Gendered Violence and Mass Media Representation

Lisa Cuklanz. The Sage Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publication. 2006.

Perhaps the single greatest challenge in considering gendered violence in media is to create a framework for limiting this subject to a category of texts. Many scholars of mass media and sex crime have observed that gendered violence is so commonplace and so normalized that it is hard to conceive of a category of mass mediated text that would be devoid of it. In her groundbreaking work, “The Symbolic Annihilation of Women,” Tuchman (1978) observes that across several mass media, including magazines and television, women were depicted far less frequently than men. Female characters tended to be victims of violence or to have subordinate roles. In her analysis of the history of rape in U.S. film, Projansky (2001) asserts that rape functions “as the narrative motor for individual films … forming genres, shaping expectations, and naturalizing the cultural pervasiveness of sexual violence against women” (p. 63). Caputi (1987) asserts that “clearly, it is not only the content of the patriarchal media (the stereotyping, erasure, subordinations, and victimizations) which further the world view of sex crime, but also something about the forms and properties of the media themselves” (p. 169). In the United States, the overwhelming majority (often over 90%) of gendered crimes of violence (those against a person of a different gender) are committed by men against women and girls. Representations by mass media in the United States of gendered violence reflect this pattern. Violence against women by men is a central theme in genres including news, Hollywood film, popular music videos, and video and computer games. Less mainstream genres such as pornography exaggerate this tendency. This is the meaning of gendered violence and the premise for most scholarship on gendered violence in mass media, and my analysis starts with it. However, violence here is understood in its broader sense, as physical acts and other forms including sexual objectification and voyeurism.

Another important and productive way to understand gendered violence is to examine the role of media representations in constructing notions of gender itself. A significant strand of scholarship currently examines how media constructions of masculinity emphasize and even glorify violence. Conversely, media often link victimization through violence to definitions of what it means to be female. A relatively new strand of scholarship examines the emergence of violent femininity in media products.

Tuchman’s (1978) definition of “symbolic annihilation” includes absence, trivialization, denigration, victimization, or condemnation. She argues that these characteristics dominate mass media’s representation of women. Tuchman notes that women were more likely to be depicted as the victims of violence, and that “the pattern of women’s involvement with television violence reveals approval of married women and condemnation of single and working women” (p. 13). Previous work to establish gender differences was largely empirical. Tedesco (“Patterns in Prime Time,” 1974) found that female characters were victims of murder three times as often as they committed it, whereas male characters murdered twice as often as they were murdered. Tuchman’s essay and the collection entitled Hearth and Home in which it appeared began to define a field of enterprise around analysis of gender representation and mass media that has since developed to encompass many disparate areas of inquiry.

Because the depiction of gendered violence in mass media is such an extensive subject, I narrow the purview of this discussion according to methodology, categories and genres. This chapter examines the central, best-developed strands of scholarship on gendered violence in news discourses, prime time television, mainstream Hollywood film, rap/ hip-hop music and music video, and video/ computer games. These broad forms of media are familiar to most readers. Many other strands of scholarship in the general area of gendered violence in mass media are productive, including analyses of independent and alternative films (Projansky, 2001), talk shows (Moorti, 1998), the World Wrestling Federation (Heinecken, 2004), westerns (Osgerby & Gough-Yates, 2001), and soap operas (Brown, 1990; Modleski, 1984). This chapter also does not cover the important and much-researched subject of pornography (see Cornell, 2000). Most research on pornography is undertaken from a psychological perspective, and/or it focuses on effects rather than patterns of representation. I am focusing on mainstream media representations, which reach a larger and broader audience. Pornography traverses media and is common in Internet, film, video, and magazine forms. Indeed, it could consume its own chapter.

A significant stream of scholarship on gendered violence (including pornography) examines the effects of viewing violence. Because this chapter focuses on representation (rather than on effects or reception), I will not discuss this scholarship at length. It is important to note, however, that many studies have shown how media representations of rape, domestic violence and sexual assault potentially influence human attitudes and behavior (see Donnerstein & Linz, 1986; Linz, Donnerstein, & Adams, 1989; Linz, Donnerstein, & Penrod, 1984; Wilson, Linz, Donnerstein, & Stipp, 1992; Zillmann & Bryant, 1982). Linz, Donnerstein, and Penrod’s (1984) study is representative of studies utilizing experimental methodology. After viewing five films depicting violence against women, subjects “came to have fewer negative emotional reactions” to them and “to consider them significantly less degrading to women” (p. 130). Allen, Emmers, Gebhart, and Biery (1995) summarize a vast body of scholarly work investigating exposure to pornography and acceptance of rape myths. They conclude that “nonexperimental methodology shows almost no effect… while experimental studies show positive effect” (p. 5). Although some research confirms effects, such as desensitization and influence on beliefs, empirical studies have not conclusively demonstrated a causal connection between exposure to sexually violent media and real-world violence in general. Brief reviews of the methodological approaches discussed below are included in each section of the chapter. These approaches share a focus on representation and emphasize elements of symbolism and meaning.

