This week, millions of viewers tuned in to watch ITV drama Cheat where, in one dramatic scene, the female lead fiercely smacked her husband across the face during a heated argument in their home. This was nothing new: we’ve seen it for decades in soaps, 'gritty' TV dramas and in films, all of which has passed without mention.
The typical scene usually features a couple rowing to dizzy theatrical heights, before the female lashes out and slaps the man across the face. It’s irresponsible that we still OK this kind of viewing; cheering, often, as the heroine does the striking, as if it's nothing more than rough justice for the person on the receiving end.
We would call this domestic abuse and be rightly shocked if a man slapped a woman. So why, when it happens the other way around, do we not bat an eyelid? There’s already such a stigma about men coming out to say they are in abusive relationships with their female partners - in spite of the fact 695,000 men in England and Wales experienced domestic attacks in 2018, according to ONS figures - and beaming scenes like this into our living rooms does nothing to help those victims.
Continuing to normalise scenes like this is unhelpful and damaging - if they're not intended to engender a dialogue about the issue at hand, is it really responsible to be using violence against men as an entertainment tactic?
This week Fleabag creator Phoebe Waller Bridge, who also developed the award-winning BBC drama Killing Eve, said it was “refreshing and oddly empowering” to see female characters being violent after decades of television in which women have been the recipients of it. The director of the show, which stars Jodie Comer as a psychopathic killer and Sandra Oh as an MI5 operative, added: “I think people are slightly exhausted by seeing women being brutalised on screen.”
Is it really empowering to see women running around and committing violent acts? Use of the term in this context feels strange. It isn't "empowering" for either sex to commit violent crimes. I fear we will be going down a dark path if we continue stamping it on these acts simply because it’s women doing them. Seeing brutality - on screen or otherwise - should shock and appall us, no matter which gender the perpetrator is.
The latest figures from the Crime Survey for England and Wales show that, in the year ending March 2018, an estimated two million adults aged 16-59 years had experienced domestic abuse in the last year, while one in five teenagers have been physically abused by their girlfriend or boyfriend. Police in England and Wales recorded almost 150,000 incidents of domestic abuse against men in 2017 – more than double the number reported in 2012. While one in six men will experience domestic abuse at some point in their lives, only one in 20 will ever seek help.
In 2018 we already saw the high profile, heartbreaking case of Alex Steel, 22, who endured abuse from his ex-girlfriend, Jordan Worth, 22. He stayed with her out of fear that, if he left, she would kill him. For six years he endured a horrific ordeal of torture and abuse: boiling water was poured over him, he was physically attacked, denied food and kept isolated from his loved ones. Eventually, police intervened and he was rescued. Doctors told the 22-year-old that he was just 10 days from death when help finally reached him. He said he felt like he couldn't tell his friends and family.
Is it overdue that we take a stand against these dramas that show women using physical force during an argument, and admit that it isn't ‘passionate’, but harmful? Turning a blind eye only encourages the stigma and fears so many men have about asking for help, even if they desperately need it. Forget 'empowering' - when it comes to violence, sensitivity and accountability are far more important.