Monstrous regiment

Men can get away with depicting violence. Women are attacked for it. Time for a change, writes Patricia Holland
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The Independent Culture
Are we being corrupted by yet another batch of shockingly unacceptable films and plays? Does Ngozi Onwurah's Welcome II the Terrordome "shame the participants and degrade the viewer"? Is Sarah Kane's Blasted a "disgusting piece of filth entirely devoid of aesthetic and intellectual content"? Or does the passion behind such judgements have something to do with the fact that the creators of these disturbing narratives are young women?

In the bizarre role-reversal that shapes the second half of Blasted, the soldier who humiliates Ian, the middle-aged tabloid hack, asks if he knows what it is to kill. Ian asserts that he does. But he has not relished the torture and sadism that goes along with killing in a war. "So you don't know," sneers the soldier. Women aren't expected to know, either.

Although there are as many women as men in Sarajevo and Grozny, although women are always present in sieges, race riots, ethnic cleansing, street fighting and death camps - theirs are not the accounts we hear. And although women playwrights, film-makers,journalists and photographers have long set out to engage such ambient violence on their own terms, even the most eminent, from Martha Gellhorn to Kate Adie, have been discouraged, their work dismissed as naive.

Women's contribution to war reporting has been expected to concern itself with damaged communities and grieving mothers. The gender division between the fighters and the victims must remain clear - and the parallels between the violence of war and the violence of the everyday world must be kept apart. Fictions that refuse an easy condemnation of militarism and explore the nature of violence itself do not sit easily with the conventions of femininity.

Of course "fragrant" femininity has always involved a great deal of denial - of bleeding and childbirth and women's jobs in cleaning up the dirt. Women are accustomed to operating on the margins of the disgusting. Both Terrordome and Blasted make full use of this familiarity as they disregard the boundaries between violence in war and the everyday violence that many women know so well.

Many of its critics characterised Blasted as a sickening series of unmotivated acts: "offensive language, physical abuse, rape, buggery, masturbation...", the list goes on until we reach the gouging out of eyes and cannibalism. In fact the play begins as

aseedily realistic study of sex and sickness and shifts into a surreal projection of those relationships into a war-torn world. Despite its violent extremity, its sense of unfamiliarity comes from its relentless presentation of Ian, middle age d and withterminal cancer, from the perspective of the young woman. Ian operates with a set of values borrowed from the tabloid paper on which he works - oscillating between pleading, misplaced flattery, insistent bodily demands and sheer insensitivity.

Most women will recognise the scenario only too well. Rape is shown not as a single brutal act, but as structured into a deeply unequal relationship, and performed with a whingeing self-pity.

Ngosi Onwurah's film also shifts the expected point of view. Only minuscule numbers of women have directed feature films, and even fewer black women, but Onwurah is not setting out to prove that her work can be as violent as a man's. Her vision is rootedin racial oppression. The opening sequence makes it clear that it was the centuries-long experience of the slave trade that created Soweto, South Central Los Angeles and Handsworth. The branding of a captured black body burns across the ages. This is a film about violence, but it shows less explicit violence than cinema audiences are accustomed to take in their stride. More disturbing than the spurting blood and the bullet ridden bodies of Pulp Fiction is the blood-smeared face of the woman who has lost her baby, and the brooding tension of the ghetto. Set in a dystopic future, but dealing with a violent past, Terrordome questions the possibility of a forgiving reconciliation.

It's an unacceptable message, but we need stories that are adequate to our difficult times. In the week that sees the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it may be that women are better qualified than men to speak of war and violence, forcing a new way of treating subjects hitherto jealously guarded as male.