When I saw the trailer for The Call starring Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin (embedded below), I was kind of horrified. It looked so violent and like it played upon very real fears about abduction and violence against girls. Yet, because I study the portrayal of girls in the media, I also felt that I had to go see it so I could do something with that emotion.
I watch a lot of TV and, like many people, procedural dramas and medical soaps are favorite genres of mine. Over the past couple of years, I’ve started to notice that a lot of the victims on the shows I watch (among them Castle, Bones, Scandal, and Grey’s Anatomy) are women. And often the violence against these women is portrayed pretty graphically. I love these shows, but I also frequently cringe at the sight of a mangled or beaten female body on them. I’m not alone.
A 2009 Parents Television Council Report, Women in Peril: a Look at TV’s Disturbing New Storyline Trend details the rising number of stories about violence against women on television. Their study found that between 2004 and 2009 there was:
- a 400 percent increase in the depiction of teen girls as victims across all networks
- a 120 percent rise in incidences of violence against women on the four main TV channels -ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC
- only a 2 percent increase in violence of other types during the same time frame
- incidences of violence against women including beating (29 percent), followed by credible threats of violence (18 percent), shooting (11 percent), rape (8 percent), stabbing (6 percent), and torture (2 percent)
- acts of violence resulted in the woman’s death 19 percent of the time
The study also found that rather than describing violence, the violence against women was usually actually visually depicted. Did you catch that while overall violence only rose 2%, violence against women rose 120% and against teen girls rose 400%? What that indicates is that the violence in entertainment is taking a decided turn against women. It’s disturbing. Those stats are about television, but I think it’s pretty clear that there is a huge amount of violence against women in the movies too.
Turning to The Call, I’ve read arguments that the film is an example of women driving the 2013 box office (it came in second its opening weekend) or that it features strong female characters who save the day, but I went into the film with the prevalence of violence against girls and women in our entertainment industry weighing on my mind.
I found The Call surprising and upsetting. First, there were some elements of the film that I thought were really strong and positive. I thought the first 45 minutes of the film were excellent, really. The kidnapping narrative is set up in such a way that the emphasis is on the abductee, Casey (Abigail Breslin) and the 911 operator helping her, Jordan (Halle Berry). The kidnapper is largely obscured, so we really don’t see his face for quite some time. The narrative focuses on the two women fighting together to get Casey out of the situation. Further, the narrative is set up in such a way that it’s really scary because it isn’t fantastical. Casey is kidnapped in broad daylight out of a mall parking garage. There’s a sense that it really could happen to you. In this way, the strategies the women try to draw attention to the trunk of the kidnapper’s car (where Casey is being held) are fascinating and gripping. The lead female characters are also really strong. Jordan is shaken by a call six months earlier in which she failed to help a girl being kidnapped, but she is able to pull it together on the line. She is strong, competent, and assertive without being cold or detached. Her supervisor, another woman, is tough but supports her, helping her to keep her cool. Jordan has a love interest, a cop working the case, but that’s largely irrelevant to the story. What’s important is that he supports her through a crisis while also respecting her excellence at work. Casey is a terrified teen, but also a fighter and she is not portrayed as a damsel in distress or an unrealistically badass heroine. Rather, she and Jordan collaborate, working toward her rescue. All of that is awesome.
Then the film takes an insane turn in the second half. A pretty compelling survival story transforms into a bizarre serial killer narrative in the vein of torture porn. Suddenly, instead of following the quick thinking and courage of Casey and Jordan, the focus shifts to the cops as they figure out the backstory for the kidnapper, Michael (who Jordan has figured out brutally murdered her last kidnap call). Who cares why he’s doing it? I know we tend to want to know the roots of evil, but really, why not focus on the victim? Worse, the story is a convoluted mixture of incest, cancer, and scalping that strongly savored of The Silence of the Lambs. As the killer admired a blond scalp, I found myself thinking “Lord, this again?” And I HATE that the dismemberment or skinning of women has become such a staple that I’m not shocked by it. I don’t even watch that many horror movies. In the end, The Call transforms again into a weird revenge narrative that I found far less satisfying than working within the protocols Jordan so beautifully used in the first half would have been. I think that ending was an attempt to re-empower Casey after the torture scenes. It was too little, too odd, too late.
All told, the audience witnesses Michael kill two men who tried to stop him, severely beat two teen girls, play with dead girls’ hair, strap Casey to a chair, cut her deeply, and try to drown Jordan. Off the list the Parents Television Council Report created of common violent acts against women, that includes beating, credible threats, stabbing, and torture.
I know that it’s a thriller and to expect no violence would be pretty naive. The thing of it is, though, before the film took a turn to the super-violent, it was a pretty good movie. Why does the film industry, and its audience, insist on having such graphic depictions of violence against girls and women? Why wasn’t the thrill of the escape narrative enough?