Author and screenwriter Bridget Lawless has founded the Staunch book prize for thrillers “in which no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.” Oh, so good.
She was inspired to start this prize after seeing the number of BAFTA award nominees that featured rape as a plot device. She wanted to try and get to the root of it, and actually influence the source material behind a lot of what makes it onto movie and television screens by introducing this prize for fiction. She told the media, “There are so many books in which women are raped or murdered for an investigator or hero to show off his skills […] This is about writers coming up with stories that don’t need to rely on sexual violence […] Is there no other story?”
The project couldn’t come at a better time, given that it’s become harder and harder to turn on a television set without encountering the rape and murder of women being sold to you as “essential plot points”, from The Game of Thrones to Mad Men. It’s also well-timed given the worrying reports that we’re seeing a sharp and noticeable rise in the depiction of sexual and physical violence against women in television and cinema in recent years. Take this crazy factoid—the Media Research Centre, an American media watchdog, in 2016 released a report that said 129 acts of violence were depicted on 5 network television channels in just one week in February. It’s also definitely a sphere that requires action, given that many reports have explicated the damaging effect violence against women on television can have on women in real life, including the disconnect between this portrayal and reality, given that twice as many men are victims of violence than women.
But it also makes me happy for a different reason. This prize doesn’t stop anyone from writing books or inspiring TV shows that resort to lame plot devices like the rape and murder of women, and merely rewards people with enough skill, originality and talent to write books that avoid it. Still, I feel like there will certainly be at least a few people who find this development somehow censorious, or say that it contributes to a culture that steps on their freedom to make bad, violent movies. Which reminds me of what embattled Ta-Nehisi Coates said about why white people shouldn’t ever use the “n-word”, even when singing along to rap songs.
Speaking at a high school back in November, Coates said, “When you’re white in this country, you’re taught that everything belongs to you. You think you have a right to everything. […] So here comes this word that you feel like you invented. And now somebody will tell you how to use the word that you invented. ‘Why can’t I use it? Everyone else gets to use it. You know what? That’s racism that I don’t get to use it. You know, that’s racist against me. […] The experience of being a hip-hop fan and not being able to use the word ‘ni**er’ is actually very, very insightful. It will give you just a little peek into the world of what it means to be black. Because to be black is to walk through the world and watch people doing things that you cannot do, that you can’t join in and do. So, I think there’s actually a lot to be learned from refraining.”
Which I think is a nice message that people who cry freedom of expression when told to stop depicting women horribly in their work could think about a little. Not without exception and all that, but I think it would be a nice experience in learning, humility and checking-yo-privilege for men to take it upon themselves to not depict violence against women in their work, and to be ingenuous and original enough to find ways to get their plots going without it. If for nothing else, then at least as an exercise in self-improvement.
The submission of entries opens on 22 February and close on 15 June. The competition is open to adult authors of any nationality, and the submissions must be in English, or translations to English. The winner of the £2,000 Staunch book prize, provided by Lawless herself, will be announced on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.