Our world has come to this: I’ve actually started to judge, in part, the merit of a work on whether it includes a rape scene. What the hell, popular media? [TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of sexual violence.]
A few weeks ago, Boyfriend and I succumbed to the hype and went to see The Master. We both found it to be a little contrived and a little disappointing, though the acting was stellar. Joaquin Phoenix was convincing enough as a disturbed war veteran that every time he was alone with a woman I was terrified he was going to rape her. He plays a Grade A creeper, really. Because this is the kind of thing we talk about over supper, Boyfriend and I found ourselves lauding Joaquin Phoenix’s character for not raping anyone in between bites of potato. And yeah, we were aware of how horrible it was that one of the things we liked about the character was his tendency to not rape people. Shouldn’t this be a given? Shouldn’t we expect our protagonists to respect someone’s sexual autonomy? Yet there are plenty of characters, set up to be protagonists and therefore expected to have our support, who are rapists. And some of these characters (take Alex from A Clockwork Orange, for example) have massive followings.
I’m not ignorant of the concept of an anti-hero. I’m not unaware that there can be horribly flawed, damaged characters who do bad things who we like anyway. In fact, anti-heroes are my favorite kind because of that complexity. Dexter is a personal favorite of mine, and the man is a cold-blooded killer! The fact remains, however, that these characters are still set up as heroes. We still look up to them, or admire them, or even want to be them. And while we can argue that someone might deserve to be killed Dexter-style, it cannot be argued that someone deserves to be raped.
And so it has come to this. I feel relieved, sometimes even excited, when a character turns out to not be a rapist. The tightness in my chest I get when I’m watching a movie or a television show that comes from a fear that a character is about to be raped dissipates, I relax my body and I go back to enjoying the work. Part of that is because it makes me physically ill to see or read a depiction of rape. I become sad, upset, angry. I cry or I yell or just seethe quietly The other, much smaller part is the disappointment I get from knowing that I’m done with whatever I’m currently partaking in forever. Books are the exception , because I can skip over the passage and make it through. Boyfriend has very considerately edited the A Song of Ice and Fire series for me with a giant Sharpie so that I don’t have to even glance a rape scene. Movies and television, though? No, just no. I’ve only ever walked out of one movie, and that was because it contained a graphic, wholly unnecessary rape scene (Splice, in case you’re wondering). The implication of rape, fade-to-black style, is one thing, but the depiction is another.
There is some value to a narrow escape of assault or even an implication of assault. It adds suspense and horror. It may make you care about a character more. It may serve as characterization. I’m not arguing that there shouldn’t be any rape in any media ever. There are multiple depictions of assault across the board, and they aren’t always clear. There are shows like Law and Order: SVU that show the horror and trauma of assault (though it has been criticized for romanticizing and sexualizing assault), and then there are your average torture porn flicks that are designed only to titillate. There has recently been criticism over books that depict or feature rape, usually because it’s used as the best way to give a heroine some backstory (gross) or even worse, to punish one of those uppity ladies.
This is a complex issue, and I’m not even sure if there’s a good solution. Rape is a reality, and pretending it doesn’t exist by leaving it out of our books, television, and films doesn’t help anything. Silencing only makes things worse, and highlighting rape as a problem is a little different from romantacizing and sexualizing it. I am sure of one thing. I should not feel glad or relieved when a character doesn’t rape. This isn’t something I should have to worry about, or something I should be happy about. This whole thing, this expectation that media will include rape because it is so normalized and occurs so frequently, should not be happening. None of us deserve to live in a culture where the inclusion of rape in media is so trivial, so inconsequential, that we have to live in fear of being exposed to it.
I’m curious about whether any of you have experienced the same feelings. Are you excited when a character doesn’t rape? Are you relieved when assault isn’t depicted onscreen? I have a feeling I’m not alone here.