Why the constant portrayal of murdered women on TV dehumanises us

Louisa Adjoa Parker was our guest blogger for April

The plethora of crime dramas and real-life crime documentaries suggests that we can’t get enough of murder. I enjoy a good whodunit as much as the next woman, but I’m sick of seeing so many – real or fictional – women’s murdered bodies on TV.

I’d long been conscious that this made me uncomfortable, but it was only when watching BBC4’s O.J.: Made in America that I became distressed. The documentary continuously showed pictures of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole’s murdered body. It simply wasn’t necessary to keep showing this image. Whenever it came on the screen I covered my eyes and shouted at the TV: “Have a bit of respect!”. I should have stopped watching, but I was fascinated by the story: an interplay of celebrity, ‘race’, media and gender that could only have happened in America.

I don’t know if Nicole’s family had to give permission for the images to be shown. Whatever the legalities, it felt wrong. If I was killed, I wouldn’t want images of my brutal death on screens across the globe.

Showing her body on primetime TV was unnecessary. Of course it’s important to expose violence against women. But there are other ways this can be done. Nicole deserved respect in death as she did in life. Her children didn’t need to see their mother reduced to a broken body lying on the floor.

A friend recommended Spiral recently. The programme began with a murdered woman whose face had been smashed to a pulp. “I expect she was beautiful,” a pathologist said. “That’s why he did this.” So what? I thought, I don’t need to see this misogynistic crap, and turned it off.

So why do TV producers feel the need to show so many dead women? It’s as though female murder has become ‘sexy’, and it’s a certain type of woman – young, beautiful, white, thin – who is the typical victim. (This in spite of the fact we know that women from all backgrounds can be murdered). We are all too familiar with the stylised image of pale flesh covered in bright blood, the glimpse of a nipple or pubic hair, splayed limbs, long hair fanned across the bed (because all murders take place when a woman is naked in bed, right?).

There’s nothing sexy about a man (and it’s always a man) ending a woman’s life. The images reduce women to nothing more than bodies, and we have enough of a problem with objectification of women’s bodies already.

There has been criticism of the high female body count in British TV drama from those within the industry. Helen Mirren told the Observer that she agreed with David Hare’s statement on the bloodthirsty nature of crime drama, and that there was a clear sexual divide with the corpses.

So what effect can this have on us? Research has shown that watching violence on TV can affect children’s behaviour. Dr Gail Gross writes in the Huffington Post: “There is a chemical change in the brain, similar to that which is seen in post-traumatic stress disorder; if enough violence is viewed, the brain reacts as if the person has actually been abused.” I would imagine this is similar for adults. After watching The Fall I was checking under beds and in wardrobes. It was the same with Luther – friends who are far less anxious than me were checking under their beds after one particular episode. As Alison Graham argued in the Radio Times: “Violence against women in the real world is all too disproportionate and vivid. We don’t need any reinforcement from dramas.”

These programmes confirm our fears that the world is unsafe for women, and can make us feel that our lives are expendable. They’re not based on reality: it is widely acknowledged that we are far more likely to be murdered by someone we know than by a stranger.

An example of a detective drama which avoided the portrayal of dead women was ITV’s The Level, starring Karla Chrome who played DS Nancy Devlin investigating the death of a corrupt businessman.

We need more shows like this – with strong female leads, and interesting stories that don’t have a poor, dead, conventionally beautiful young woman at the centre of them. Killing women isn’t sexy, and the sooner TV producers realise this, the better.

Image courtesy Austin Chronicle on Flickr

Image is of a framed photograph of Laura Palmer, the murder victim from TV show Twin Peaks, with candles on each side