A funny thing happened on the way to the morgue

In January, I worked on a piece for Bitch Magazine about the trend of grimdark television. It was a fascinating and interesting piece to research, and one of the most intriguing conversations I had while pulling the story together was an interview with television critic Alyssa Rosenberg, who always has interesting insights on TV from both an aesthetic critical perspective and a social justice angle. She noted that oddly enough, some of the origins of the rise of the violence against women on television might actually lie in…feminism.

But before you jump all over Alyssa, let’s take a step back to Law & Order, which is how the subject came up. The series and its spinoffs feature a broad number of sharp, strong, powerful female characters dealing with some of the darkest and grittiest that the world has to offer. They see people at their worst and take down criminals. Inevitably, they deal with a great deal of sex crime, domestic violence, and assaults. Yet, the overall message of the series can be incredibly empowering, which is one reason it took off so readily among some feminist viewers.

Law & Order was a success because it showed criminals finally being subjected to justice, and while it depicted harsh crimes and was a dark series, there was a strange note of hope to it. Yes, these things are terrible, but these powerful women are going to swoop in and save the day, or get vengeance for the dead — either way, this is a story that will end on a happy note for someone, including the viewer. That doesn’t mean every case has a positive outcome, as any viewer knows, but overall, the series is about empowerment and fighting back in a world where victims face overwhelming odds.

The show was also a prototypical example of grimdark. We have classically dark, moody filming (though lacking the high-minded aesthetics of later entries like True Blood and Hannibal), but we also have violent, awful scenes shown not just for shock value, but to make a statement for the viewers. In the case of Law & Order, the statement was about confronting our characters with the horrors of the world and providing them with an incentive to see a case through to the end. For viewers, such scenes were troubling and upsetting, but they were also stark testimonies to the powers of the justice system — for those with a naive faith in the system, such programmes are especially affirming.

But some producers and studios took the wrong message away. It wasn’t about empowerment and strong women taking the lead, but rather about the bodies on the ground. Rather than focusing on women in charge and women fighting sexism, new programmes decided to hyperfocus on violence against women, banking on the success of programmes like this one. Look at CSI and its followers, where the victim of the week was often female, and often brutally murdered — sometimes with a side of rape, to boot. Look at Hannibal, which takes violence against women to an art form and seems determined to view women’s bodies almost as raw material for sculpting, utterly dehumanising the women who inhabit those bodies. On True Blood, women were routinely brutalised, sometimes in very culturally and socially loaded ways (I’m looking at you, Tara). On Game of Thrones, an already violent show, some of the most shocking acts of violence have involved women.

Creators are missing the mark with their belief that what drew audiences was the violence against women; it’s a strange perversion not just of why viewers loved Law & Order, but what the show itself stood for. The show isn’t about violence against women, but specifically about fighting it, sometimes in a sexist and hostile environment where it’s difficult to be heard. It’s about advocating for victims and creating a system where people who are oppressed have voices. It’s about suggesting that it is possible to find redemption. The victims of violent crimes aren’t the story because they were brutally assaulted or murdered, but because they were rendered powerless and they took that power back.

That is the message of programmes like this one, and it’s a powerful message, one that audiences in a position of social disempowerment would naturally be drawn to. Women who love Law & Order don’t enjoy the show for the flinch-inducing violence, but for what comes next, and how the programme provides opportunities to take vengeance. Seeing endless acts of violence against women isn’t what they want or sign up for — and yet, that’s what creators of other programmes and franchises have taken away from a casual look at ratings and conversations surrounding this and similar shows.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We could be having more amazing television featuring strong women in charge who empower their teams as well as the victims they work with. Instead, we’re looking at endless brutalised women artfully arranged on screen as though we’re somehow supposed to find this impressive, aesthetically pleasing, or artistic. The artistry isn’t in being ‘dark’ and ‘edgy’ by showing violence, something women endure daily and get plenty of in real life, but rather in confronting violence and twisting it back on itself, forcing those responsible for it to finally be accountable.

Law & Order has, ironically, almost become a victim of its own success, emboldening other creators to try their own hand at crime shows revolving around violent murders and assaults. But those shows fall painfully short of what Law & Order accomplished in their attempt to woo away feminist audiences interested in seeing perpetrators get justice at last.

Image: Mariska Hargitay, freshwater 2006, Flickr