8. Violence Against Women in Cinema

Domestic violence

How does the lack of women in creative roles in the film industry contribute to domestic violence against women off screen?


There is no shortage of sexualised brutality against women in cinema, with so many films portraying acts of violence against women. Such acts of violence are often normalised without their being any negative social commentary on men using force against women in film and in some instances, it is rewarded. This is problematic given the ramifications violence against women in cinema has off screen as it can be argued that such framing of acts of violence may encourage violent acts in real life. A pertinent factor that cannot be overlooked is that such gender-based violence in film is often made by men as the cinema industry is overwhelmingly made up of males in creative roles. It can be seen that there is a lack of women in aspects of creative roles and this can be detrimental given the misrepresentation of women on screen as they are constantly being framed as passive victims. This section of the essay will investigate the way in which violence is portrayed against women in cinema. Two significant case studies will be included in this section; the first will serve to support the claim that violence portrayed on screen does indeed impact males’ attitudes towards violence against women in real life, often in an undesirable way. The second case study will investigate the different ways in which women who work in film production represent women and portray violence in their films.


Gender imbalance in the film industry

 It can be seen that gendered bias is entrenched in the film industry given the ratio of women to men working in film.

Below are the statistics that outline women working in creative roles in Australia (Screen Australia 2015)

  • Producers-30% female-70% male
  • Directors-16% female-84% male
  • Writers-21% female-79% male

Violence against women statistics

The rate of violence against women is alarmingly high and demonstrates that women are on the receiving end of substantial levels of violence, especially when compared with men. Below are statistics gathered from ABS Personal

Safety Survey and Australian Institute of Criminology (2012) that serve to demonstrate just how prevalent brutality against women is in Australia:

  • 89 women were killed by their current or former partner between 2008-10. This is equal to nearly one woman every week)This equates to nearly one woman every week.
  • 1 in 5 Australian women had experienced sexual violence.
  • 1 in 6 Australian women had experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner.
  • 1 in 4 Australian women had experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner.
  • 1 in 3 Australian women had experienced physical violence.
  • It is more likely for a person to experience violence from a male rather than a female perpetrator. Over 3 times as many people experienced violence from a male
  • Australian women are most likely to experience physical and sexual violence in their home, at the hands of a male current or ex-partner.
  • 36% of women had experienced physical of sexual violence from someone they knew
  • 15% of women had experienced physical violence from an ex-partner
  • For 62% of the women who had experienced physical assault by a male perpetrator, the most recent incident was in their home.

Sexual violence against women in film

Violence against women in film is not only prevalent, but in some instances condoned or ambiguous. For instance, the award film film Blade Runner (1982) depicts a sex scene between the protagonist Deckard played by Harrison For and the female lead Rachael played by Sean Young. Deckard enters the room in which Rachel is in and attempts to kiss her, she pulls away and attempts to leave but is unable to as Deckard slams the door shut and slams her up against a wall. Rachel eventually concedes and has sex with him but it is clear that Deckard would not have let her go until she willingly agreed to sex. It is worth noting that Deckard is indeed the ‘hero’ in Blade runner and this scene is almost portrayed as romantic despite the coercion that occurs.

This particular scene speaks to Drew Humphries’ idea of how women’s experience with violence look like through the lens of the media, it is vastly different as it is glorified, there is romantic music playing in the background and this act is committed by the ‘hero’ of the film. She claims that ‘framing devices’ shape contemporary media products; a relevant ‘device’ in this context is what she calls the trivialisation of male motives (Humphries 2009, p.13). There are no consequences Deckard faces for coercing Rachel into sex, this act is normalised and not viewed through a critical lens. Instead, the protagonist is depicted as a hero throughout the film; it is Deckard that audiences are able to identify with most.

Case study 1:

Much feminist scholarship draws attention to the ramifications that violence against women seen onscreen has in real life. There have been numerous studies undertaken that support this claim, with consistent findings that draw correlations between exposure to sexual violence on screen and a greater acceptance of such acts off screen. Neil Malamuth and James Check undertook a highly relevant case study to this phenomenon as they got both female and male students to participate in a field experiment that was established to decipher the effect of violence against women in feature films, particularly sexual violence. 65 females and 50 males viewed these films and participated in the research, however they were told that the study was being undertaken in order to general develop measures for rating movies but were then given a survey to fill out that required the students to rate categories on a scale ranging from (1) “strongly disagree” to (7) “strongly agree”. These categories included (Malamuth & Check p.438).

  • Acceptance of Interpersonal Violence (AIV)
  • Rape Myth Acceptance (RMA)
  • Adversarial Sexual Beliefs (ASB)

Question examples (Malamuth & Check 1981, p.438)

  • AIV-“A man is never justified to hit his wife”
  • RMA-“ Many women have an unconscious wish to be rapes a may then set up a situation in which they are likely to be attacked”
  • ASB-“A woman will only respect a man who will lay down the law to her”

Two experimental films were shown, these films were chosen as they both portray sexual violence against women with having “justification and positive consequences”(Malamuth & Check 1981, p.438). Conversely, two ‘control films’ were screened and these films do not depict violence against women.

