Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Torturing Women for Fun and Profit

Sandra Parshall

I’ve just put aside, unfinished, yet another “Instant NY Times bestseller!” that features long and thoroughly sickening passages told from the point of view of a deranged serial killer.

As I wrote in a previous blog, I’m not terribly squeamish about violence in fiction, and I’ll admit that I like Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels, but I usually steer clear of serial killer stories. They seem to be taking over crime fiction, though, so they’re hard to avoid. And they’re more graphic than ever before, especially in the degrading way they treat women. What’s especially disturbing is that many of these books are written by women.

The one I just gave up on went into great – and, dare I say it, loving – detail about the killer’s torture and rape of his female victims, and the sensual pleasure and sexual satisfaction he experienced. After three or four such scenes, I was feeling queasy and disgusted. I had to ask myself how many more descriptions of the killer’s engorged penis I really wanted to encounter. The answer was none.

The book was a bestseller, and it was written by a woman, which means that in all likelihood the majority of its readers have been women. I have to wonder what enjoyment female readers get from this kind of story, which seems to me to be a kind of pornography. Yes, justice will be done in the end, but is the triumph of good over evil in the last chapter enough to make the degradation that precedes it a pleasure to read?

There’s no question that crime fiction writers have to come up with ever more shocking scenarios to grab attention in a crowded marketplace, and taking readers into the sick mind of a serial killer seems to be a favored approach. It’s all imaginary, since the average writer isn’t a serial killer and has no firsthand knowledge of the psychopathy involved. The author can make up anything he or she wishes to produce suspense and shocks. Most of the time they choose to portray women as victims of torture. These unfortunate females are imprisoned, bound, gagged, strung up, sliced, burned, blinded, beaten, kicked, raped, sexually assaulted with objects, starved, suffocated, drowned, shot, stabbed, buried alive -- every awful bit of it described in detail, all in the name of entertainment.

Sure, the occasional story will have a male victim. But fictional serial killers have a lot more fun torturing and murdering women. And apparently readers find women much more appealing than men as victims. I’m trying to understand why.

Why does the reading public support the mass production of books about the torture and killing of women? Why are so many readers, many of them female, entertained by this kind of novel? What emotional need does this entertainment meet in the reader? Why do women make “better” victims than men?

An even scarier question: After these maim-and-kill-her books begin to seem tame, what’s next?


Anonymous said...

It's not that women necessarily make "better" victims, it's that in real life the majority of victims of serial murder ARE women. There are occasionally strings of male victims, but not generally. Serial murder is very often a sexualized crime--the killer gets sexual gratification from the act of violence--and barring a homosexual serial killer, given that the majority of serial killers are estimated to be white males between about 19 and 35 that puts the choice of victim squarely on women. So it's a matter of technical accuracy on the part of the writer based.

As to the popularity of such works among women--I don't know the answer to that. I postulate it may be a case of a vicarious way to face our worst nightmare and be able to walk away without a scratch. People often have a desire on some level to be scared in a "safe" sort of way. So they'll read or watch horror or crime or mystery or they'll go ride a roller coaster or bungee jump. I think, too, there is a morbid fascination with serial killers--it's disgusting and depraved and horrible--but fascinating all the same because it is so OTHER from the rest of society.

Miladysa said...

Excellent post.

To be honest I have never read one - I prefer a writer who leaves terror to my imagination as far as possible.

Sheila Connolly said...

When I first started writing "seriously," I had just been abruptly laid off from a job that I loved, by a controlling jerk of a boss. I felt violated, and as a result, I ended up writing a dark suspense about a woman who had been raped by a serial rapist who was terrorizing a small New England town--but nobody dared report him.

I have trouble looking at that book now, although it did reasonably well in some contests and attracted my first (bad) agent. (No, I wasn't very graphic, just enough to get the idea across.)

But I justified the book's theme and the inherent violence because the protagonist does not keep quiet about it, but rallies the other victims in the town to uncover the rapist and bring him to justice. I viewed it as a story about redemption, and felt that the stakes had to be high.

Would I do it again, or would I revive that book? I really don't know.

Lonnie Cruse said...

What's next? When the reading public gets bored with the vicious torture of women?

Children. Who else is left?

Would men read books like this, with graphic details about the torture of men? Maybe, but my guess is not as much. Sales would fall. Publishers would drop the writers.

Even though the statistics say more women are victims of these crimes so writers write it that way, to be exact, I still don't think most men would read a book that had page after page of graphic torture of a man.

Someone on DorothyL this morning said she was far more careful now about what she reads that was sick or violent (paraphrasing) and so am I. I thought it was just my age but now I think it's more experience.

