Several years ago, while looking for something to watch on television, I accidentally stumbled across an episode of “Criminal Minds” in which a young woman was tied to a chair. Her eyes were taped open. A man was about to pour acid into her eyes.
I don’t know what happened next because I switched channels. It was too much to watch. Too much to even think about.
Now CBS has added “Stalker” to its lineup of “horrific, misogynistic tales,” as actor Mandy Patinkin referred to the storylines on “Criminal Minds” after he left the show. Patinkin said he quit because it “was destroying my heart and soul.”
In the opening scene of “Stalker” broadcast Wednesday night, we see a young woman screaming and crying as she’s doused with gasoline and then burned alive, trapped inside of a car that explodes right as she thinks she’s going to escape. And all the while, her assailant watches.
It’s not just the graphic depiction of violence on shows like this that bothers me — it’s also that the violence is directed specifically at women. Over and over again. Week after week. And it’s especially disturbing as we consider the real-life headlines about domestic violence and sexual assault.
“Torture porn” is how Tim Winter, president of Parents Television Council, referred to the violence in the opening scene of “Stalker” in a statement released Wednesday. “Our country is mired in a national dialogue about shocking levels of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault,” he said. “Entertainment that is saturated with violence against women – or violence against any person for that matter – will only foment such horrific, real-life conduct.”
“Women in Peril,” a research study by the PTC released in 2009, found violence on television, irrespective of gender, was up just 2 percent, while violence against women in TV shows had increased 120 percent over the previous five years — and violence against teen girls on TV had risen 400 percent.
That violence, or its consequences, “tends overwhelmingly to be depicted (92 percent) rather than implied (5 percent) or described (3 percent),” according to the study.
Nothing is left to our imagination with these shows.
That’s not surprising, according to Jim McKairnes, a former top executive at CBS and now Verizon professor at Temple University. “It’s perfectly scheduled after ‘Criminal Minds,'” he said. And it will sustain an audience as “people know what it is and what to expect.”
Yet McKairnes said he did screen an advance copy of the pilot to a class at Temple and that students gave it “a thumbs down.” He added, “A handful were fully reviled by it.”
During his time at CBS, McKairnes’s fight against what he calls “gratuitous, misogynistic violence” began after the screening of a proposed cop drama called “Cold Shoulder” in 2000 when he asked, “Why do we need to see her [a victim on the show] physically assaulted, and so violently?” He continued to ask questions like that, he said, and it became known as his “quixotic crusade.”
In 2014, he said, he’s “flabbergasted” that such scenes are still “somebody’s idea of entertainment.”
We can’t blame men. The premiere of “Stalker” was directed by a woman. A “Mind Hunters” episode of “Cold Case” that McKairnes found particularly disturbing — it featured eight unsolved gruesome murders of young women forced to strip to their underwear, one of whom was only 14 years old — was written by two women. And it first aired Thanksgiving Sunday in 2004.
Men, not women, were the ones who spoke up when CBS held a couple of focus groups to learn whether McKairnes’s concerns were legitimate. “The women said, ‘Well, yeah, the bad guy or person was punished,'” McKairnes recounted. “These women saw it as the pursuit of justice.”
He was disappointed at the results. “Why are women allowing this?” he asked.
In his memoir about television, “The Sheep Is What Makes It Funny,” McKairnes wrote, “…we seem to be killing an awful lot of people on a weekly basis – women, mostly, in the most heinous of tortuous ways.” He went on to describe those killings: “Kidnapped. Stripped. Tortured. Even, in the case of one series (in no fewer than three separate episodes of it), caged.”
How much of this repetitive, gratuitous violence against women influences those who hurt women?
Three women a day are killed by a husband or boyfriend. One in every four women will be the victim of domestic violence. One in five women will be the victim of sexual assault. One in six women will be the victim of a stalker.
Where does it stop?
Kevin Williamson, the creator and executive producer of “Stalker,” when confronted about the violence in the show, said, “Turn off the channel.”