For several years now, the BBC Radio 4 review programme Front Row has been more or less explicitly campaigning against crime drama involving depictions of violence against women. When the BBC first broadcast the first season of Happy Valley, John Wilson interviewed writer Sally Wainwright, and he supplemented high praise for Wainwright’s work with challenging questions about the dramatic treatment of violence against women. At the time of the third season of The Fall, Samira Ahmed took Gillian Andersen to task over the violence towards women portrayed in earlier seasons. And around the time the third season of Broadchurch was being shown on ITV, John Wilson, interviewing David Tennant, held the actor’s feet to the fire in connection with the representation of rape in the drama.
Front Row raises issues germane to the debate about the representation of violence, but there is invariably a weakness in the discussion. The basic distinction between drama that entertains, on the one hand, and drama which passes muster as “serious”, on the other, is invariably absent from the discussion.
That distinction is of course crucial. It opens the door to more nuanced attitudes to the issue of representations of violence against women in dramas. A sensible rule of thumb suggested by this distinction is that, whether or not it is “problematic” for simple entertainment to include such scenes, violence against women is a legitimate subject for serious drama.
Violence against women is a legitimate subject for serious drama.
If we consider the crime dramas just mentioned, entertaining elements are in them. Season two of Happy Valley involves our trying to work out which character is the culprit (who is killing the sex workers?). And season one of Broadchurch is probably the most popular whodunit of our times. But such contemporary crime drama is serious in intent. In terms of mode, Happy Valley is very close to the Mike Leigh type of social realism. If the third season of Broadchurch invites us to speculate about who the perpetrator is, it is also a work of searing realism: episode one, for example, includes a highly authentic depiction of one character, Trish, going through the painful process of a forensic examination at a sexual assault referral centre. And this seriousness goes some way to explaining why these dramas are justified.
Observations made by the Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye about violence in drama come to mind. Having invoked the traditional distinction between instruction and delight, and suggested that a play such as King Lear obviously represents serious material dedicated primarily to instruction, he acknowledges that to an extent, it is also a play we turn to for pleasure, despite its more gruesome moments. “It comes as something of a shock to realize that the blinding of Gloucester in Lear is still entertainment”, says the critic. But that factor does not suggest a censorious attitude to the play. In a formulation which skillfully does justice to the moral vision of King Lear and to the fact that what we are seeing is not real, Frye comments “the blinding of Gloucester, though not happening, is the kind of thing that can and does happen”. And surely this is how we must approach crime drama dealing with difficult contemporary social issues, such as violence against women.
Of course, serious dramatists are capable of failing to deal with the subject in a sensitive way, and in that regard, reviewers can provide an invaluable critical perspective. It may be that a team set out to make a serious drama partly dealing with violence against women, and that commentators demonstrate that the drama in question includes porn tropes, for example. But that doesn’t mean that we should conclude that such subject matter should be off-limits for serious drama. It simply means that the drama in question has failed to meet the standards required of drama dealing with such themes.
Meanwhile, a more recent episode of Front Row partly comprised a discussion between Bridget Lawless and Val McDermid about the issue in question. The discussion was about a new prize for thriller novels that do not include any depictions of violence against women. Val McDermid, who was arguing in favour of writers continuing to deal with the theme in their fiction, easily won the debate, although Samira Ahmed seemed unconvinced. The distinction highlighted in this piece was partly employed by McDermid, but it was not emphasised as much as it should be in these debates. In the exchange between the two, crime stories of all sorts are at times unhelpfully bundled together. It would represent a great step forward if we could at least agree on the fact that serious-minded crime drama can’t possibly shy away from representing this issue.