When considering who to vote for in this year’s BAFTAs, screenwriter Bridget Lawless faced a dilemma – in the wake of the Weinstein scandal, how could she even consider material that depicted sexual violence towards women? Fed up with seeing misogynistic violence onscreen, Lawless took a stand and abstained from voting.
Now, she’s gone one step further and has launched the Staunch Book Prize, a competition only open to thrillers in which “no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered”.
The 64-year-old writer, whose credits include The Bill and 2005 feature film Almost Heaven, said she’s starting with novels because they’re often the source material for adaptations.
Sitting in a quaint Streatham bakery aptly located next-door to a cinema, Lawless’s gaze was unwavering as she explained her determination to change the thriller novel industry.
“It’s a very mixed genre but violent and sexually violent books have really started to predominate,” she said. “I just thought, well actually, I would like to read something other than that and I’m sure lots of other people would too.”
Lawless, who is funding the £2,000 prize herself, claims the prevalence of violence towards women on-screen and in literature is having a dangerous effect on people’s real-life behaviour. “It inures people,” she said.
“If you see a lot of women constantly depicted as victims, or men as predators, it has an effect on how women are perceived and how they see themselves.
“There are very few really strong, gutsy women depicted in comparison to the number that appear as victims or dead bodies, and that’s been a problem for a long time.”
While Lawless is delighted with the feedback she has received from readers – “people are contacting me from all over the world saying that this is really great idea”, she said – some writers are not impressed.
Crime novelist Val McDermid told the Guardian it was “entirely possible to write about [violence towards women] without being exploitative or gratuitous”.
“To impose a blanket ban on any writing that deals with this seems to me to be self-defeating,” McDermid said. “As long as men commit appalling acts of misogyny and violence against women, I will write about it so that it does not go unnoticed.”
But Lawless disagrees. “I always object when people say that it’s important to show these things,” she said. “We don’t need to see it every week and read about it all the time because when it does happen to people it’s a very serious thing – it isn’t entertainment.
“Some writers say they find it empowering – some are survivors themselves. But for a lot of other people who’ve been through something like that it’s not at all empowering, it’s completely triggering. Both things are true, but they’re not universally true.”
Lawless, who has been a writer for 30 years, has spent much of her career working on educational material for schools, tackling social issues including violence and drugs, and producing films for aid agencies. She volunteers in a food kitchen in Streatham, South London, where she grew up, and enjoys working in the community in her spare time.
As a passionate and confident activist who has never been one to sit back and wait for change, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Lawless ended up at the helm of this ground-breaking prize.
But she claimed she’s far from self-righteous in her quest to change the industry. After creating the criteria for the prize, she admitted she even found herself having to re-edit one of her own novels.
“I too have fallen into all of these traps, so I’m not coming from any high moral ground here,” she said.
The fiercely independent screenwriter – who rolled her eyes when describing writers who patronisingly told her they would’ve liked to have been consulted during the creation of the prize – will be joined on the judging panel by comedian Doon Mackichan, with other judges to be announced.
The deadline for submissions is midnight on July 15 and the winner of the competition will be announced on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Lawless is confident response to the prize, which she claimed has been overwhelmingly positive, means “there’s clearly a huge demand for something else”.
“Publishers need to know that, and they need to take a bit more time to look at stories that don’t contain that sort of violence and understand that there is a readership there,” she said.
She hopes the prize will help breathe new life into the genre and put a spotlight on stories that have previously been overlooked. “There have been fantastic writers who’ve told extraordinary – and at that time ground-breaking – stories about that, but now it’s just repetitive,” Lawless said.
“We’re so used to women being the victims – fished out of rivers or found dead in the woods – that it’s just a trope, it’s just become normal that it’s always about that. It’s got in the way of other writers who are writing stuff that’s much more original.”