Representations of Gendered Violence in News Discourse

Scholarship on news coverage of rape, sexual assault, and battering takes part in a larger stream examining the “social construction of news” (see Bennett, 2001; Nimmo & Combs, 1990). Studies in this area question the values and definitions of news that result in flawed and often superficial coverage. They trace the ways ideologies and stereotypes are transmitted through news that purports to be objective. Traditionally, coverage of rape, sexual assault, and battering has focused on cases of extreme violence and has been characterized by sensationalism and voyeurism. Since the start of rape law reform in 1974 and the concomitant development of interest in and public information about these crimes, the effect of these practices has been mitigated by the occasional inclusion of feminist discourses or voices and by changes in how the crimes were reported. However, because of the ways in which news is defined and structured, coverage of gendered violence has remained skewed in many ways.

Scholarship on news coverage of gendered violence reflects the fact that news focuses primarily on rape and sexual assault, rarely on battering. Coverage of rape, sexual assault, and battery, like other news, tends to select single events, to favor incidents of extreme violence or other markers that supposedly make the event unique, to focus on drama and conflict, to seek what is regarded as balance in the two sides of an issue, to eschew discussions of background and historical/social issues, and to include elements of sensationalism, such as titillating or bizarre details. Each of these “news biases” (to use Bennett’s, 2001, term) has a detrimental effect on the ability of media to provide fair and accurate coverage of gendered violence. Numerous scholars (Benedict, 1992; Cuklanz, 1996; Kitzinger, 2004; Moorti, 2002) have found that, because of the biases that define news, most of it about rape focuses on particular trials. Trials and legal proceedings that involve celebrities receive many times more coverage than those with previously unknown litigants (see Lule, 1995; Maxwell, Huxford, Borum, & Hornik, 2000; Moorti, 2002). Maxwell et al. (2002) found that even after the unprecedented coverage of the O. J. Simpson case, there was no lasting “shift from incident focused to socially focused reporting” (p. 258) of domestic violence. Because trial news is the most common format for news of gendered violence, there is a coherent body of scholarship in this area. These studies tend to examine the mythic frameworks (both feminist and traditional) for understanding rape that structure the reporting on it and on sexual assault.

Much of this work has focused on or included significant discussion of coverage of the victim. Benedict (1992) shows accusers being treated either as innocent, sweet, virginal, and undeserving victims of violent crime or as deceitful, manipulative, sexually experienced women of questionable motive. In attacks by strangers, particularly when extreme violence was used, the accuser is likely to be framed as a virgin. In cases of date or acquaintance rape, where guilt hinges more clearly on consent, accusers are usually framed as vamps who either deserved or brought about their own attacks. My work (Cuklanz, 1993, 1995b, 1996) focuses on high-profile cases and illustrates how the framing of the victim depends on the facts of the case. Projansky’s (2001) more recent work is important in its examination of popular press stories that “[step] back from the focus on actual rape cases” (p. 91) and discuss issues related to sexual assault in general. She illustrates the centrality of postfeminist discourses within this coverage. They range from assumptions that violence against women is motivated by hate to an emphasis on the supposedly dangerous or threatening aspects of feminist perspectives on rape. Projansky shows that discussions of the constructions of “murkiness” or “confusion” surrounding rape in the writings of authors, including Ellen Goodman, Naomi Wolf, and Katie Roiphe, cast doubt on victim claims and suggest that guilt is difficult to assess. In many of these discussions, such confusions are explicitly blamed on feminism. Horeck (2004) argues that because the 1984 Big Dan’s tavern gang rape case was the first nationally televised trial on CNN, it (and rape in general) “played a pivotal role in establishing the technology of a new genre of reality programming” (p. 90). Horeck finds troubling the idea that “we may be participating in a rape by ‘just looking,’ be it in Big Dan’s tavern or in the comfort of our living rooms” (p. 90).

Several studies cover the intersection of race and gendered violence in news (Benedict, 1992; Meyers, 1997; Moorti, 2002), and the most thorough of these is Moorti’s Color of Rape (2002). Moorti’s analysis of news coverage of highly publicized assault cases concludes that, in general, “news coverage shifts attention from sexual assault to a discussion of masculinity” (p. 71) and that mainstream news discourses in the United States are “enunciated from a white, normative standpoint” (p. 71). Studies have found that coverage of cases involving victims of color is rare, that race and ethnicity are highlighted in troubling ways, and that many cases involving obvious guilt and/or conviction involve non-white perpetrators (see Consalvo, 1998; Cuklanz, 1995a; Horeck, 2004). Moorti (2002) notes that when such cases are covered “the news tends to foreground race-based assumptions of sexuality” (p. 73), such as the belief in the hypersexuality of African American women and the comparative rapaciousness of African American men. Meyers (1997) notes that stories with African American perpetrators or victims are frequently framed in terms of drug abuse, violence, and prostitution. She says that “details surrounding the act of violence, such as the woman’s use of drugs or alcohol or her engagement in prostitution or other illegal or dangerous activities, serve to blame the victim” (p. 120). Meyers’s (2004) more recent work on news coverage of black victims of sexual assault illustrates how racial stereotypes shape constructions of guilt and innocence. Like Moorti, she argues for the importance of considering the intersectionality of race, class, and gender.

