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Sunday 10 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Emily Blunt in Girl on the Train

'The portrayal of gender abuse is often misused in order to justify discriminatory and even racist speech'

The inclusivity of our feminist discourse must be continually re-affirmed, write Nicoletta Mandolini and Dr Caroline Williamson.

SEXIST ABUSE IS a global social issue and so is its representation. The broad category of gender-based violence (GBV), which includes any violent act carried out because of the victim’s gender, is an inherently political one as it is rooted in feminist ideology.

Following the establishment of this concept, the feminist perspective has entered the political and media discourses and has, in some cases, successfully managed to impact on the formulation of legal measures to oppose the phenomenon. An example of such is the ratification by numerous countries (excluding Ireland) of the Istanbul Convention, a document drafted by the Council of Europe in 2011, providing a legal framework on preventing and combating GBV.

Meanwhile, a growing number of narratives that have focused on GBV demonstrate a deep knowledge of the theme and showcase an explicit (although not unproblematic) feminist outlook (eg Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, all novels adapted into successful movies).

The representation of GBV

Notwithstanding the laudable results achieved by these narratives, many ethical issues persist when considering the representation of GBV. In particular, there are three directions that feminist activists and scholars should follow in order to demand a fully respectful portrayal of sexist abuse.

First, it is necessary to overcome the most persistent and fundamental problem: that of enduring misogyny. The discourse, which the feminist voice has successfully influenced by breaking the silence that used to hide GBV, is, at many levels, still a sexist one.

Even though explicit chauvinism has become socially unacceptable, forms of benevolent sexism abound. The victim’s agency, for example, is often not fully acknowledged and women are frequently depicted as weak subjects or are denied their subjectivity when identified as mothers or wives rather than as individuals.

At the same time, a tendency to spectacularise and oversexualise the phenomenon is frequent in a number of artistic and media portrayals, despite the patina of political correctness and the declared feminist outlook of the text’s producer (an example of such can be found in the BBC’s The Fall, a series that scholars and critics have criticised for its supposed glamorisation of GBV).

Moreover, more subtle types of gender-based discrimination should be labelled as misogynistic violence but these are neither identified as such in the legal sphere nor in the arena of mainstream representation. For example, in the case of Ireland, it is crucial to mention the limited access to reproductive rights, an issue that, in this country, affects the physical and mental health of thousands of women.

Re-thinking feminist insights along a racial dimension

After addressing these more longstanding issues, a second direction of action is also needed to update and re-think feminist insights along a racial dimension. Following the pressures of globalisation and the intensification of migration flows, a racist rhetoric has recently contaminated European political discourse, as demonstrated in the recent surge in far right-wing politics both in Europe and the United States.

Research has demonstrated that the portrayal of gender abuse is often misused in order to justify discriminatory and even racist speech. For example, earlier this year, Italian politician, Debora Serracchiani, commented on a rape case perpetrated by a refugee stating: “Sexual violence is always a vicious act, but it’s socially and morally even more unacceptable when it is carried out by someone who receives hospitality in our country”.

Such a statement suggests a hierarchy among perpetrators, with some considered as guiltier than others (ie immigrants and refugees) for the same crime. Such thinking might also suggest a similar hierarchy among victims, with some considered as more innocent than others (ie native Italians). Such statements by public figures remind us of how powerful and sometimes dangerous our representative strategies can be if not supported by a strong and inclusive ethical perspective.

Binary conceptions of GBV

The third direction that feminist activists and scholars should follow is to move beyond binary conceptions of GBV. So far, feminist portrayals of sexist violence have mainly addressed the issue of male violence against women. It is, however, also crucial to give visibility to other forms of patriarchal violence that affect groups and individuals such as the LGBTQ community and to overcome the rigidly dichotomous depiction that considers women as the only possible victims and men as the only possible perpetrators.

This polarisation, which is still the dominant model of description in many fields and which can be read as another form of oversimplification of the feminist discourse, does not do justice to the phenomenon of GBV, a complex socio-political issue that deserves a clear, sharp and engaged, but at the same time never banal or sectarian, representation.

Feminism is a practice that always needs to be re-negotiated and the inclusivity of our feminist discourse must be continually re-affirmed. It is our argument that if we follow these three directions, producers and critics of texts that deal with GBV can engage with this complex issue in a more ethical and comprehensive manner. Such an engagement is, in our opinion, crucial given that systems of representation tend to bear directly on the lives of real people because they establish habits of thought that can lead to action.

Nicoletta Mandolini is a PhD candidate at University College Cork. Funded by the Irish Research Council, her project focuses on the representation of gender based violence and feminicide in contemporary Italian narratives. Dr Caroline Williamson came to University College Cork as a Lecturer in World Languages in February 2015. Before joining UCC, she was a Teaching Associate at the University of Nottingham where she also obtained her PhD in French and Francophone Studies. They both organised the IRC New Foundations workshop “Representing Gender-Based Violence. Establishing an Interdisciplinary International Network”, held in UCC last May 22 and 23.

If you have been affected by domestic abuse and would like to talk, you can contact Women’s Aid: 1800 341 900 or Amen (for men): 046 902 3718.

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Nicoletta Mandolini and Dr Caroline Williamson
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