Murder most trivial

COMMENT: We slam plays and films that trivialise rape. So why are we so blasé about plays and films that trivialise murder?

Last year, one low point of the festival fringe season was a play that, according to the one-star review, trivialised rape. I’m not going to name it because I don’t like kicking small productions any more than I have to, but anyone who heard about it will know which one I’m referring to. Now, I’m not one of these moral authoritarians who thinks that anyone who tells a rape joke must be publicly castigated as an irredeemable misogynist; it’s not unusual to put humour into the darkest of subjects. I think a good test to apply is to ask yourself whether the joke was the rape is bad, or that rape is funny. However, it sounds from the review like this play was firmly in the latter camp. I can’t make a fair impartial judgement without seeing the play myself, but if it’s anything like the review described it, I would have given it a one-star review too.

But when we pan a play for objectionable content, we should at least ask ourselves if we’re being consistent with our moral standards. In the case of a play that trivialises rape, it’s only fair to ask whether we apply the same standard for other equally abhorrent crimes. There’s really only one crime that gets the same public revulsion as rape, and that’s murder. And here’s where we hit a problem. We collectively make little or no effort to speak out against the trivialisation of murder on stage or screen – and in some cases, it is actively encouraged.

Let’s start by asking a simple question: can you imagine BBC2 ever running a highly successful comedy series named Rape Most Horrid? Nope, thought not. We were okay with Murder Most Horrid though, where every week someone dies in the most lol-tastic of circumstances. Of course, most of the time the person who got murdered was pretty obnoxious who has it coming. But try replacing “got murdered” with “got raped” in that sentence and suddenly it’s not so palatable. See the problem?

And what about Agatha Christie’s stories? Her tales are classics because they pit you against Poirot or Miss Marple to work out who did the murder before they announce it, but, let’s face it, that’s not the only selling point, is it? Her stories were invariably told in sumptuous upper-class locations in British countryside, or bits of the Empire if you want an exotic flavour. Look! An exquisite 1930s weekend. Everyone in their sumptuous outfits. And – how exciting – a murder! I can’t wait to find out which one of us did it! An equally bizarre selling point exists for The Midsomer Murders. Yes, people get killed left right and centre, but it’s still a nice gentle series where people never get murdered in a nasty way. So, that’s okay then.

Again, try substituting murder for rape, and you can expecting to be slammed for glossing over the experiences of rape victims – but what about the experiences of the families of murder victims? Why is it okay to gloss over their experiences? Really, what’s the difference between trivialising rape and trivialising murder? I suppose you could say that some people might decide from trivialisation of rape that rape’s okay, whilst no-one would think the same about murder, but that’s a weak argument that relies on some highly questionable assumptions. If it could be proven that no-one is influenced by trivialisation of rape, would we all suddenly be okay with it? I doubt it.

In fairness to Dawn French, Agatha Christie and Chief Inspector Barnaby, all of these programmes at least stuck to the line that murder is bad. None of them (with the exception of a couple of iffy cases in Murder Most Horrid) tried to portray murder as funny. No, the most obvious offender on that front is Quentin Tarantino. Not so much murder being funny (save one notable example I’ll come on to in a moment), but time and time again he makes his murderers cool. It’s as if getting hacked to death by Beatrix Kiddo from Kill Bill is a great honour. I wouldn’t mind so much if critics weren’t clamouring to fawn over his trivialisation of violence, praising it as ironic, subversive, or whatever’s supposed to make it a work of genius. The most depressing quote I saw was a review from Ben Elton’s Popcorn – which was supposed to be making a statement about exactly this sort of media coverage – equating the hilarity in this book with the hilarious moment where the hostage in Pulp Fiction had his brains blown out in the car.