Studies on news coverage of wife battering are less numerous. Carter’s (Carter, Branston, & Allen, 1998) analysis of British news argues that emphasis on violent stranger attacks may encourage “readers to accept certain ideological justifications for male sexual violence as a typical, even inevitable feature of everyday life” (p. 221). Meyers (1994, 1997) provides the most in-depth analysis of this issue in her examination of several cases of wife battering as well as rape. She faults the coverage for failing to provide social or historical context for violence against women, for locating explanations of violence only within the psyche of the abuser or the victim’s behavior, for treating counselors and victim advocates as biased sources rather than as experts, and for providing unnecessary details that are often damaging or shameful to victims. News about battering is especially problematic in its common failure to understand spousal murders as (often) the culmination of a husband’s efforts to control, humiliate, and harm his wife. Consalvo’s (1998) work on coverage of mail-order brides and domestic violence stemming from the Blackwell murders in Seattle is important for its discussion of mainstream representations of victims’ guilt as related to their being foreigners and for its comparison of mainstream and minority press coverage. Consalvo’s study affirms that mainstream news appears ill equipped to examine wife battering as a long-term relational pattern and widespread social problem, and she finds that alternative news sources can provide a clearer understanding. Her study of two minority newspapers in Seattle found that they provided more balance and better development of the idea that domestic violence is a public health problem as well as an open critique of the limitations of mainstream news coverage (p. 207).

Most of the studies reviewed here include some discussion of how coverage of gendered violence could be improved (see Kitzinger, 2004). Scholars agree that reporters need to be educated about the realities of rape and about the syndromes of rape trauma and wife battering. They could do more to treat victims with empathy and dignity by eliminating unnecessary details that might identify the victim or cause shame and humiliation. They could move away from stories that follow traditional myths about rape and wife battering, such as the idea that victims provoke their own attacks through dress or behavior or that assaults occur when psychically abnormal men suddenly snap. Byerly’s (1994) essay on teaching about news coverage of these issues covers many of the same points.

While the work reviewed has provided important insights into the ideological functions of news on rape and battering, it tends to focus on individual cases and thus has done less to establish the breadth and quantity of such news generally. Although some studies, such as Benedict’s (1992), do discuss the question of how trials are chosen to be covered, the mechanisms for case and topic selection are not well understood. Intersections of international and global discourses with these topics also have remained largely unexamined, although Stables’s (2003) shows how coverage of gendered violence in Kosovo followed the general pattern of focus on extreme cases and fragmentation of feminist ideas. Studies should also examine broader issues, such as the characteristics of highly publicized rape trials over time, coverage of cases in which the perpetrator is not male and the victim not female, the incidence and location of news stories that do not focus on trials, or the differential coverage of celebrity versus noncelebrity cases. Research might also focus on wife battering to raise questions about which cases receive coverage and whether it has improved or changed its framework, and document trends in coverage. Comparisons between the mainstream and alternative/ minority press, such as Consalvo’s (1998), should be pursued about a range of cases and issues. Finally, as the definition of news continues to shift and expand, efforts, such as Rapping’s (2003), can be made to examine discourses of wife battering wherever they exist, such as in nonfiction, so-called real crime programs such as Unsolved Mysteries or Cops.

Representations of Gendered Violence in Prime-Time Entertainment Television

Text-based analyses of gendered violence on prime time television fit mostly under the cultural studies rubric. Cultural studies approaches set out to examine the role of media texts within a cultural context and how meanings are circulated and controlled within them, as well as how such meanings are related to issues of power. This research tends to focus on the construction of masculinity and femininity in mass media texts; the relationship among constructed gender, violence, and victimization; gaps or absences in representation of violence (such as the nearly total lack of images depicting women prevailing over or against male violence); and the relationships between prime time representation and ideologies that are external to television. In this section, I review scholarship on gendered violence on prime time television from a cultural/critical studies perspective. Since the publication of Hearth and Home in 1978, examinations of the relationships among stereotypes, violence, and representation have expanded and become more sophisticated. However, specific studies of gendered violence in television have emerged only very recently (Cuklanz, 2000; Moorti, 2002; Projansky, 2001). Scholarship on gendered violence and television is best developed in relation to the genres of crime/detective fiction and the made-for-TV movies.

