Pornography as news?

April 17, 1991

By Angela Matheson

"'Janine was screaming ... I put the gag into her mouth. Then Mathew had sex with her ... she was screaming. Then it was my turn. She was pretty worn out by now and wasn't screaming as much. She was slapped over the face because she would not buck ... Then after all that Mathew started talking about killing her.' ... Her feet were bound together with five turns of the cord before it was passed around her neck and tightened forcing her knees to be drawn up to her chin ... Janine was dragged down to the dam where she was held under the water until she was dead."

This is not an extract from Hustler magazine or a banned snuff book. It is from the Sydney Morning Herald's report of the Janine Balding murder. Yet the similarities between newspaper accounts of violence against women and pornographic literature are undeniable.

Although most feminists would agree that pornography is a symptom of the patriarchal repression of women, defining pornography has been notoriously difficult. Some feminists believe this is because what is designated pornographic is not fixed, as the boundaries are always shifting. Others have rejected notions that pornography is a contained form of literature different from mainstream discourse. North American feminist Andrea Dworkin argues:

"Pornography is not separate and different from the rest of life but rather a genre of expression fully in harmony with the culture in which it flourishes. Pornography is not a metaphor for what women are; it is what women are in theory and practice."

That the ideology of pornography — the male compulsion to degrade and contain females through a distorted notion of their sexuality — is the psychological source and discourse of the wider patriarchal ideology, is compelling. Looking at the way Sydney newspapers have dealt with violence against women over the past year, it is apparent that the same narrative techniques and stereotypes applied to women in mainstream pornography were also used by newspapers.

Women are still represented as the opposite of "masculine reason" — as objects which exhibit the characteristics of either non-consciousness, exteriority, passivity and femininity, or brute, dangerous animalism.

The objectification of women in pornography has long been seen as the theoretical expression of the physical control achieved over women by rape and assault. But news coverage is rarely interpreted as a form of pornography. This is despite the fact that newspapers, like pornographic magazines, impose the mind/body dichotomy upon female victims of violence for the same ends — women are pornographically stereotyped either to validate patriarchy or to contain the threat they pose to it.

In the Janine Balding trial, a terrible event which happened to a young woman is transformed into a fictional pornographic narrative. rape and murder never focusses upon her as an autonomous person. Instead, it presents her in terms of her relationship to her fiance or her rapists. The narrative structure relies on a juxtaposition of two points of view — Janine as a young woman whose thoughts dwell only on her fiance, versus Janine as snatched away from her fiance by aberrant "outsiders". The introductory paragraph of the story tells us, "When Janine left work ... her thoughts were full of the most important person in her life, her fiance Steven Moran".

We are told later, "Janine was looking forward to getting home; she would cook dinner for Steven". The murderers appear in this story at an important psychological moment: "While Janine planned her wedding, the two teenagers planned her death". During the Herald's "rape scene", the point of view is that of the rapists, who describe their torture of Janine in explicit detail. The reader of the newspaper comes to experience the torture and murder of Janine through the rapists' eyes, and as a consequence, Janine's objectification becomes complete.

Janine's rape and murder are, in effect, theorised through two polarised male points of view — from the traditional patriarchal perspective, which is inferred as legitimate and natural, and from the perspective of the "other", those who live outside the norms of ordinary life and pose a threat to the entrenched power structure. It is not that Janine, as an individual with rights and feelings, was raped and murdered, that is seen as shocking. What is terrible is that Janine, as a young, chaste betrothed "ideal woman", was stolen from her fiance and used sexually by rival males.

Women who fall short of the feminine ideal are given short shrift in news coverage. Eight small paragraphs tucked in the back pages record the latest rape and murder of a young woman. The circumstances appear to be similar to the Balding case, yet there is not similar moral outrage on the part of the journalist. Why? The descriptions of the victim's clothing give us a clue. She had been wearing "a black lace body suit, black miniskirt, and black shoes". These gratuitous details serve only to infer that the victim was sexually suspect, in some way to blame, and not worthy of consideration. Janine Balding, by contrast, had been attacked on her way home from a job taken "mainly because it offered its staff a good mortgage rate — like most young couples, Janine and Steven needed all the help they could get", dressed in her "green and white work uniform".

Janine Balding belongs to that rare group of women acceptable to patriarchy — women who have been attacked who were not seen to be culpable. She is appropriated in this way to represent patriarchy as a sexually unproblematic system under attack from violent forces which lie outside it.

The Fairfax and Murdoch press uphold these essential myths. Violence against women is presented as bizarre, atypical and the work of aberrant individuals who exist outside the boundaries of "normal" life. The reality of violence against women — that is, the widespread activity of ordinary men (husbands, boyfriends, fathers and sons) — who believe it is their right, and not that of aberrant individuals, to control women by force, is not presented.

Over Christmas 1990, 12 people were killed by men in mass family a. It is hard to ignore mass murders, even if they are domestic. The newspapers responded by locating the events within the realm of high drama. "Eight Murdered in Family Tragedies", announce the headlines. Men who murder families, it seems, are not like other murderers. They become associated with that troubled, problematical, yet great group of tragic men typified by Macbeth and Hamlet (both murderers, incidentally). Nowhere is it suggested that violence perpetrated by men is a widespread event.

I believe it is time to name the pornographic discourse of newspapers accurately and add it to the field of debate.
[Abridged from an article in Refractory Girl.]

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