The worst bit of this is that now even Quentin Tarantino is old hat. Tarantino did at least attempt to be original. Franchises such as Saw and Hostel make no attempt at originality and instead their sole selling point is gory murders that eclipse even Tarantino’s levels of violence. Make no mistake, this is violence for the sake for violence, for no other reason than entertainment value. Meanwhile, the “gentle” murders of writers like Agatha Christie are out and instead are books whose selling point on countless railway station posters is how gory the murders are that need solving. It’s gone from one extreme to the other, with Midsomer-esque murders that shouldn’t spoil anyone’s day in the country with more popcorn-consuming murder for entertainment. It’s just a different way of trivialising the crime.

I suppose it’s only fair to point out that there are people out there who make a big thing of both rape and violence against women in both films and computer games. And this is all very well, but the trouble is, most of the people who are complaining about depictions of violence against women don’t seem to be complaining that loudly about exactly the same depictions of violence against men. All this does is replace one moral double-standard with another.

What can we actually do about this? Truth be told, not much. I am dead against censoring acts solely because someone finds their work distasteful, however abhorrent I find it. And I’m extremely reluctant to publicly berate plays, films or TV programmes that trivialise murder, because all this does is give free publicity to films that deliberately sell themselves on shock value. I fear this battle was lost a long time ago. That doesn’t mean we should give a free pass for trivialising rape – just because we’ve lost the battle over treating one terrible crime into entertainment doesn’t mean we should give up on another terrible crime – but I just find it depressing that we’ve got so blasé about this.

But there’s a few things we can do. If you’re a writer and you’ve got a murder in your play, portray it as the horrific thing it is – and that doesn’t necessarily mean putting in some graphic harrowing murder scene, but more likely think about the effect it has on everyone else, and don’t gloss that over. Or, if you’re a punter or critic, and the play you see portrays a murder as funny or cool, ask yourself whether it would still look so funny or cool if it was rape. If not, ask questions.

Making entertainment out of murder in a world that objects to making entertainment out of rape is a piece of moral hypocrisy that’s probably here to stay, and we can’t stop it. But we can count ourselves out of this. And that will help.

2 thoughts on “Murder most trivial

  1. Richard Stamp July 21, 2016 / 4:25 pm

    Although I get where you’re coming from, there’s something here I don’t quite agree with – and it’s frustratingly hard to put my finger on why. The logical steps all seem right, but they lead to the conclusion that an Agatha Christie novel is roughly as bad as the show we’re discussing. And my mind just rebels against that.

    One obvious difference between murder and rape is that nobody in real life ever trivialises murder, whereas sadly, people in real life do trivialise rape. So there’s an extra dimension there – an echo of, and perhaps influence on, the real world. Maybe that’s why it seems different to me.

    I agree about Kill Bill though. More generally, I’d say that the more realistic (i.e. less Midsomer-esque) the murder is, the more responsibility you have to explore realistic consequences too.

    • chrisontheatre July 21, 2016 / 9:48 pm

      Just to clarify, I wasn’t making a serious suggestion that Agatha Christie is as bad as the play that trivialised rape – just that actually finding a solid reason to separate the two is actually quite difficult, as you yourself acknowledge. Your argument about real-life trivialisation of rape is a fair one, but even that runs into knots. Idiots who think it’s not rape if your date is too drunk to put up any resistance usually still accept it’s rape if you attack a woman on the street, therefore stranger-rape is less trivialised than date-rape. But is you’re not careful, that in turn points to an absurd conclusion that it’s less bad to trivialise stranger-rape than date-rape.

      That’s one of the reasons I made the point whether a rape or murder is portrayed as something bad. The only concrete difference I can find between this and the play we discussing is that stories like this never glamorised the murder themselves, only the surrounding settings. I still have issues with the casual romanisation of murder mysteries, but it does at least save Christie and co from being as bad as the play under discussion, in my books.

      But yes, it’s when we reach levels of violence of Tarantino upwards that you get the blatant double standards. All I’m really saying is that trivialisation of murder needs far more scrutiny than it’s getting at the moment, and too often it gets a free pass.

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