Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Violence against women in thrillers - In Conversation with Bridget Lawless

Bridget Lawless, founder of The Staunch Prize, talks to JJ Marsh.

The inaugural Staunch Book Prize will be awarded to the author of a novel in the thriller genre in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.

JJ: Tedious tropes of violence against women in crime fiction is an issue I’ve argued against for years but you are tackling this in a far more effective way: a prize for a crime novel work that doesn’t rely on abuse of females as a given. What triggered this initiative?

BL: It’s been a long time brewing I suppose. I’ve written about violence for schools, fought for women’s equality, safety, the right to be treated with respect, etc. But the idea for the prize came out of a moment – my own exasperation with violence against women in books and on screen, coinciding with the Me Too movement, Times Up, real life women expressing their experiences, where fictional accounts suddenly seem tacky and exploitative.

JJ: Yes, we’re experiencing an exceptional cultural shift via the movements you mention. Women and men are finding a platform to name and shame their abusers and the systems which enable them. Is the time right to shake off the mantle of ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ and take control of the narrative?

BL: I think people who have experienced abuse should be the ones to decide how they deal with it. It’s probably not helpful to have ‘supporters’ shouting from the sidelines telling them when and how to voice it, or how it should be labelled, or to hurry up! It feels like a tipping point, but exciting though these moments are, they can be fragile and collapse. Cause fatigue can set in. Or factions form, then divisions. Disagreements about the way forward. Most of all, we should listen to each other.

JJ: The announcement of The Staunch Prize has met with some resistance. Some see your prize as a ‘ban’ on writing which views gender abuse as a part of our society. Sample quote: “I won’t stop writing about violence against women while it still exists.” 

BL: The prize is not a ban, or censorship. The language around this resistance has been quite florid! Some have said ‘if we’re not allowed to write about violence against women…’ No one is saying people aren’t allowed to write about this or whatever else they want. I’d march for the right for people to write what they wish – but that doesn’t mean I like it, or admire it, or would give it a prize.

But there’s a strange tone to some of the naysayers – as if they have some duty to report (through fiction) things that happen to women in the real world. Or a role as educators. Really? They defend it as ‘telling women’s stories’. But women’s stories don’t wrap up nicely in 400 pages. And those of us who care about what happens to women don’t pick up our information from crime novels. Incidentally, the resistance has only been from crime novel writers, which is one sub-genre of thrillers – though obviously a huge one. I haven’t heard a peep of complaint from elsewhere. And you have to remember, those writers make their living from it.

JJ: Such a prize, in my view, acts as a provocation. Much like Kamila Shamsie’s call for a year of publishing only women, it starts a conversation. But unlike Shamsie, you are not excluding anyone but championing a new approach.

BL: It certainly has started a conversation – more than one – but the people having those conversations aren’t communicating with each other! The crime writers and readers are in their bubble, agreeing with themselves, while over here, my inbox is full of messages of joy, relief, congratulations, good lucks and thanks. I’m championing more original writing which could shake up the thriller genre, and find new stories to tell that don’t involve women as victims. That’s all!

JJ: Power and those who hold it is always a concern. While the hitherto voiceless now have a megaphone, is there a danger in trying the accused by social media? Does Margaret Atwood have a point in reminding us of the systems of law?

BL: Definitely the trial by social media is underway – but it’s also social media pointing out that so far, the accused seem to be getting away with it scot free. Why hasn’t Harvey Weinstein been arrested and brought in for questioning? With so many accusations against him, all in a similar vein, he must be a person of interest. Yet today his lawyers claimed they were deciding whether to sue Uma Thurman for accusing him. He’s still threatening her! Until something gets moving, the law gets moving, social media is going to be the place where those questions are asked.

JJ: Back to fiction. In addition to all the ‘dead prostitute’ as victims, many authors/readers resent the ‘feisty’ heroine detective who overcame abuse in her youth. Do you see this as part of the pattern?

BL: Yep! A woman can’t be empowered unless she’s been abused as a child or raped and seeking redress. Jodie Foster (who played a young rape victim in The Accused) is on record pointing out that rape and abuse are the go-to motivators of female characters. It’s quite possible to have a sense of justice, energy and drive, and be quick thinking without having personal anger and revenge in your tank. It’s like saying women can’t be effective unless really goaded.

JJ: Naomi Alderman’s book, The Power, contains a disturbing scene in which women use their new-found dominance in exactly the same way as some men did in the past. Must the pendulum swing so far in the other direction to correct the imbalance?

BL: Should we fight violence with violence? I don’t believe so. There would be no overall gain if women just emulated the mistakes men made – that makes us followers, with none of the empathy and insights I think we have. I guess it worked for Alderman’s story. But it seems to be true that power corrupts, so it wouldn’t be correcting the imbalance if women used their power to hurt each other or others. But nothing says they’re not susceptible to being corrupted by power. They’re human!

JJ: Fast forward to 2028. What do you hope The Staunch Prize has achieved?

BL: 10 years! It’s hard to think even about this year! I don’t expect the prize to change the world. But I hope in 10 years it wouldn’t be needed. I think people will tire of all this graphic violence in fiction. Through the changes happening now, I think women will feel able to refuse parts in which they’re subjected to physical and sexual violence in adaptations, and hopefully, the genre will move on and evolve, so that this intense focus of women getting hurt, raped, murdered, will be something people want to read or indeed write less and less.

My hope is that it will balance itself out naturally, as it sits oddly alongside the real battles women are fighting, the real violence we face, and to many, many women, reading such fiction, watching such movies, either already isn’t, or soon won’t be something they want to do. I’m not prescribing that in any way, I just think tastes are changing.


  1. Excellent interview. I watched the film Suffragette the other night and the most shocking scene was not one of physical violence, but the fact that a husband could throw his wife out of the home and then put her child up for adoption without consulting her. That to me was the truest depiction of the need for women's rights and the vote.

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  2. What a refreshing interview! Women detectives, journalists, military and investigators may encounter violence in the course of their ‘quest’ as their male counterparts do. It says something about us as a reading public where the victim is young, blond and a prostitute or runaway in so many bestselling stories.
    However, I gather this prize is for stories where women are not automatically the victim. Brava!

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