Representations of Gendered Violence in Crime/Detective Fiction

Media scholars and cultural critics have observed common links between popular definitions of masculinity and violence in the world and within textual constructions of gendered violence (see Craig, 1992; Fiske, 1987; Holmlund, 2002; Jeffords, 1994; Kirkham & Thumin, 1993; Miedzian, 1991; Scharrer, 2001). This linkage is particularly pronounced in specific genres of film and television related to detective and police work, westerns, military and war genres. Of these, detective and police genres have received the most scholarly attention. Work on them also points to developments in the construction of alternative masculinities in relation to violence against women. Fiske (1987) and others have written about uses of the signs of masculinity found within such genres (such as guns, vehicles and other machines, and bulky muscles) as displays of idealized masculinity (see also Jeffords, 1994). Scharrer (2001) refers to extreme displays of these elements as “hypermasculinity,” a form of representation of exaggerated masculine traits accompanied by the use of violence. Scholars have frequently noted that, like many other representational forms under discussion here (including the rape-revenge formula and the slasher film), hypermasculinity represents a generalized insecurity about male roles in the wake of feminist activism.

My work (Cuklanz, 1998) documents the disproportionate representation of rape narratives within the cop/detective genres on prime time. Approximately 80% of prime time rapes were shown in these genres during the late 1970s. In these narratives, the perpetrators are most often male. However, as Moorti (2002), Projansky (2001), and I (Cuklanz, 1998; 2000) have all noted, the version of masculinity associated with these criminal activities is often marginalized and certainly not valorized. Rapists in stranger-rape narratives studied by all three scholars since the mid-1970s have most often been depicted as abnormal, horrific, extreme, psychotic, sociopathic, or otherwise far beyond the realm of normal or admirable masculinity. Narrative elements, such as extreme brutality, emphasis on victims’ injuries and suffering, multiple attackers, and serial crimes, tend to emphasize the extremity of evil characterized by rapists. In narratives centering on date or acquaintance rape (more common since the mid-1980s), the perpetrator’s attitudes and language set him apart from the normal or ideal male. Often he is known by the use of sexist language, callous attitudes toward women, and defensive denials of guilt. My work (Cuklanz, 2000) illustrates how negative masculine characters use violence against women and positive masculine characters protect and avenge women, using violence only against perpetrators. Violence is thus retained as an integral part of both masculine types.

Hanke (1992) employs the term “hegemonic masculinity” as a label for the dominant construction of masculinity in mass mediated texts. His work as well as my own delineates some ways in which this hegemonic masculinity has the ability to shift in response to social and cultural trends, such as attacks from feminists who have denounced the association of masculinity and the harming of women and children (in ways that include objectification, pornography, and rape). I argue, for example, that protagonist detectives in recent decades are often depicted as emotional, expressive, thoughtful, empathetic and caring toward victims (Cuklanz, 2000). They work well with female colleagues and can even express feminist points of view. Projansky (2001) provides a more nuanced account of the ideological functions of what she calls “male feminists” in rape narratives. She notes that the sympathetic friend/witness of rape who often comes forward to provide needed testimony is nearly always male, in effect a “hero … who articulates the truth about rape” (p. 113). The projection of the rape scene from the point of view of the noncomplicit male onlooker can be seen as both a redemptive discourse for hegemonic masculinity and as a construction of males as those with the correct “moral voice of the narrative” (p. 113). Projansky asserts that when men teach women about errors in law and about feminist views on rape, “men emerge as ‘better’ feminists than women, taking over the voice of feminism in the text, and thus depicting feminism without women” (p. 112). Moorti (2002) makes a similar observation about L.A. Law. To Projanksy (2001), some texts represent “the rape as a vehicle for understanding men” (p. 113). She notes that men’s perspectives are also central in narratives that include African American characters. This phenomenon creates a recuperative, alternative form of masculinity that ideologically counteracts associations of normal masculinity with violence against women.

Accompanying these tendencies to place male characters at the center of rape narratives is an obvious correlative: the marginalization of women within these same stories. My book (Cuklanz, 2000) documents the many ways in which female victims are rendered mute in rape stories within the detective fiction genre through the 1980s. Victims are murdered, severely injured and rendered comatose, or go into shock and remain silent for days. When they have not been physically eliminated from the script, victims become frightened and needy. Peripheral female characters (i.e., any other than the victim) are quite rare. Female detectives in prime time police series prior to 1990 were often used as decoys for rapists or other violent criminals, or they went undercover as sex workers (Buxton, 1990; Cuklanz, 2000). This trope placed the female officer in a vulnerable position from which she could be rescued by male colleagues. And, as Buxton notes in a discussion of Miami Vice, it also enabled “them to be portrayed in the crudest sex-symbol terms” (p. 159) and to legitimize “rough justice” on the part of the police/victim later in the story.

