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On "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," America's most popular television drama, a woman's severed head was found inside a newspaper sales box. On closer inspection, a lab technician pulled a snake from the head's mouth.
By the end of the hour (first aired in January), detectives used the distinctive truck tire treads on the victim's leather jacket to find her murderer, and her decapitation was re-enacted in flashback.
More than 28 million viewers watch "CSI" on CBS each week, thrilling to the criminal chase and gruesome special effects. Even in reruns, the criminal procedural tops the ratings. While the body count shows no shortage of male victims, females often seem to get the most horrific treatment.
Despite studies that raise concerns about the effects of media violence and in the face of objections by various interest groups, violence against women remains a reliable recipe for popular entertainment. This fall, depictions of the rape, torture and murder of women proved an especially popular way to introduce a TV series.
We love to watch it
At a time when America claims the moral high ground in global conflicts, television manifests something unsettling about our culture. How is it that a nation that abhors cruel and unusual punishment loves to watch all sorts of cruel and unusual violence as a way to relax?
"Exploiting the damsel in distress as a marketing tool -- it's worked since Fay Wray (in 1933's "King Kong")," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C. He believes Americans watch not as voyeurs but as crusaders: We want to see justice done and evildoers vanquished.
In primetime entertainment, "We don't want the Chandra Levy ending, we want the Elizabeth Smart ending," Felling said, referring to two real-life cable TV news obsessions. (Levy's killer was never identified while the abducted Smart was returned to her family.)
In our culture, we never would allow a woman to be stoned to death for committing adultery, but we use images of the degradation of women to sell products. (Despite findings that viewers have less recall of commercials when they are juxtaposed with violent images, advertisers line up to pay $465,000 for a 30-second spot on "CSI," reports AdWeek.)
Violence sells pilots
Much of the anti-women violence this season came in network pilots, which are used to sell a series to network executives and advertisers, and to hook viewers on a show.
The shows launched with a burst of violence against women at the hands of aliens, supernatural forces or more common human criminals. The trend was unmistakable. Women were abducted in a car, duct-taped and tortured in a cage ("Criminal Minds" on CBS); yanked from the shower to have a fetus torn from her womb (the now canceled "NightStalker" on ABC); and attacked by spiders unleashed by an assailant who then rapes and kills her ("Killer Instinct" on Fox). One woman spontaneously combusted while pinned to the ceiling of her baby's room by unknown forces ("Supernatural" on The WB).
There's something wrong with an industry when producers feel they must resort to depictions of rape, torture and gruesome murders of women in order to get the networks' attention.
"Culturally, we're at a moment that is very confused when it comes to images of women," said feminist writer Jennifer Pozner, founder and director of Women in Media & News.
Television's reliance on violence against women is nothing new. On "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," now in its seventh season, "the entire series is about 'how can we rape, torture, murder and maim women and children every week?' "
Critics point fingers at the success of "CSI" for causing the uptick in portrayals of heinous violence.
The reason "CSI" beats its competitors even in reruns, Felling theorizes, is that it offers "perfectly packaged justice." The audience doesn't mind seeing messy crimes as long as they finish neatly tied up with a bow at the end.
The messy "CSI" and its spinoffs "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: NY," provide that sense of justice at work. Likewise, "Law & Order" is virtually "Gunsmoke" for the new millennium.
Cultural turning point
It was a different cultural moment when, in 1988, Jodie Foster and Kelli McGillis co-starred in "The Accused," a film based on an actual incident about a woman who was gang-raped and who becomes enraged at the light sentence given her attackers when she is found to be "of questionable character."
The victim (Foster) urges a female prosecutor (McGillis) to charge the men who literally cheered on the attack. The film shed light on the trauma and ensuing legal horrors of rape and the tendency of society to blame the victim. A pop-culture turning point, "The Accused" prompted serious study of the prevalence and causes of rape. It also sparked media analyses of the correlation between seeing rape on screen and acting it out in the real world.
The message apparently came and went. Rape is increasingly a passing plot point as television rivals the violent imagery of the big screen.
As "CSI" goes, so goes the rest of primetime. The ratings steamroller and highest-priced advertising slot on CBS sets the standard for violent titillation. This month, on "CSI: Miami," a woman was killed by a hail of metal from a nail gun; then in another episode, a bank robbery ends in a rape. Another week, another grisly sexual assault.
Shock sells, not just sex, Pozner observes. Advertisers don't really mind the hideous images; they want whatever will draw eyeballs to the screen. The networks claim to be giving people what they want, arguing that 28 million audience members cannot be wrong.
In Pozner's view, the producers and networks tend to speak in code. When they say "edgy" they mean sexy-violent.
"If you're amping up the shock level," she said, "you're amping up violence against women."
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