Heather Price explains why crime fiction shouldn’t avoid depicting violence against women


More often than not, the rape or murder of a woman, whether on television or in a book, makes us rather uncomfortable. And so it bloody should. Those of us who watched The Fall and enjoyed the plot beyond Gillian Anderson’s stellar performance will agree that the dark exploration of violence against women was the focal point of the series.

A prize has been launched for crime writers who avoid the usual go-to storyline of a woman being raped, murdered, attacked or exploited. While I applaud all efforts to break the narrative on plots where women end up in, well, plots, I can’t get on board. I see that the intentions are good, because who doesn’t want to envisage a utopian world where women are free from violence, rape and murder? But this wouldn’t be an accurate portrayal of much crime – where there is still severe inequality, there are physical acts of misogyny.

The #MeToo movement has shown the scale of assault and harassment, from rape and groping to the gender pay gap and verbal putdowns. Men and women who criticise the movement, declaring it a witch hunt (an ironic and lazy phrase, if you know the history said phrase refers to), try to kill it off, seemingly in hope of returning to the good old days. Talking about women and sexual abuse isn’t attractive, for it requires critical thinking and an open dialogue. But such knowledge has led to significant activism and ugly truths that refuse to be buried.

The best works of crime fiction offer wholly accurate portrayals of violence against women. Women’s writing has taken on the traditionally male sphere of crime writing to analyse and explore what it’s really like to be female, and a female victim at that. To attempt to write misogyny out of crime fiction would be to suppress the truth of the world. Such censorship masquerading as progression only furthers the trigger warning trend. It’s up there with my uncertainty of people who don’t read the news because it makes them feel sad. Personally, I can’t not acknowledge the continuous murder of lesbians in South Africa, or that 2017 held the record for the most murders of trans people in the US.

Val McDermid certainly knows her stuff, and has voiced the importance of writing truthfully, because “As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed”. In a Twitter conversation about the subject, a writer who has experienced violence herself says she continues to explore violence against women in her own work as a way of processing such experiences.

There are multiple feminisms, we must accept that. Yet uniting against patriarchal ideology is the common goal, and clearly, much of that is about bringing violence against women to light. For women, the act of writing itself is a revolutionary act. To write our own truths and experiences reconfigures how we’ve been written in the past and how we continue to be portrayed today. We get to claim ownership of ourselves and our experiences.

There is a vast difference between feminist crime writing and, say, Fifty Shades of Grey, which tells us that sexual violence and male control is something that should turn us on. Perhaps it’s time we reassess what is really damaging to women.

Twitter and Instagram: @HeatherCPrice

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