Findings on intersections of race and representations of rape in detective fiction are well established, with Moorti’s (2002) work providing the most detailed examination. Moorti concludes that rape and race are usually kept separate, such that complex experiences of victims of color are very seldom explored. Certainly, the programs Moorti and others have analyzed have carefully avoided any echo of the myth of the black rapist. In fictionalized rape stories based on actual cases, racial identities other than white are usually altered (Moorti, p. 127). Moorti summarizes that “[t]he only subject position offered to nonwhite characters [in these inverted story lines] is as victims; nonwhite men are falsely charged with rape while nonwhite women suffer violation by white men” (p. 129). These episodes sometimes include racist characters and dialogue but “fail to present how a black woman’s experience of rape is shaped by these myths of black female sexuality” (p. 131). Projansky’s (2001) analysis emphasizes the way in which black victims of sexual violence are often depicted as the recipients of extreme violence that is visually explicit. These graphic depictions of sexualized violence play into myths of African American sexuality (see Crenshaw, 1995) and work against myths about race, violence, and victimization. Moorti (2002) and Projansky (2001) conclude that contemporary detective fiction narratives (as well as other forms and genres) cannot, in Projansky’s words “address the intersections of gender, race, and rape” (p. 194). Both believe that rape is often used to refer to or lead to discussion of other social problems. Rape or sexual violence becomes what Moorti calls an “absent presence” in the narratives, enabling or setting off the story’s action, but receding quickly from view.

Representations of Gendered Violence in Made-for-Tv Movies

The made-for-television movie is known for its often sentimental or sensationalized treatment of “women’s issues.” As Rapping (2003) points out, these issues are usually construed as those related to gendered violence, particularly rape and battering, because other issues do not provide the excitement and sexual dimension so easily exploited by television programming. Rapping argues that contemporary programs on these issues have lost most of the feminist political edge that she documented in her earlier (1992) book. Her 2003 work documents the move away from issues as sociopolitical terrain and toward their treatment in exclusively legal terms. Rapping considers this move a conservative one that enables a shift away from feminist discourses. Themes of victim voice and empowerment, the constructed nature of gender and personality, and the potential for social change have been largely removed from the genre’s more recent treatments of rape and battering.

Rapping’s earlier work (1992) examined TV movies such as The Burning Bed (1984) (based on the Francine Hughes case) and Silent Witness (1985) (loosely based on the Big Dan’s rape case) as “social issue” movies that dealt (with varying degrees of subtlety and success) with issues such as the intersection of class and victimization, female empowerment, personal growth and change, and even feminist politics. My own earlier work (Cuklanz, 1996) also noted that made-for-TV movies of the previous decades could sometimes do a better job than news discourses of articulating feminist or victim perspectives about rape and spouse abuse. Although Rapping (1992) often deals with rape representation at the same time, her work is unique among studies of gendered violence on prime time television in its lengthy treatment of wife battering. Rapping asserts that in the early 1980s “network television was apt to present what … were highly progressive, feminist-informed portrayals of [battering], its root causes, and its potential cures” (p. 139). She also documents the era (early to mid-1980s) of the social issue TV movie as well as its demise in the late 1980s.

Although she finds much worth praise in these movies, such as their general tendency to contradict obvious racial stereotypes concerning violence, she is critical of their limitations in focusing on individual solutions to social problems, in their lack of context, in depicting graphic violence mainly against working-class women, and in offering seamless narrative closure (Rapping, 1992, chap. 3). While Rapping’s work discusses the contradiction of central racial stereotypes, Bobo and Seiter (1997) argue that a TV movie such as The Women of Brewster Place (1989) is different from similar “white” texts in its “emphasis on the process and survival of grief,” among other things (p. 182).

Directions for Research

Analyses of televisual representations of rape, like studies of news, are more developed than those of battering and other forms of violence. What is largely missing are studies of incidental violence in genres or episodes not especially focused on gendered violence but which nonetheless include such violence as part of another plot line. Hollywood film production could serve as a model for this type of television study. Studies of violence in cable programs, especially HBO series such as The Sopranos, Oz, or The Wire, are also rare. There is little work examining racial categories other than the typical black-white dichotomy, and themes of globalization are generally ignored.

Representations of Gendered Violence in Hollywood Film

Haskell’s (1987) book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, provided the first book-length examination of women’s roles in Hollywood film from the 1920s through 1960s. Although not focusing on gendered violence, Haskell asserts that the Hollywood film industry perpetuated “the idea of women’s inferiority” (p. 1) “through the myths of subjection and sacrifice that were its fictional currency” (p. 3). Projansky (2001) provides an essential history of the subject in U.S. film from 1903 through 1979, documenting the significance of rape narratives. After illustrating their centrality in genres as disparate as westerns and screwball comedies, Projansky argues that rape has been so pervasive and so central to such a large corpus of films in this country that “violence against women … seems to be necessary to the film itself, but it concomitantly naturalizes the policing and negotiation of gendered, classed, racialized, and national boundaries these films engage” (p. 63). Projansky’s work is the first to document this cross-genre significance of the subject of rape to the development of Hollywood film history.