Experimental Film Synopses:

Swept Away (1974)

The film is about an upper-class woman who is on vacation on a yacht in the Mediterranean. She initially clashes with a deckhand who happens to be an avid communist. The two are separated from the rest of the people on the yacht and he is physically abusive towards her and rapes her. She eventually ends up sexually desiring him and the pair fall in love. This film is said to epitomise ‘cultural sadism’ as “the woman is represented as on who craves sadism and violent male sexual aggression (Malamuth & Check 1981, p.439)

The Getaway (1972)

The protagonist in this film, who is a stereotypical masculine male is physically abusive toward his wife, she is depicted as being deserving this abuse. The antagonist is also an abusive male who kidnaps a woman and her husband. He rapes the woman and this act is portrayed as being consensual and the woman eventually becomes his girlfriend.

Control film Synopses:

A Man and A Woman (1966)

This is a romantic film about a widow and a widower who fall in love. The sex scenes in this film are not explicit.

Hooper (1978)

This film is about a veteran stunt man who is challenged by a younger stun man. He struggles with his career and he receives support and compassion from his girlfriend.


Once the data had been collected and analysed it demonstrated that violence against women depicted on screen as having positive outcomes did indeed increase males’ acceptance of violence against women and rape myths were also widely accepted among males. For females the results were fairly moderate with females tending to scale very high and low on all scales thus levelling out the results. Women who were exposed to the experimental, violent-sexual films showed rejected interpersonal violence and rape myths more so than control subjects.Evidently there is a relationship between gender and films exposure film exposure and gender emerged both in comparing the experimental group with subjects exposed to control films.

While sexual violence against women in films and mass media can contribute to an increase in acceptance of such acts off screen it is suggested that younger people may be more vulnerable to being affected by mass media due to less established attitudes (Malamuth & Check 1981, p.438). Additionally, people who aren’t as exposed to sexual violence through mass media may also be more influenced by being exposed to sexual violence through film than those who are frequently exposed to such acts (Malamuth & Check 1981, p.443). Therefore, it can be seen that age, gender and the amount of previous media exposure can affect participants in both positive and negative ways.

The acts of sexual violence that are portrayed on screen tend to convey the message that a woman’s disinterest and disgust in an admirer is irrelevant as “their allegedly basic need to be dominated will inevitably result in their becoming “turned on” to overpowering by the male assailant”(Johnson & Goodchilds 1973). This in particular can be detrimental at the promotion of females who desire to be subordinated work to promote.

Case study 2:

There are three television networks who who make ‘made-for-television movies’; their films/programs are females oriented and have a large female production crew. These networks are: Women Entertainment (WE), Oxygen and Lifetime. These networks work to contribute to the “personal and social growth of women” (Humphries 2009, p.226).

Drew Humphries has analysed the gendered images inherent in the films screened by these network over a two-week period and noted the incidents of criminal victimisation against women and identified the demographic of both perpetrators and victims (Humphries 2009, p.229). Victimisation of an illegal nature, including sexual assault have been coded and counted. Furthermore, the gender of the filmmakers and crew have been taken into account in this analysis in order to investigate the affect of gender difference among staff on victimisation in the films (Humphries 2009, p.229).


Humphries found that the frequency of gendered violence was not significantly among these networks networks, despite their efforts to hire and produce films for women. However, there was a different in the way violence against women was presented. Violence was represented as isolated incidents in Women Entertainment and Oxygen’s films.

Contrarily, Lifetime represents violence as ‘secondary victimisation’, which is what Humphries labels the kind of violence that is put into context. Rather than violence being perpetrated by a random individual or in a random instance, these individuals who participate in violent acts are represented against a “background of social problems” (Humphries 2009, p.234). Lifetime network also has the highest number of females participating in these films (as writers and directors), which indicates the connection between females in creative roles and the type of violence that is represented on screen (Humphries 2009, p.234).


The type of violence that is represented in cinema does indeed play a role in how we interpret and make sense of such acts. The former case study’s used throughout this essay, including Blade Runner (1982), The Getaway (1972) and Swept Away (1979) demonstrate the ways in which violence against women is normalised in cinema and in the former two films, sexual violent acts are rewarded as the perpetrators end up in relationships with their passive female victims.

Neil Malamuth and James Check’s survey on how students respond to sexual violence against women t demonstrates the influence cinema has on people, in particular men; as most males who participated in the survey and watched the ‘experimental’ sexually violent films scaled higher on the (AIV), (RMA), (ASB) surveys. Contrarily, these films did not have as much as an affect on female participants. Evidently, there are correlations between the glorification of violence against women on screen and passive female characters and tolerance of violence against women in real life. Such misrepresentations of violence and of women are often from a male perspective as the statistics on females working in film is still very low.


Drew Humphries’ case study demonstrates the different ways in which females working in creative roles portray violence against women. Out of the three networks and their respective films that were analysed in her case study, it was Lifestyle network that portrayed violence in a more constructive way, and who also had the largest number of females working on their films. The violent acts against women were put into context and addressed the social backdrop in which these acts occurred and this is what the aforementioned films lacked.


It can be seen that the misrepresentation of women and violence is all too common in cinema; however, Lifetime network has demonstrated that having female writers, directors and producers is a step toward depicting a more constructive depiction of violent acts. Perhaps if there is a stronger female filmmaking presence, women in film can be portrayed as active agents as opposed to passive victims and violence against women in film can be depicted in a more constructive, contextual way.