Is there too much rape on stage and TV?

Violence against women has been rife on TV and the Edinburgh Fringe. But the way it's portrayed demeans both sexes and ignores healthy relationships, argues Tiffany Jenkins – so stop watching

You can pay to see a woman raped and abused at the Edinburgh Fringe. The festival programme didn’t present it in quite that way, of course. The publicity mostly portrayed various shows with sexual abuse related themes as “breaking the  silence” – a mantra of the moment.

Nirbhaya, a 90-minute work focused on gang rape and sexual violence against women by men, directed by Yael Farber, an award-winning playwright and director, was one such production. Seven different performers took us, in turn, through the rape and beating of a young girl by her father, sexual abuse by an uncle, groping hands on the bus by anonymous men, being forced at gunpoint to give a group of rowdy lads oral sex, being called a whore, and being dragged across the floor by the hair. Most of the performers have experienced the abuse they acted out in front of us. One woman was disfigured when her husband doused her with kerosene. It was harrowing.

These acts accompany the horrendous and true story of a 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped in New Delhi last year and who later died from her injuries. Named Jyoti Singh Pandey, she became known as Nirbhaya – the fearless one. Her  assault and death has understandably become the focus of global outrage.

But there are limitations to staging such horror. Although Nirbhaya was  not as graphic as it sounds – there was  a certain amount of suggestion and poetry in parts – there was no subtext or ambiguity, no light or shade. And whilst I don’t doubt it was a therapeutic exercise for the participants, it was  not clear what the audience was meant to get from it, beyond “awareness raising” – another justifying mantra for watching this kind of stuff.

Some of us like to watch, clearly. It was hard to get a ticket to Our Glass House by the Common Wealth theatre group, a company that seeks to challenge and respond to political and  social issues. The production was staged in a private home to which we had a key, in which we  encountered numerous incidents of domestic violence, based on interviews with those who experienced it. You could witness fighting and abuse, a near drowning in the bath, broken crockery, name-calling and crying, and follow the protagonists out on to the street as they dealt with the enduring consequences of abuse. “No one wants you, no one cares,” the words of one man are shouted out by a woman. “Open your legs. Go on, open your fucking legs.”

So don’t go, I hear you say. The problem is that these toxic dramas continue well beyond the Festival. These may be extreme examples, but you don’t have to look far to see the same narrative repeated elsewhere.

Every drama on television seems to require a rape, or something along these lines. Just recently it was The Mill, where one of the girls was assaulted by the mill owner’s henchman, which followed on not so nicely from, Top of the Lake, a beautifully shot drama on BBC2, directed by Jane Campion. The lead female detective, played by Elisabeth Moss, is haunted by a past gang rape, in a community where everyone turns a blind eye. An exceptionally awful act is presented as ordinary: an extension of everyday male abuse of women in a small town.

And remember The Fall, on BBC2, with Gillian Anderson as a police  officer investigating the serial killings (by a male social worker) of young,  attractive women in Belfast? It was a well-crafted series, but there were rather too many shots of desirable girls before, after and during their abuse and murder. The women were all gorgeous, of course, and smart, but ultimately they all fell victim to a nasty, predatory man.

Woman and men in these works are degraded. Even strong, smart women come out badly. Also performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was Anna, a play about the late Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, from the Badac Theatre Company, a group that  describes itself as focusing on human rights issues. The show sought to honour the life and work of the brave truth-seeker, who was shot and killed in her apartment lift in 2006. How it did so, however, diminished her. 

We were warned in advance that it was standing room only and that there would be violence. We then accessed  the performance by taking the elevator down to a basement, entering a small airless room. The use of the lift was clearly intended to echo the scene of her death. And that was what we witnessed, ultimately. We heard little about her writing, or the political context in which she worked; we primarily saw the trauma of people who had been tortured and raped, until we witnessed it happen to her. We stood and watched a spectacle of abuse: a gang of men shouting, hitting and raping Politsovskaya. I am unconvinced that this is the best way to understand and respect her work. It turns this courageous writer into a beaten animal.

And what about the men? They are all rapists, wife-beaters, or about to commit an act placed on a continuum of sexual violence, even if it’s just a leer or a threatening remark. In The Fanny Hill Project, a so-called satirical show, members of the TheatreShow company shouted out a string of gang-rape jokes whilst dressed up as men in suits drinking lager. At the end they passed  around a collecting tin for a local rape charity. This picture of all men on the verge of rape has become the dominant storyline. The only exception  was in Our Glass House, when men were victims of abuse too, which is hardly a positive deviation. The suggestion was that we live in a culture of misogyny, that abuse is endemic and that all relationships are toxic. But it’s not, it isn’t and they aren’t.

When I recently aired these concerns in The Scotsman newspaper, a few well-intentioned people responded by cautioning me against questioning the now common depiction of all relationships as abusive, because, they ventured, it would suggest that rape was okay, which is a bit of leap.

But what is actually difficult to say is this: why do we want to watch sexual violence on display? What we are  silent about, in fact, is that some of us get along together perfectly well. But it is rare to find a happy relationship on show, I realised when I watched a box set of the American TV drama, Friday Night Lights, and was taken aback by the depiction of a functioning couple, a man and wife (Coach Eric Taylor and Tami), who like each other, simply coping with everyday difficulties. Not only abuse takes place behind closed doors. Sometimes we laugh together and love each other. 

“Women are raped for entertainment,” suggests the Scottish novelist and playwright Alan Bissett in his show, Ban This Filth!, when he  describes his experience with pornography. But there’s something similarly voyeuristic in the saturation of our culture in sexual violence. It is time to look away from this filth.