The recent release of the documentary India’s Daughter, about the brutal gang-rape and murder of the 23-year-old Jyoti in a bus in Delhi in 2012, prompted me to reconsider the freedom of women to walk around at night. In the documentary, a lawyer defending the rapists suggests that it was Jyoti’s own fault that she was raped, as she was outside on the street, after dark. Worldwide movements such as Take Back The Night, which organises night-time events across the world to draw attention to sexual violence, indicate that the night is still a dangerous time for women across the world to be out of doors.
The perceived danger of the night for women in particular is not just reinforced by news reports and documentaries, but also by fictional representations of violence against women. Cinema has from the outset portrayed the night as a time especially dangerous for women. Early Hitchcock films like The Lodger (1927) and Blackmail (1929) feature women who are murdered and raped, respectively, when they walk around at night without a reliable man to protect them. A girl being chased through the woods at night is a staple of the slasher genre (see the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). This trope has in more recent years also been adopted by other formats such as television: the opening episode of the first season of the Danish The Killing (Søren Sveistrup, 2007) shows the soon-to-be-murdered girl Nanne Birk Larsen running amongst the trees in her underwear.
The premise of the feature film American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000) is wholly based on one man’s lust for violence, against women in particular. The 2014 horror film It Follows (David Robert Mitchell) used the ‘woman out at night on the street’ as a visual shorthand for danger and imminent attack in their marketing materials (Fig 1).
It is not just mainstream productions that utilise this trope: the French production Irréversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002) features a lengthy scene in which a woman is raped in a pedestrian subway after leaving a party in the middle of the night. And the Russian film Cargo 200 (Aleksey Balbanov, 2007) – loosely based on William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary – sees a young woman being raped with a vodka bottle, and subsequently kidnapped, after she dares to leave a nightclub with a boy she does not know very well.
All of these examples show that in film and television, a woman going out at night is always in danger of being attacked. Cultural historian Joanna Bourke recently argued that rape is used more and more as a plot device, which disregards the seriousness of the offence. In combination with real-life examples of women being punished for going out after dark, the films mentioned above work to create a sense of peril for women, which pre-emptively limits their mobility. When you are constantly told and shown that going out at night is dangerous, you will think twice about risking it. The other side of the same coin is that if popular culture women being attacked at night is a common occurrence, it can perpetuate perpetrators’ beliefs that it is acceptable to engage in this behaviour. This skewed representation of women in public spaces at night do not do anyone a favour. Women’s needs and wishes of navigating the night are the same as those of men, but until the world after dark is safe for them both in reality and in representation, women will not be able to fulfil these needs.