I saw Tale of Tales at the cinema the other weekend and it made me wonder: what do men and boys think when they see (or read of) the degradation of women? How do they react? What is their response emotionally?
I find films most difficult to bear in this respect, in terms of their cruelty to women – perhaps because they’re most vivid, because the images of these things are given me and I have no control over them. And perhaps I’m more careful with books; I think by now I’ve read widely enough to know what I like and what I don’t, so that in the last couple of years my tastes, as I’ve narrowed them down, have become very specific. But it still happens – of all the books I’ve read this year I think The Crimson Petal and the White was the biggest disappointment (#freeagnes), and this summer, less than ten pages into A Storm of Swords, at the passage about how Softfoot got his name, I finally decided to stop trying with A Song of Ice and Fire in all its forms. We, George R R Martin’s treatment of women and I, were never meant to be, as much as I tried to make it work and look past it.
There’s so much talk these days about young people being overly sensitive, about safe spaces, whatever else. But honestly: I read and watch films, for the most part, to get away from the problems of real life. If I wanted to read about female suffering, I would read the news, and that I can do for free on the internet without buying a book or a cinema ticket; and that’s not to say I don’t think books “shouldn’t” contain such content, only that it’s a personal preference – it’s not want I myself want to be reading. You can say whatever you like about this kind of willful ignorance, but why? Why should I watch characters like me be abused, raped, humiliated – punished in a way punishments are often not meted out to male characters in quite the same way – undressed and made an object of in a way men are not? Especially those like me? And all this for entertainment, apparently – make me, honestly.
For me, as a girl, I can hardly bear these days to watch such things. It’s too close to my heart; it’s like watching myself. As I was watching Tale of Tales and wondering whether I should walk out and go and do something more meaningful with my afternoon or stay put (I had paid for it, after all!), I thought properly for the first time: How do men and boys see what I am seeing? Do they think nothing of it? It’s difficult for me to try and articulate this without either making generalizations or not-all-men-ing and feeling that I have to, I don’t know, soften things. I don’t mean to accuse or presume: these are questions, genuinely. I wish I knew, because it would help me make sense of their treatment of women in ‘real life’. Which comes first? – they feed, I suppose, into one another. Are we people to them, or is there some way in which, in their minds, we are quite not on the same level? Do they feel pity, watching our degradation? Do they find it entertaining? Do they like it when women (as so often in Tale of Tales, for example) are seen undressed while men are not, and the camera takes its time over our bodies, or do they think it exploitative, as I do? Do they feel nothing at all? Have we all of us become desensitized to such things?
But also: am I just being silly? – for I do wonder if it’s me. Everyone I know who has read or watched Game of Thrones, for example, has enjoyed it. We are reading the same books, my sister and I, but while I find them cruel and lacking in compassion and respect, she enjoys them and takes no issue with their depiction of women. Am I too conservative? Is that what it is, conservatism – is it conservative, to not want to see yourself or people like you suffer, or bodies like yours exploited and put on show?
I don’t know why I’ve written all this, because there’s no good ending; I have no answer, I only wish I did.