The best-developed area of scholarship on Hollywood representation of gendered violence utilizes psychoanalytic theory to interrogate the film text. Such approaches start with the idea that film viewing, taking place within a darkened theater and projected in dreamlike fashion before a passive and psychologically isolated viewer, can productively be understood as related to subconscious mental processes which can be interrogated through close textual analysis. This general approach was initially linked to feminist analysis by Laura Mulvey (1975) in her landmark essay, “Visual Pleasure in Narrative Cinema,” in which she argues that many Hollywood films address an implicitly male viewer primarily through their framing of sexuality and violence toward the female body. Mulvey noted the links in many violent films between male heterosexual desire (of the female body) and the enactment of violence upon it. Since the publication of her essay, many theorists have challenged and refined this basic premise. Beginning with the concept of the male gaze, a psychoanalytic approach is interested in interrogating the inherent violence (and masculinized desire) within the film-viewing relationship. While subsequent works, such as those of Gaines (1988), hooks (1992), and Gamman and Marshment (1988), have examined the possibilities of film viewing from other points of view (especially those of black, lesbian, and female spectators), the basic validity of Mulvey’s insights remains intact in much contemporary scholarship on gender, violence, and Hollywood film. Doane (1991), Mayne (1990), Silverman (1988), Gaines (1988), and Clover (1992a; 1992b) have made important contributions to feminist psychoanalytic film theory, and cultural studies approaches also have been used to examine gendered violence in film (see Boyle, 2005). In her discussion of early Hollywood film, Kaplan (1983) identifies three representational mechanisms used in “the attempt of patriarchy to eliminate woman’s threat” (p. 73). These include “dominating her through the controlling power of the gaze … fetishizing her” (p. 73), and murder. Kaplan notes that films from the late 1960s were first dominated by buddy films and female-victim films that “showed women being raped and subjected to violence,” (p. 73) such as Last Tango in Paris (1972), A Clockwork Orange (1972), Klute (1971), Straw Dogs (1971), and Lipstick (1976). These films portray prostitution, rape, physical and verbal abuse, and “rage” against women. Rape revenge narratives are also prominent as well as the representation of sexual contact that begins as forcible rape but results in arousal of the victim followed by consensual sex. Haskell (1987) notes that two new trends started in the early 1980s: films geared to female audiences, “dealing explicitly with issues that the women’s movement ha[d] raised” (p. 74), and films depicting explicit rape-murder-torture that were “relegated to the ‘B’ film and to the horror genre” (p. 74). As a result, much scholarship on gendered violence in post-1980s Hollywood film has focused on this somewhat marginal genre.

Representations of Gendered Violence in Horror/Slasher Films

On the surface, horror films depict acts of violence against victims of both sexes, with female victims often receiving the most brutal, and sexually symbolic, treatment at the hands of male monster-perpetrators. Scholars commenting on the overt messages of these films note that murders often follow sexual activity. The one female survivor is often “the girl who does not give in to sexual temptation” with the clear message that “sex does not pay” (Kottack, 1990, p. 98).3 More recent scholarship is concerned with the symbolic work involved in the excessive and apparent sadism of horror films and the potential impact on the psychology of their viewers. In horror films, perhaps even more obviously than in other genres of Hollywood film, the rape, torture, humiliation, and degradation of women are understood as symbolic means of containing or eliminating threats to male power. As Creed (1999) puts it, “Woman’s body is slashed and mutilated. … In the guise of ‘madman’ [the male] enacts on her body the one act he most fears himself, transforming her entire body into a bleeding wound” (p. 257). Although there are subtle differences in analysis among scholars, this basic link between male psychological fears and anxieties and the filmic violence against women in the horror genre is a point of agreement.

Much of the work on horror films focuses on audience psychology. Modleski (1986) focuses on the “feminization” of the audience as a whole through their identification with the (often female) victims of the horror genre monster. She also maintains that there is a difference between male and female viewers because these films project “the experience of submission and defenseless onto the female body.” They “enable the male spectator to distance himself somewhat from the terror” while “as usual, it is the female spectator who is truly deprived of ‘solace and pleasure’” (p. 163). Clover (1992b) argues that horror film audiences (including males) have the ability to identify with characters across gender lines. Clover maintains that film themes such as masochism and victimization are feminized in mainstream film, whereas aggression, dominance, and violence are markers of masculinity.

