Maggie Gyllenhaal as a sex worker in HBO's The Deuce. Photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Skirting The Issue

Photo by Maggie Gyllenhaal as a sex worker in HBO's The Deuce. Photo credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Hollywood Has an Abuse Porn Addiction


From HBO's 'The Deuce' to 'Mother!', studios are not only glorifying violence against women. They're cashing in on it.




Less than 30 minutes into the pilot episode of The Deuce, HBO’s new critically acclaimed show about the sex trade, a prostitute endures a sucker-punch to the face as part of her client’s fetish. She doesn’t have time to tend to her swelling cheekbone because the rough sex has only just begun. When it’s over, the John tosses the trembling woman an extra $20. A concession.

Near the end of the same episode, we see another sex worker trembling in the rain. She’s been at it all day. She’s cold. She’s wet. She’s tired. She begs her pimp to take a break. As a response to this request, he lures her to a motel stairwell and takes a razor blade to her armpit, scoring her like a Thanksgiving turkey. Into her ear, he coos a promise: “Next time, bitch, it will be your face, and you’ll never work again.”

The Deuce is almost universally critically acclaimed. It has already been renewed for a second season after just three episodes. Indeed, the show is telling a grand story of the counterculture that thrived in New York’s theater district (42nd Street bears the nickname “the deuce”) before it got cleaned up and Disneyfied. Pimps, prostitutes, mob bosses, motel owners, bar managers, and crooked cops work in tandem to sustain a community built on illicit trades. Creators David Simon and George Pelecanos architected a framework that paints the debauchery as romantic, mining the cultural change of the time to tell dramatic, compelling stories.

But graphic violence against women, even if contextually relevant, is neither pulp art nor retro nostalgia. It is a lived reality for millions of women around the world. Glorifying it reinforces a whole mess of damaging stereotypes and assumptions about the roles both men and women play in misogyny, rape culture, and the social constructs that create this violence to begin with.

Every 2 to 5 minutes, a woman in America is sexually assaulted. Half of all women murdered were killed at the hands of an intimate partner or family member who previously abused them. Nearly three-quarters of domestic violence cases go unreported or unsolved. The biggest threat to women’s health is violence, usually perpetrated by men. Women of color, trans women, and college-aged women and girls are at the highest risk for sexual assault, domestic violence, and murder. We’ve all read these statistics over and over again until they numb our minds. But we can’t afford to be desensitized to the truth that these facts are both brutal, and very real.

When beatings, violent non-consensual sex, and bloodied female bodies become so familiar that they are formulaic, Hollywood isn’t addressing the real problem. They are creating a new one. The oversaturation of these images sends the subliminal message that women are victims and men are violent aggressors, and that, in fact, these roles represent the natural order of things.

The most egregious example of senseless depictions of this abuse is the movie everyone loves to hate right now, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! (A few spoilers ahead.) Mother! is trying to be thinky art all wrapped up in a biblical allegory about God, Mother Earth, human sin, and climate change. But in reality, it’s just two hours of slow-build torture porn.

Jennifer Lawrence plays a nameless woman only referred to as Mother, if anyone bothers to address her at all. She’s the Earth, you see, and she’s suffering. She is held captive in a house she endlessly cares for, hopelessly trying to please her narcissistic husband, Him (Javier Bardem playing God). She’s tortured by an unidentifiable internal, debilitating pain that no one cares to notice, and when she speaks–begging for attention from Him, demanding that intruders in her home leave, or at least stop tearing the plumbing out of the walls, gasping in pain, pleading for someone, anyone to help her–no one listens.

The grand message of Mother! is that we’re all doomed, but the only one we see suffering is Lawrence. And when she does–which is almost the complete duration of the two-hour film–Aronofsky gets up close, zooming in on the heel of a boot concaving one of her cheekbones, showing the slow tear of her lips splitting open and seeping with blood, cranking up the audio so we hear the sharp crack and soupy slosh of her chest cavity being ripped apart, as the sticky crimson glob of her heart–still beating–is being pulled from it.

These horrifying images (and I didn’t even describe the worst ones) leave a lasting imprint, one that’s far more lasting than the underlying message of environmentalism, or whatever. Aronofsky has built his career on amplifying women’s suffering–whether it’s Jennifer Connelly being raped in Requiem for a Dream (a scene so brutal that it didn’t make the theatrical cut, but millions have seen it on video), or Natalie Portman’s demented self-torture in Black Swan. All of his films also feature much older men abusing young women, transforming them from “innocents” into victims. Aronofsky, 48, is dating Lawrence, who is 27. I’ll leave that there for you to unpack.

Note to all male filmmakers who think they own the female victimization narrative: Abuse is not art. It is a form of abuse itself. Aronofsky is hardly the only male filmmaker to rely on female suffering to tell a story or make a buck. Depictions of women being beaten, cut, raped, and murdered have become so popular–box office gold, in fact–that whole genres have sprung from it. Film franchises like Saw and Hostel gave birth to “torture porn,” a template built on the bits of flesh skinned from women’s bodies that are so prominently and gruesomely depicted in these films, which have together grossed more than $480 million around the world. Audiences pack theaters to cringe and laugh at absurd scenarios that treat women’s bodies like literal pieces of meat. Sure, men die in horror movies too, but let’s not forget they all started with a very specific formula: crazy male killer stalks and kills young women, whose only hope is rescue from a man. See: Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, etc.

Industry parlance for damsels in distress is “women in jep.” Liam Neeson avenges kidnapped women in the Taken movies. Denzel Washington crusades against a brutal rape and murder in The Equalizer. And it is Anthony Hopkins’ murdering cannibal psychopath, Dr. Lecter, who is painted as the savior of the women being skinned alive in Silence of the Lambs. Even James Bond is troubled with saving the life of a helpless woman or two before martini hour.

On television, women in jep is a winning formula for high ratings. Crime procedurals–Law & Order, CSI, NYPD Blue, Criminal Minds–have been the longest-running, highest-rated shows on television for decades. What they all have in common is a formula of casting women as victims of violence, and men as their saviors (except in the case of Mariska Hargitay, who is both on Law & Order: SVU).

These images and demoralizing roles are so embedded in our cultural narratives that women in real life are assumed to subscribe to them. Rape victims are asked what they wore or why they were out so late, unchaperoned. Women who end up bruised and broken from domestic violence are asked what they did to provoke it. My god, how do females even walk upright without getting themselves raped, kidnapped, or murdered?

We all know that sex and violence sell in American entertainment, but with so many options today—female superheroes and vigilantes kicking all the ass, the black women of Shondaland (Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder) running the show and avenging their own damn selves, or the women of Insecure, Broad City, and Chewing Gum just living their lives without concern for the male gaze—maybe it’s time we start buying something else.

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