting to scare Sheryl! What should have been a serious story about rape turned into a farce. Another bugbear I have about the storyline is the complete lack of sisterhood – Debbie, despite knowing what has happened, marries Kevin in order to get revenge on him for sleeping with another woman. The fact that he raped another women doesn’t seem to concern her. As for Sheryl, she then nearly goes off with another man, just a few weeks later. As rape storylines go, it was uncomfortable to watch, mainly for the lack of real care given to the story. Don’t ask me what is happening now, I stopped watching. Soaps have to keep moving – but rape is never over and done within a matter of weeks.

The other rape storyline to rear its ugly head on our screens was the well documented instance in Downton Abbey. Indeed, the twittersphere went crazy (‘Why ANNA?’ was the cry. Why Anna? Why anyone?) and many declared they would never watch the show again. The representation was harrowing and realistic – but verged on the sensationalist (the camera cut from Anna’s screams and struggles with her attacker, to upstairs where everyone was listening to Dame Nellie Melba. How lovely!). Some have argued whether such an event should even have occurred in the idyllic world of 1920s aristocratic life – we all love Downton because it’s pretty, not because it deals with ‘real life’. It isn’t real life. If we are going to claim Downton has some sort of social function, we could argue that showing a rape in the 1920s only reinforces how it happened then and still happens today. However, it would have been more accurate to have someone from above stairs as the attacker, as class-based sexual exploitation would have been rife. But no, everyone in Downton is lovely to each other! Let’s get in a visiting valet (practically a stranger). And the lovely Anna Bates, the victim, is yet again seen FLIRTING with her attacker before he rapes her – is this a sign that we shouldn’t flirt with anyone, just in case? And why suddenly the dramatic change in character into a frivolous flirt – because that is exactly what they did with Anna (she’s happily married to the cuddly if gruff Bates! Why would she flirt with anyone?!) And yet again, the woman was side-lined while the story became dominated by men – the series ended with us unsure as to whether Bates had murdered his wife’s rapist. While I’m sure there were many silently (or perhaps not so silently) thinking that’s exactly what the man deserved, it did push Anna’s suffering to one side, while she worried about her husband’s reaction.

Both scenes made for unpleasant viewing, which made me wonder whether we should show rape on television at all (around 400 complaints in total were made for Downton. I don’t think enough people watch Pobol y Cwm for there to be the same sort of public outcry). It is unpleasant, but is it unnecessary? Showing this kind of violence against women (the vilest manifestation of gender inequality there is) will obviously upset rape victims (there was a warning of upsetting scenes before Downton but I think most of us thought we would see Mrs Hughes and Carson falling out, not a scene of sexual violence). But does this mean we shouldn’t deal with this issue at all? Has our outrage come from the fact we simply don’t want to face the horrors out there that do face women? Is putting a violent rape scene in one of our favourite shows, to quote Susan Brownmiller’s seminal work on the subject, ‘against our will’ as viewers?[1]

Dealt with sensitively, rape storylines can be thoughtful and profound. It would be nice if we didn’t have to see these kind of things at all. But as long as people are raped, we have to deal with the unpleasantness. But if programmes are going to engage in a storyline of this sort, it should not descend into melodrama; they have a duty to stick with it in all its complexity.


[1] Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will: Men, Women, Rape (New York : Fawcett Columbine, 1993).

Heidi Yeandle – Equality, not Patriarchy: The Hurdles of Marriage

Heidi is in the final year of her Ph.D. at Swansea University where she teaches undergraduate English Literature modules, particularly specialising in Gender Studies. See the “About the Editors” section for more details.

It will come as no surprise to many readers that I am now engaged to my partner – I haven’t shut up about it on Twitter, tweeting about dress-hunting and wedding-booking. However, many aspects of the marriage traditions and regulations have come as a surprise to me. Pre-engagement I knew I didn’t want a white dress, had signed the petition to get mother’s names put on marriage certificates, and knew I wasn’t going to wear my ring(s) on the “right” finger, issues I go on to discuss. But I was by no means prepared for some of the hurdles I have encountered, and for some of the battles I have left to fight. In this post I share some of the problems I have faced and am facing, as a feminist who is getting married.

A number of people have expressed surprise when I present my right hand when they ask to see my ring, something that I expected. Some people have just genuinely shown an interest in my decision, others have quite literally turned their nose up at me, and a minority have approved of my choice. Maybe I should explain why, and justify that this DOES NOT mean I am not dedicated to my partner. Engagement and wedding rings are symbols of love and eternal commitment. This meaning is not compromised by choosing to wear them somewhere else. For me, though, wearing them on the “correct” finger is a symbol of ownership – while this primarily effects women, the same goes for men. A ring on the traditional finger tells the world you aren’t available, that you aren’t on the shelf, that you aren’t up for purchase. Of course I know that my partner wouldn’t own me if I did wear it there, but I’d rather not conform to that convention. Then I get asked: but someone could hit on you thinking you are single? They could I suppose, but that hasn’t been an issue for the last 9 years, and I am more than capable of telling someone they haven’t got a chance. At a time where cohabitation is another equally valid option for committed couples, why do I need a ring to show I am with someone? Cohabiting couples don’t. Or have I just pre-empted the next big thing?