Representations of Violent Women in Hollywood Films

Inness (1999, 2004) examines recent developments of the violent female action hero in Hollywood cinema. Although aggressive and violent women were important in the film noir genre of the 1940s and 1950s (see Kaplan, 1978), contemporary histories of violent action heroines, including that of Inness (1999), usually trace the type to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in the Alien trilogy (1979-1992; see Vaughn, 1995) and Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner in Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991). More recent contributions to the genre include Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001; see Herbst, 2004) and Barb Wire (1996; Brown, 2004), although other films in the action heroine genre have also been examined (see Williams, 1996, 1999). In these films, female characters perform masculinity, undertaking acts of violence, usually in the cause of justice or world salvation. The female protagonist is either hypermasculinized as a figurative male (with enormous muscles and total lack of emotional connection to other people) or hypersexualized as a male fantasy (with exaggerated breasts, hips, lips, and so forth), or both. The linkages between exaggerated feminine physical traits and the use of violence in action heroines has been the subject of much discussion (see Brown, 2004; Herbst, 2004; Neroni, 2005; Tasker, 1993). While Herbst (2004) argues that Lara Croft represents a linkage between sex and death (2004), Brown (2004) shows how the action heroine is transgressive because she “personifies a unity of disparate traits in a single figure” and “refutes any assumed belief in appropriate gender roles via an exaggerated use of those very roles” (p. 49). Action heroines offer tough and effective “masculine” heroines, but have also made scenes of violence against women engaged in physical combat more common.

Violent women also are featured in rape-revenge films, another significant focus of scholarship (see Clover, 1992a; Franco, 2004; Projansky, 2001; Read, 2000; Wilson, 2001). Clover discusses the development of this formula in slasher-type films that feature both prolonged graphic brutalization of women and systematic, effective murderous revenge on male perpetrators. Clover reads The Accused(1988) as a better produced and funded version of the same plot. What the various versions of the rape-revenge film have in common are strong, highly motivated rape victims intent on retribution. These films take on the victim’s point of view and are sympathetic to her feelings and actions. However, they feature some of the most graphic and difficult scenes of gendered violence. Projansky is critical of the formula for its use of rape as an empowering event for protagonist women characters, impelling them toward action on their own behalf (see also Horeck, 2004; Wilson, 2001). She notes that in many films rape is the only impetus that can move women toward independent physical action. Several authors have discussed the film Thelma and Louise (1991) (see Boozer, 1995; Dargis, 1992; Hollinger, 1998; Projansky, 2001) as a unique Hollywood offering that depicts violence by “normal” women. Most analysts believe that the film became very controversial because of its relatively realistic depiction of violence by average women against men (including a rapist). A number of books examine Hollywood film narratives that construe lesbians as menacing, threatening, mentally deranged, and/or violent, which is also a pattern in representation of gay men (see Russo, 1987). Hart (1994) examines films such as Single White Female (1992) and Basic Instinct (1992) that feature violent lesbian protagonists. She (Hart, 1994) notes that “lesbians in mainstream representations have almost always been depicted as predatory, dangerous, and pathological” (p. x) and argues that lesbian violence has led the way for depictions of violent women in general. Hart (1994) asserts that because of the imperatives of presumptive heterosexuality and the maleness of desire, and the resulting need to marginalize both female desire and lesbian sexuality, mainstream culture “has made the lesbian and the female criminal synonomous [sic] by displacing women’s aggression onto the sexual deviant” (p. xii). Violence and lesbianism are also linked in B-list women’s prison films. Mayne (2000) argues for the ability of this somewhat marginal genre to offer “much more than the standard feminist account of women in the traditional cinema would suggest” (p. 143) precisely because of their marginal nature. She observes that “scenes of rape and torture are staples of the genre” and that they “play on the helplessness and victimization of women” (p. 115). However, this genre often is able to combine race and sexuality in ways that are both stereotypical and complex.

Directions for Research on Representations of Gendered Violence in Hollywood Film

Scholars have given a great deal of attention to representations of gendered violence in Hollywood films. With a few exceptions, the well-developed lines of research on rape revenge narratives and lesbian criminal characterizations have been undertaken from a psychoanalytic perspective. Future work could productively utilize a cultural studies approach to mainstream film to examine violence in more realist genres and in genres less clearly defined by violence.

Representations of Gendered Violence in Rap Music, Music Video, and Video/Computer Games

In addition to the significant scholarship on representations of gendered violence in news, television, and Hollywood film outlined above, important work is emerging on newer forms of media, including rap music, music video, and video/computer games. Because other chapters in this section, including the chapter on new media and the chapter on race, gender, and media examine these forms in detail, this section presents only a brief overview of some of the central issues and debates involving gendered violence within them.

