Smack My Bitch Up
The new fall season features increasing sexual violence against female characters. Competing with the greater latitude of powerhouse pay cable (HBO, FX, Showtime), major networks are trying to look “gritty” or “edgy.” How this translates into the graphic eroticization of violence against women is anyone’s guess. The Washington Post‘s Lisa de Moraes opened her recent article, “Female Characters, Made to Suffer for Our ‘Art’,” with the following description: “Women play an enormous role in the new television season. They’re paralyzed by venomous bites of exotic spiders that crawl under their front doors, after which they can put up no struggle as they’re raped and murdered.”
This scene is from the pilot episode of Fox’s Killer Instinct. The assault by trained tarantulas (they paralyze the vic before the assault) is the MO for the first case assigned to Detectives Graham Hale (Johnny Messner) and Ava Lyford (Marguerite Moreau). Hale and Lyford constitute the Deviant Crimes Unit of the San Francisco PD. The “scary” tone of what’s to come is set by the opening montage, in gothic horror cliché mode, of rain pouring in a dark city, under Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Sweet Dreams.” Is Manson still so “scary”?
Hale is the detective who sees what everyone else does not. He’s the one who suspects, based on a string of young single women who have died in their sleep over the past month, the work of a new serial killer. Where the coroner and Hale’s boss, Lt. Matt Cavanaugh (Chi McBride), see “natural causes,” Hale finds in the insect bites and forced doors a murderous pattern. Unsurprisingly, he has a personal interest in protecting these young women. His previous partner and lover was recently killed in the line of duty. Sickos beware. The grudge match is on.
As Hale and Lyford fit the puzzle pieces together, we are treated to multiple images of the killer at work. In “flashback,” the detectives hypothesize chains of events (always correctly, of course, because they’re brilliant). And in “real time,” we see women soft-lit in bed as obedient spiders crawl over their negligee-clad bodies and bite them; when the killer arrives to collect them, the women realize what’s to come. As Hale and Lyford determine what might be his lair, they rescue his latest victim (which doesn’t make sense really, as previously the killer worked in the women’s homes, without kidnapping them). She’s bound with duct tape, in underwear only, locked in a small cell with lots of critters, her body covered in welts and angry-red bites (because the killer doesn’t just like spiders, but all creepy crawly bugs).
Emphasizing the girl-targeting brutality that suffuses Hale’s environment, Killer Instinct returns repeatedly to his office, where gruesome pictures of previous or in-process cases adorn the walls. Apparently, “Deviant Crimes” are only perpetrated against young, attractive women.
Occasionally, Killer Instinct seems to recognize the problems of its relentless focus on abused women. When Hale and Lyford finally catch up with the pilot’s killer, to extract some info, they treat him to the same tarantula treatment he deployed. The camerawork here is almost exactly the same as when the arachnids crawl over the women’s faces. The symmetry indicts us as consumers of such images, marking our erotic, “paralyzing” gaze and at least implicitly complicating its easy sexual objectification of women.
Killer Instinct furthers this meta-commentary on the “power” of the gaze in a subplot involving Hale. About mid-episode, he returns to his office to find an envelope marked “Personal and Confidential” on his desk. Inside he finds a torn-up photograph that looks like him, with the word “watching” scrawled on the back. He digs a file out of his desk, tapes this picture piece to others he’s already received, and we have a photo of Hale, sleeping, supine and vulnerable, with the threat, “I’m watching you” block-printed on the back. Who is watching and to what end, we don’t know yet, but the point is clear, Hale is just as much the object of a dominating gaze as the murdered women.
So, despite its frequent reveling in eroticized violence against women, Killer Instinct demonstrates some awareness of the problem and tries to take some responsibility for its own representations. But it’s too little too late. Hale is not paralyzed by violence.