Danger is: A Woman on the Street at Night

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.[1] 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.

it-follows

 Fig 1: UK poster for It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)



[1] Dr Joanna Bourke speaking on the Women of the World festival, as quoted on The Independent on 7 March 2015 ‘Use of rape as plot device is ‘shifting’ sympathy from victim to perpetrator, warns academic’ http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/use-of-rape-as-plot-device-is-shifting-sympathy-from-victim-to-perpetrator-warns-academic-10093655.html (accessed 14 April 2015)

Visiting the Ladies: Public Toilets on Film

Toilets are arguably the most marginalised of essential spaces in the modern world. Every human needs to urinate and defecate, and in the 21st century, most communities require purpose-built toilets to ensure that this relieving is hygienic. As I am writing this, I’m struggling to name the action: pooping and peeing – it feels unsavoury to use these direct terms. In a similar way, the act of going to the toilet is not commonly represented in written fiction or fiction films. Characters are only shown to be visiting the restroom if this has a narrative purpose. Otherwise, this common fact of life is usually elided from the story.
Although in recent years there has been increased interest, especially in the Western world, in making toilets unisex in order to accommodate people with non-heteronormative gender identities, the vast majority of toilets are still segregated for men and women. This gendering of the toilet space means that not all toilets are as marginal as others. The documentary Q2P (2006), made by Indian filmmaker Paromita Vohra, makes this point very clear. The film investigates the public toilet provision in Mumbai and Delhi. Often there are more public toilets available for men than for women, or the male toilets are free whereas women’s are charged. But beyond this inequality at a practical level there is also cultural control: the women Vohra interviews say they are not comfortable going to public toilets, so they arrange their lives in ways that mean they do not need to ‘go’ in public facilities.
Vohra experiences not just the gendering of toilet space but also that of language about toilets: when she interviews some male officials about the public toilet provision in the area, they are uncomfortable with the way she directly addresses the issue. It is not seen as language fit for a woman to use. The language on bodily functions and women are not supposed to discuss them. The female street cleaners she asks about which toilets are available to them also respond with embarrassed laughter. Women are not supposed to use the public toilets, and they are not supposed to discuss them either.
A final striking aspect of Q2P is that, for all its talk about toilets, it actually very rarely shows the spaces itself. Only near the end of the documentary does the camera enter a female public toilet, panning swiftly inside a cubicle. The film overcomes the taboo of talking about toilets – and raises very real and important development issues in the process – but it cannot break through the final restriction and openly and unambiguously represent the female toilet space on film. When the camera finally enters the toilet, it is only for a brief shot and there is no-one actually using the toilet. It is just an anonymous hole in the ground, without any signifiers of its actual function.

You can watch the full documentary Q2P here.