In the evenings, after the storytime ritual was over and our son had gone to sleep, I would be faced with the choice between relaxing on the couch and grading student papers before class the next day. But no sooner had I settled down with a cup of tea and a sigh, than it would begin: the screaming women.
When I was first introduced to television in England as a child of nine, the government was very strict about what could be shown on television during the daytime, when children might be awake and watching. Children’s programs were aired in the morning and afternoon, then the news, documentaries, and family programming—soap operas, comedies, music and game shows. It wasn’t until after 9 pm that adult programs were screened, including dramas, thrillers, mysteries, and anything with violent content. Even so, back in the 1960s the British rules governing TV violence were restrictive. Compared to U.S. standards British television was permissive about sexual content but much less so about violence. All that has changed now, of course; as much as I admire Helen Mirren, I had to avert my eyes again and again throughout the long-running crime series, Prime Suspect (1992-2006), and after just one episode I can see that it’s going to be more of the same with the new mini-series, The Bletchley Circle.
In the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s the television networks were encouraged to self-regulate when it came to shows with graphically violent content, reserving the time-slot of 8-9 pm Eastern Standard Time for “family viewing.” But after 9 pm, violent programs would crowd the line-up on every channel without fail, and it only got worse in the 1990s. I’m not just talking about Miss Marple whodunits in which one family member after the other is poisoned in a stately home or Westerns with to-the-death shoot-outs in front of the saloon; these were films about sadists, psychopaths, and serial killers who invariably targetted women, predictably barmaids and prostitutes. Not content with one killing, it seemed, there had to be a sickening succession of them, each one more grisly than the last.
So the nightly onset of this programming would be signaled by the screams of members of my own sex. There was no way I could relax when one of those screams rent the air and my heart, and threatened to wake the baby to boot. The “screaming women,” our shorthand for that perverted category of entertainment, were my signal to gather up my papers and retire to the study. It was positively soothing to grade error-riddled student essays when the alternative was bullet-riddled women’s bodies.
Nowadays, with hundreds of cable and satellite TV channels to choose among, one doesn’t have to wait until 9 pm; guaranteed, one can find a screaming woman on air at any time of day or night. Now that’s progress.