It might have been an unfortunate coincidence that several high-profile cases of abduction and murder of women were in the news at the same time as a peak-hour BBC series glamorising the same things.
On the other hand, maybe not. At any one time, there is bound to be a grim story of abuse in the headlines, and it is equally certain that somewhere on television or cinema screens across the country, a glossy, mainstream sado-drama will be exciting its viewers.
Rarely, though, has the disconnect between reality and fantasy been more evident than in recent weeks. The discovery in America of three women who had been held captive, chained in a basement, and two murder trials in the UK where the victims have been young girls have been reminders, if any were needed, of the squalor and misery of sexual crime. Invariably, the guilty man emerges as a pathetic, unpleasant misfit, a small-timer, often with a background of addiction and casual violence. The fantasy, currently being supplied by the BBC’s slick drama series The Fall, could not be more different. Here the murder of women is a stylish business, as lovingly choreographed and as tastefully lit as any love scene. Abuse is presented, without any crudely explicit detail, as an intense sexual experience, at the excitingly taboo end of things.
The killer himself may be a misfit but, conforming to a cliché handed down from one generation of thriller-writers to the next, he is also sexy, and troubled in the interesting, charismatic way which has been obligatory since the success of the psycho-daddy of them all, Hannibal Lecter.
One episode of The Fall opened with a long, lingering sequence in which the killer’s games with a dead, semi-naked female body are intercut with a scene of the glamorous police detective having hot, one-night-stand sex. No one could accuse the programme-makers of subtlety.
It has become embarrassing, the thriller genre’s dependence on plotlines built around the pursuit and murder of women. The fact that its writers and directors seem not to hesitate for a moment as they work on yet another remake of the old story has begun to seem odd.
In the 1970s, there was a publishing genre known in the trade as “women-in-jeopardy novels”. Over subsequent decades, something really rather extraordinary has happened; those stories have become more respectable, not less.
There may now and then be a spasm of concern about the effects of pornography on easily warped minds, but the truth is that the influence of sleazy websites is as nothing beside many of the exploitative stories about the sexual persecution of women created by writers and directors who win awards, Baftas and Oscars.
It is not simply that the countless films, TV series and books serve to present the various psychotic sadists at the centre of the stories as fascinating, complex anti-heroes. The images that accompany the story – death porn on paperback covers and film posters, the almost obligatory appearance of a dead, naked, female body (or part of a body) on screen – have seeped into the culture.
Thriller excitement and sexual excitement have been cleverly conflated. As we watch, we are spooked, scared, but also titillated.
There may be occasional protests about excessive on-screen violence – Ryan Gosling’s new film Only God Forgives was roundly booed at the Cannes film festival last week – but the less openly explicit films and series, which allow and encourage our imaginations to fill in the disgusting details, are more popular and widespread than ever.
Censorship, which adds the allure of the forbidden, is clearly not the answer. Perhaps it is time for embarrassment, so effective when it comes to racial or gender stereotyping, to do its work.
It would be good to think that male and female thriller writers of seriousness might think twice before using yet another sexually motivated murder to propel their plots. It would be a welcome development if commissioning editors in TV, film and publishing became aware that, if they use cruelty to sex up a film, they might lose more viewers and readers than they gain.
It is time for the old women-in-jeopardy trope to go out of fashion.
Now radio joins the rush toward bland uniformity
The most cunning trick of the internet is that, with the help of some clever algorhythm-tracking piece of technology, it follows our online behaviour and reflects it back to us in the browsing choices it offers.
Dismayingly, radio may soon be playing the same game. A new invention called the Perceptive Radio, unveiled at the recent Thinking Digital Conference, is said to be able to respond to the kind of device listeners are using and to where they live. It will then adapt its output to include, for example, mentions of their local town, or the weather outside.
The aim, according to the team behind Perceptive Radio, is to provide “a more immersive experience” and, it almost goes without saying, to encourage diversity.
It sounds creepy to me. The very last thing I want from my radio is that it is customised to me and reflects my own world. True diversity lies in difference, not similarity.