No longer young and innocent, we mature gals know how bad the real world can be. Reading about it in fictional worlds "for pleasure" isn't much pleasure. Too close to the real world we read to escape from for a bit.

Maybe we females need to re-think our reading choices and stop reading (and more importantly buying) books about this graphic kind of violence against women.

When it isn't popular, no longer sells, writers will stop writing it. I know there is a movement against rappers who do songs promoting violence against women. Why not books?

And how often do we hear that a criminal based his real-life crime on a graphic book he'd read or a movie he'd seen? I'm sure those books/movies end with "justice" for the bad guy.

Do those real bad guys patterning their crimes after books/movies think they'll get the same justice? Nope. Hmmm, maybe they didn't read/see the end?

Sandra Parshall said...

What disturbs me most about these books, as I said, is the way they wallow in the perverse pleasure the torturer/killer derives from what he's doing. Scenes written from the villain's POV draw us into his sickness and ask us to revel in it with him. The female victims are barely human -- they're objects that provide excitement and pleasure to the torturer. That's exactly what a pornographic s&m movie does, and it bothers me to see these books selling hundreds of thousands of copies, many of them to women.

That's a very different thing from a story that shows a woman reaching deep for hidden reserves of strength and fighting to overcome her captor and free herself. I don't know how anyone can equate the two forms of storytelling.

Trebro said...

I agree wholeheartedly. It's like people really want to read porn but can't dare let themselves be seen at an adult store, so they read "novels" that are just porn with a slightly better plot.

I'm not prudish by any means but when it's completely gratuitous I want to throw the book/comic across the wall.

caryn said...

I guess the thing with me is that I read for entertainment or for information or both, so the books that are out there soaring to great heights on the bestseller lists or hyped on various lists that thrive on their shock value hold no interest for me.
Some of the stuff not only in books, but on TV and in movies is just slimey it's so disgusting. I get that there is a market for that, I just hope that writers and producers realize that there is also a market for stuff that's not.
I'm not a prude particualrly. I don't pitch a fit with some obscenity, sex or violence, I just hate it when that's all there is.

Barbara said...

An excellent question I've often asked myself.

Statistics show that only about 1% of homicide victims are killed by serial killers, but in fiction they are a leading cause of death.

Actually statistics don't show it, because the FBI doesn't track serial homicides. It's simply the most reasonable estimate social scientists have come up with. The FBI did suddenly announce in 1981 or 1982 that suddenly 25% of homicides were the work of serial killers, which helped pass some appropriations and laws that they wanted passed, but in fact it was a silly error - they simply labeled all homicides in which the circumstances were unknown (at the time they were reported, within a month of the murder) as the work of serial killers. Whoops! Our bad. (Philip Jenkins wrote a fascinating book on this whole issue - "Using Murder: The Social Construction of Serial Homicide.")

My take on it is that it's a mix of Gothic and horror genres written to give women a chill while not really bearing much on their lives as a genuine threat. Sort of a Brothers Grim updated for a world that doesn't mind sex with that. It wouldn't be as much fun to read about domestic violence that leads to murder, but that's much more likely to actually happen in reality. Arnadlur Indridason's Silent in the Grave is a brilliant mystery on that topic. But not jolly good fun. Not at all.

Suzanne Adair said...

These unfortunate females are imprisoned, bound, gagged, strung up, sliced, burned, blinded, beaten, kicked, raped, sexually assaulted with objects, starved, suffocated, drowned, shot, stabbed, buried alive -- every awful bit of it described in detail, all in the name of entertainment.

You forgot *steamed*. I read far enough into one book to learn details of how the female victim was steamed to death before I closed the cover and returned the book to the library. Gratuitous and disgusting.

fictional serial killers have a lot more fun torturing and murdering women

Serial killers choose victims that are weaker, such as children, women, and the elderly. But authors fixate on women victims of serial killers. Many publishers steer clear of stories that depict graphic violence done to children and the elderly. Those victims are taboo. Publishers know that they'll lose readers by printing that stuff. But readers accept the continued exploitation and objectification of women in fiction. Worse, women support and allow exploitation and objectification of each other. Something is wrong with that picture.

And what happened to the kind of writing that employs the reader's imagination? I enjoy early horror, such as Lovecraft, because it leaves so much to my imagination, and ultimately delivers a much greater fright than spelling out all the nitty, gritty details. So we've traded imagination for the "gross-out." IMHO it's a poor trade.

Sandra Parshall said...

Steamed to death? Good grief. I guess that's the sort of "new" and "different" twist editors say they're looking for.

Some of the scariest fiction I've ever read was written by Edgar A. Poe. And he managed to pull it off without resorting to torture porn.

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