The Staunch Test is a quick measure of whether a film or TV drama features a woman being beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered, (though the list doesn’t stop there…)
The aim of the Staunch Test is to draw attention to the way violence against women is depicted on screen – how casually, and how incredibly often. Abduction, stalking, rape and murder storylines are so common, particularly in crime series and thrillers, that audiences have become desensitised to seeing them. But popular culture can influence how women are seen and treated in real life, and the reality of violence towards women becomes both normalised and trivialised when unquestioningly served up as entertainment. What is this obsession with showing women being terrorised, stalked, abducted, tortured, sexually or physically assaulted, and killed?
Of course, men are also beaten up and killed in screen drama, but there’s a difference. In films and TV shows, women are abused and murdered because they are women. Men are never attacked or killed because they are men. Those on-screen men who assault women tend to be strangers, quite often sexy or charismatic, evil geniuses, and engaging adversaries for those intent on stopping them. In real life, sadly, women are also abused and murdered because they are women. But their real-life assailants are more likely to be men they already know, and thankfully, unlike with film and TV, serial killers are very rare.
But night after night of domestic violence or jealous partner dramas on TV wouldn’t go down well because it generally doesn’t make for such exciting stories. Nor would endless films and TV series about any other group of people repeatedly depicted as victims of violence. There would rightly be an outcry if, say, black or Asian, disabled or gay characters were continually featured as victims of violent and sexual crimes on screen because of their identity.
This constant depiction of women as victims of violence on screen (and in novels) creates a false narrative skewed in favour of fictional stereotypes, which is sub-consciously absorbed. This in itself has an inevitable impact on the way criminal justice systems worldwide fail female victims, and repeatedly excuse, forgive or overlook men’s violence to women in real life.
The basic PASS criteria for a film or TV title (that no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered) come from the Staunch Book Prize, founded in 2018 by writer Bridget Lawless in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns. The Staunch prizes award thriller novels and short fiction in which no women are beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered.
The Staunch Test can be applied to a feature film, TV single drama or series. It may be most relevant for thrillers, but female victims are used to bolster plots in other genres as well, (including comedy) with physical or sexual threat, domestic abuse, assault, terror, abduction, rape and murder all showing up as main themes or casual story components everywhere.
How does the Staunch Test work?
The Test is a tool anyone can use to note for themselves, use in teaching or discussions, or share with others, to rate whether a film or TV show contains violence to women. It’s different from traditional screen ratings – and it’s more specific. For example, if a Netflix show’s content rating includes ‘sexual violence’, it sounds pretty neutral. In fact, 99% of the time, what it means is ‘sexual violence by a man to woman’. And if that’s what it said, it would be crystal clear what that understated rating is really telling us.