What’s more – here’s where believing in equality has its downfalls! – I don’t think it’s fair for my partner to buy me an engagement ring and for me to buy him nothing in return. I am buying him something, and we are sharing the cost of the wedding. No, my Dad isn’t paying! I keep getting asked that, too… why should parents pay? And why should the assumption be on the father, when both men and women work?

This leads me on nicely to the dreaded marriage certificates (applicable in England and Wales). We have to fill in FIVE boxes about each of our fathers, giving their names, their professions, specifying whether they are alive or not, whether they retire or still work, and whether they had retired when they passed away, if applicable. Mothers are completely absent, with the implication that women don’t have jobs, and don’t make a valid contribution to society, maintaining the archaic public/private sphere distinction by suggesting that men work while women are at home fulfilling domestic chores. Marriage certificates are historical documents that future generations will look at – why shouldn’t they voice women’s lives too? We are striving to live in an equal world, aren’t we? The assumptions this document makes are more than out-dated, but in response to a petition to get both parents represented on it – please sign it if this bothers you http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/mothers-names-should-be-on-marriage-certificates – a spokesperson from the Home Office has said the following:

“the requirement to include the father’s details in a marriage certificate is historic and would require a change to the present legislation. Currently there are no plans to change the rules” (see here for more: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10594351/Why-cant-your-mothers-name-be-on-your-wedding-certificate.html)

The next step is to contact MPs – once again, you can do this here if it bothers you – http://www.theyworkforyou.com/ ; I’ve already done it, of course. No, this historic change won’t take place before I get married, but it might in time for the next generation. It’ll come as no surprise that the two witnesses we are having are female!

This silencing of women seems to oversee the traditional speeches too, where the Groom, the Best Man (or Men, in our case), and the Father of the Bride speak, and one woman – the Bride. Of course, we’re doing our own version of this convention. And, as “bride” traditionally means “cook”, I am banning that word! My “bridesmaids” have accordingly been renamed “best women”, as they are not sous-chefs (well, one of them kind of is, as she is making cake – but that is against the point!)

Now let’s turn to the ceremony itself. There is quite a lot of flexibility in terms of what the vows are and what is said, as it is a civil ceremony. We can write our own vows – which we are – and they have to be approved by the council, which makes sense. Giving away is, thankfully, regarded as an option, and most of what you say is your choice with the exception of the legal declarations and the legal contracting words, where you can choose from options, and both partners have to choose the same option and say it verbatim. Likewise, the vile “love, honour and obey” vow is now optional most of the time for religious services, and is absent from civil ceremonies. It’s such a relief I haven’t got to fight that battle! My issue arises with the fact that the groom responds to everything first. When I raised this with the registrar in a recent Notice of Intention to Marry meeting, I was told that I could “negotiate” on this with the registrar, so that’s my next, hopefully not too complicated, battle. I just want to say half of them first, as marriage is supposed to be about equality.

Now, let’s turn to my current bugbear – wedding dresses. Apart from the colour (I’m going for berry), I want a fairly traditional wedding dress, but no veil. I’m not having white because I find the symbolism horrifying. I have an appointment with a dress-maker to get one made for me, but I wanted to try on some dresses with one of my best women to see how the styles and shapes look, and if I saw one I wanted, and they could have made it in the right colour, I would’ve gone ahead with it. But not wearing white seems like a foreign concept to “bridal” shops – I can’t help thinking of bridles here, where wedding dress sellers are pulling the reins. The first shop I tried didn’t let me try on wedding dresses because I wanted a berry one – when I questioned whether they made the dresses from scratch when the order went through, and they confirmed this, I asked why they couldn’t make one in red, but they just firmly said they only make white or ivory wedding dresses, and threw us out! Talk about regulating “brides”! For the next shop, I pretended I wanted white/ivory so I could try some on and see whether the style I have in mind suits me. I discreetly asked whether the dresses could be made in other colours, and was once again told, “only ivory or white”. I would’ve bought one if they had been more flexible, so they’ve lost my custom. I really don’t see what difference it makes! Luckily I’ve already confirmed with the dress-maker that she will make berry – it was the first question I asked.

So as well as the assumptions I’d assume people would make (taking my partner’s name, for example), I’ve discovered that the traditions and establishments surrounding marriage are more bureaucratic and patriarchal than I could ever have imagined. I, for one, don’t think that a change is on the horizon, but I’m still going to fight for it!

Heidi Yeandle

This won’t be my name for that much longer as I’ll be double-barrelling. I recognise that this is a short-term solution (I’ll have to hope future kids don’t meet someone in the same situation!) I don’t want my identity to be subsumed under my partner’s name, with just “Mrs” prefixing it, and I won’t be Mrs for too long anyway, with any luck – Dr is much better! I’ll keep my current name for research purposes/publications. I’ve been warned to expect cheques written to me with the wrong name, so I guess we’ll have to watch this space on that! And, yes, my partner is double-barrelling too, so we have the same name.

