By Eleanor Antoniou
CN: This article discusses violence and sexual abuse.
I have felt profoundly upset at the news recently, as so many of us have been. I feel heartbroken when I read about Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, knowing that their names make up only a handful of the women who have fallen victim to male violence this year. I have also felt anger at the way their barbarous deaths have been spoken about and reported by the media. Following the trial of Sarah Everard’s killer recently, I was forced to see his face splashed across every news site. Bombarded by his image, compelled to look into his eyes and to shudder at his smirk, the very last thing I wanted to see.
The worst part was seeing photos of Sarah placed right beside him. The least newspapers could have done was separate their photos. Whilst some news outlets made an effort to do this, or to show photos of Sarah alone, not enough granted her this final respect. Instead Sarah’s image has been placed eternally in print and online next to a man who had no right to ever have been associated with her at all. In headlining their pictures alongside each other, Sarah’s life is being defined through him, and this feels blatantly wrong.
All the more disturbingly, some press reports have given positive descriptions of this murderer. In one article, The Telegraph goes out of its way to find positive quotes from people who knew him. Even the article’s headline romanticises this killer as hiding “dark secrets behind family-man facade.” The language here gives him a sense of mystery and interest, and is utterly lacking in sensitivity. It moves the focus away from Sarah, when actually we should be concentrating on celebrating her young life and supporting her distraught family. He may be behind bars, but it is her loved ones who are serving a life sentence of grief. Whilst no words can bring Sarah back, we should at least be using our language in a way that respects her and her family, rather than seemingly defending her killer with irrelevant information.
This tendency to fixate attention on men who have murdered women occurs more often than we realise, particularly in the true crime genre. After Zac Efron played Ted Bundy in a biographical film, the serial killer who raped and hideously murdered numerous young women gained a fandom. He has been turned into a charming anti-hero by an ex-Disney heartthrob and rewarded with an undeserved notoriety, whilst producers profit from violence against women. It seems that true crime can often focus on the graphic details of what happens to women without any effort to raise awareness about gendered violence. Instead a woman’s life is reduced to her violent end, and the mystery surrounding the killer transforms into a game, so far removed from reality that the humanity of the victim is lost.
Similarly, I have always been sickened by the profits that are made off Jack the Ripper, set to be the subject of a new horror film. I have never understood why there are walking tours around the London sites where innocent women were murdered, as if we are sadistically celebrating his heinous crimes. I find it especially creepy that my school takes GCSE students on the tour for a school trip, which will inevitably be treated by excited students as a fun day off from school, complete with a murder mystery puzzle. The women killed by Jack the Ripper have never been given anywhere near as much attention as he has gained, known only as his victims, as if he owns them in death. They were dismissed as prostitutes, drunkards, and disreputable women. It is appalling how easily one can find images of their mutilated bodies with a single Google search. This is not the way these women should be remembered by history, unnamed and defined only through a man who committed the most atrocious crimes possible.
Refreshingly, Hallie Rubenhold’s book, The Five, challenges the discourse around Jack the Ripper by celebrating the lives of the women he killed, telling their real stories and avoiding the depraved details of their deaths. Contemporary artist Henny Beaumont does something similar through her immensely moving portraits of women killed by men this year. Beaumont creates a beautiful tribute to the female victims of violence which ignores the men who intruded into their stories.
Clearly, we do not need any more content which focuses on murderous men. The discourse needs to shift so that we do not forget the victims, particularly women of colour who are all too often left out of the media’s narratives entirely. Let’s celebrate the lives of the women who have been tragically lost to the male violence epidemic, and let’s remember them not for the ways that they died, but by their names and for the beauty that they brought to the world – this is the very least that they deserve.
Featured image: The Stylist