Note: The following article contains discussion of rape and sexual assault that some readers may find upsetting.
There's a scene in the second episode of Sky Rojo in which Moisés, one of the henchmen employed by loathsome sex-club owner Romeo, gathers the women he employs (and owns, in some cases) for questioning.
Coral, Wendy and Gina are on the run after almost murdering their boss, leaving Romeo partly paralysed and hungry for revenge.
The sex workers are lined up like cattle, their eyes wide with fear as Moisés walks before them, exposing their breasts as he goes, the camera zooming in to capture the grim display. When his tactics fail to elicit the fugitives' whereabouts, his brother and fellow henchman Christian hands him a pair of pliers and again, the camera focuses in, ensuring that the image is burned into our brains.
The pair then summon one woman and force her into a black box, despite her tears and protestations. Fast-forward eight minutes or so and they're burying her limp corpse in the desert.
And therein lies the central premise of Sky Rojo: violence against women, both sexual and physical, is an all-too-prevalent reality. And that abuse is primarily carried out by men. Tell us something we don't know. But seriously, tell us something we don't know.
It's something we've seen played out in both television and film since time immemorial, but you'd expect a little more substance in 2021. Instead, what we get here is yet more of the same: female trauma used as a stunt to entertain and titillate.
It's pure shock and awe, with zero interest in critical, smart thinking or subverting what we've long been bombarded with. There's certainly space for disposable, daft telly that doesn't seek to challenge or inform, only serving to blow the cobwebs away, but this particular narrative, teeming with gross displays of masculine hyper-dominance at the expense of its female characters, is not the forum for such material.
There are moments when the central trio temporarily outsmart their captors or experience something akin to joy (or sheer relief that they're not yet lying dead in a ditch), but that doesn't offset the show's zeal for grinding them and their counterparts down in a vast and varied manner of dehumanising ways. And those emotions are always short-lived as they are once again degraded or harmed in some way.
In the finale, the dark clouds briefly part for a split second as Coral, Wendy and Gina start "turning the story back around" after formulating a plan to dispose of Christian and Moisés. Wendy then heads to the toilet, buoyed by the promise of freedom, only for one of the punters to bundle her into a cubicle, stuff a 50-Euro note into her mouth and, well, you know the rest.
"When all this shit is over, we'll go back to that bar and we'll make sure that asshole understands that no means no, that yes means yes, and that I'm not sure, that also means no," says Gina when Wendy later confides in her.
But again, that's a conversation that could have happened without Wendy paying the price. It's yet another totally gratuitous act of sexual violence that has nothing to do with a genuine will to engage with the topic of consent and everything to do with throwing the audience another curveball.
Sky Rojo promised female empowerment: three women, on a mission to regain control of their lives after being forced to endure a catalogue of horrors, go toe-to-toe with their male hunters in a bid to rewrite their stories. But its execution betrays that entirely.
The series, trapped within the male gaze, has far too much fun punishing its female characters. And while there are multiple men who suffer grisly fates, such as one who is dissolved in a vat of acid, the female suffering is primarily rooted in sexual exploitation. They are repeatedly violated, their sense of selves entirely upended, and the show is happy to dole that out time and time again.
You do feel that if it's given the greenlight to continue beyond the first season, Coral, Wendy and Gina will somehow reach the promised land, whatever that may be for them. But that would still not be reward enough given the boggy trenches they have been forced to crawl through, and will continue to face to make it there.
Rape Crisis England and Wales works towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct. If you’ve been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland’s helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.
Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.
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