MTV specifically and music video more generally have been criticized by many researchers for their symbolic annihilation of women. Some researchers have studied potential links between music videos and attitudes or violent behavior (Johnson, Adams, Ashburn, & Reed, 1995; Miranda & Claes, 2004). A number of studies have documented sexism and stereotyping of women in music videos (see Seidman, 1992; Sherman & Dominick, 1986; White, 2001). Gow (1996) notes that early music video was widely critiqued for its underrepresentation of women and the depiction of women as scantily clad “targets of men’s condescending actions” (p. 2). After protests from various groups, broadcast networks created the Broadcast Standards Network that prohibited nudity and portrayals of violence against women. Gow’s (1996) study finds that “the regulations regarding video content may have contributed to a decrease in overt acts of violence against women,” but that “women continued to be underrepresented and portrayed in a manner that stressed their physical appearance” (p. 6). Signorelli and McLeod (1994) found that MTV commercials were similarly stereotypical, portraying women in relation to their physical appearance (in scanty clothing, as the object of other’s gaze, as physically attractive) and less frequently overall compared with male characters.

The sexually objectifying and violent content of hip-hop/rap music has received more media and scholarly attention than gendered violence in any other genre of popular music. According to Cole and Guy-Sheftall (2003), “Rap music videos are notorious for featuring half-clothed young Black women gyrating obscenely and functioning as backdrops, props, and objects of lust for rap artists who sometimes behave as predators” (p. 186). While noting that not all forms of rap are misogynistic, Cole and Guy-Sheftall believe that in general “hip-hop is more misogynistic” than other popular music genres and that “casual references to rape and other forms of violence” (p. 186) are especially damaging to their target audience of black male youth. They believe in part that rap lyrics reflect lived experience as well as a displacement of rage against civil and political institutions, including police, onto the black woman. Smith-Shomade (2002) labels the excessively angry, violent, and misogynistic lyrics of the 1980s as “anger-for-profit” produced by Reaganomics (see also Ro, 1996). Other analysts question both the assertion that rap music is more misogynist than other forms of popular music and the means through which rap’s use of violence against women is critiqued. Crenshaw’s (1997) subtle analysis of the controversy over 2 Live Crew lyrics observes the disproportionate attention given to rap lyrics compared with other similarly sexist music genres. She concludes that of the two main defenses of 2 Live Crew lyrics by black analysts, “Neither presents sufficient justification for requiring Black women to tolerate such misogyny” (p. 261). However, Crenshaw also identifies racism in the legal process against 2 Live Crew’s lyrics, thus finding harm to black women in both the lyrics and the legal prosecution of them.6 Other authors have examined the empowering representational strategies of feminist rappers such as Queen Latifah (Morgan, 1999; Roberts, 1994; Savage, 2001).

Scholarship examining gendered violence in video and computer games also is well established. Much scholarly discussion focuses on the link between the target audience of adolescent boys and the gendered violence in video and computer games. Herbst (2004) maintains that “on the virtual terrain of war-inspired computer games, the female, biologically inescapably tied to the processes of reproduction, is represented in an unprecedented display of eroticism and violence” (p. 23). Herbst argues that computer game character Lara Croft, for example, links reproduction and destruction, sex and death. She argues that since Croft’s body is designed such that it could not possibly be capable of reproduction, she presents less threat to male identity and its need for exclusive control over the powers of destruction (p. 33). Her analysis also emphasizes the intertextual and intergeneric aspect of the Lara Croft character, which has moved from computer game to Hollywood film. Cassell and Jenkins’s (2000) volume focuses on the challenges of creating interesting games without violent content while convincing producers to consider girls as a serious market. In addition, Subrahmanyam and Greenfield (2000) investigate the question of the appeal of video games to children of each gender. They note that “research suggests that girls do not find … violence appealing” (p. 51). Several researchers have examined the gendered nature of video games’ appeal with similar findings (Goldstein, 1994; Lin & Lepper, 1987). Flanagan (2002) notes that most games are still created by and for males. She argues that a gamer, unlike a user of traditional media, enjoys “double embodiment” or “double consciousness,” the simultaneous experience of “the class, race, and gender identity of the user’s physical body, as well as the virtual body (or bodies) of the character he or she ‘becomes’” (p. 438).


Gendered violence in mass media covers an apparently infinite range of texts and examples. Scholarship on this subject is vast, even if a narrow definition of gendered violence is employed. This chapter has narrowed the range of genres and media to those around which coherent bodies of text-based scholarship on representation have emerged—mainstream news, prime-time television, Hollywood film, music video, rap/hip-hop, and video/computer games. It has traced a partial history of mass mediated representations of gendered violence through the period when feminist discourses were gaining acceptance and creating disturbances in traditional representational codes and into the postfeminist era of gender role experimentation and female empowerment. While essay- and book-length studies of discourses surrounding rape and other forms of gendered violence are now numerous, much ground has yet to be covered. With the passing of the era of educational mass media texts informing citizens about so-called new feminist issues such as wife battering and rape, scholars are currently grappling with how stories about rape and other physical abuses are currently being rendered as entertaining narratives in a postfeminist cultural context. Others are working to keep pace with the rapid transformation and invention of new genres of mass media that take up gendered violence in unexpected ways. Work should continue to examine the ways in which gender, race, class, sexuality, and cultural politics intersect to form new themes and codes of mass media representation of gendered violence.