Ashleigh Barrett-Wyatt – Sexism in the Music Industry

Ashleigh is currently studying English Literature in her second year at Swansea University. She chose to study a gender module due to her interest in how gender inequality is deemed acceptable in today’s society.

I find it interesting that a world so dominated by media and technology accepts the gender inequalities so inherent in today’s society. A clear example of this can be found in music; both lyrics and the videos illustrate a sexist viewpoint of women from a male stance. I can’t help but feel irritated whilst listening to the latest rap song or pop song and hearing odes to the various parts of a woman’s body and what the artist would like to do to them. In my personal opinion, the majority of songs focused on women, succeed in stereotyping or generalising them, going so far as to suggest that they are nothing but sexual objects to be used.

A recent song that irked me was The Wanted’s ‘Walk like Rihanna’ (released in the UK on 23rd June 2013). The lyrics focus on the subject of a woman’s appearance and how ’she looks in a photograph’ signifying that a woman is measured by her beauty and her penchant for posing in front of a camera, hereby objectifying her. The song describes a woman claiming:

She can’t sing

She can’t dance

But who cares

She walks like Rihanna

This speaks to me of a big disrespect for the woman in question as she is excused her lack of talent in performing due to having a ‘sexy’ walk. This thus implies that being attractive or sexy is of more importance than being talented or gifted. It is too easy in today’s society to focus on how one looks whilst doing something than the actual quality of what is being done. A key example of this is the ‘sexy secretary’ trope, in which female secretaries are employed based on their looks and attractiveness despite their organisational or people skills. Though this does not apply directly to the question of sexism in the media, it embodies the problem encountered in the song and indeed within the video where the woman in question is the director of their music video, and is shown to have no dancing skills but is excused her awkward moves as she is dressed in tight clothes, and walks sensually.

Rihanna, the other female focused on in the song, is a star of the music industry, and often objectified and sexualised, whether it is of her own volition or not. These lyrics imply that it is acceptable to be compared to another woman, and that it is fine to be deemed as talentless in one sense so long as you look great doing it. This in my eyes is a song that encourages the audience to adopt the style and mannerisms of the sex icons of the media industry. The downside to such encouragement is that the target audience of boy bands such as The Wanted are that of young females, though it is not restricted strictly to the age and sex, and hence the youths of today’s society are being influenced to sexualise themselves in order to gain approval and as a basis of what makes them worthwhile.

Although in one sense, the media and music industry can be seen as beneficial to society and how people see things, it is primarily another area in which women can feel objectified. In genres like rap, it is easy to see women as extensions of the male performers, their focus on women waiting for their attention or the amount of women they are able to ‘pick up’. David Guetta’s ‘Sexy Chick’ (2009) is a prime example of this, as lyrics include lines such as:

Nothing you can compare to your neighbourhood girl

The way that booty movin’ I can’t take no more

 The former line suggests that a girl who dresses in little and dances sexily is not the well-mannered and chaste female society tends to favour but instead is someone who is to be watched and judged. The lyrics continue to depict the girls in the song as over-sexualised and insinuate that women dance to attract men’s attention, and hence, men can’t be blamed for their actions following such provocations. This allows the excuse that somehow women who like to dress up and dance invite unwanted attention and somehow are asking to be ‘hit on’.

The sexism so commonly found in song lyrics is also inherent within songs written and performed by female artists. A key example of this could be The Pussycat Dolls’ ‘When I Grow Up’ (2008) in which the focus is on what they wanted to be, with words such as ‘famous’, ‘groupies’, ‘movies’, ‘star’ and ‘hot topic’ used to describe how they wanted to be at the centre of attention; they are now known worldwide for playing for the male gaze and for sexualising themselves.  As a band made up of five females, they warrant a lot of attention, both male – as they can be viewed as sex icons – and female, in that younger females look up to them as they are successful in the industry. This suggests that their success has hinged on their sexualisation and roles as the stereotypical attractive and sensual women.

Although lyrics can be seen as fluid and subjective, it is hard to ignore terms or vocabulary used so commonly to lessen women, or to demean them as nothing more than sexualised bodies. I understand that my perceptions do not match everyone’s and that it is important to remember that songs aren’t always reflections of the artists, however, it is easy to feel that with avenues such as music encouraging young females to sexualise themselves and to be more like the sex icons of the era, women will remain easy targets for objectification and sexualisation.

Welcome

We are currently awaiting posts from Swansea Uni students who are interested in the representation of gender in society, and will be launching in October 2013 – have a look at the aims of the blog for more details!

Posts are to be 500-1000 words long and discuss notions of sex, gender and sexuality (both men and women) in everyday life.

Topics can include, but are NOT limited to…

  • Film
  • TV
  • Sport
  • Advertising
  • Games
  • Celebrity Culture
  • Media
  • Music Industry
  • Politics
  • The Monarchy
  • News
  • Religion
  • Laws

Please send posts and/or queries to Heidi Yeandle and Naomi Davies at swanseagenderblog@gmail.com

There is no deadline for submitting posts; this is a rolling project, so we will be receiving and publishing posts on an on-going basis.

When sending in posts, please also include a brief biography (2-3 sentences) including your name, what you study, what you are interested in, and anything else you wish viewers to know!