It’s Come to This: Movies, Television, and Rape

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 Wall with graffiti reading "No more rape culture"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.

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

8 replies on “It’s Come to This: Movies, Television, and Rape”

ugh my feelings about rape in movies/TV are so complicated. The existence of rape in a storyline isn’t necessarily triggering for me. What affects me most are the way that rape is portrayed- how graphic or detailed the assault is on screen, how it fits into the story and character development, and how the characters in whatever it is I’m watching react to the rape or interact with the survivor afterwards. Even if it’s a fade-to-black implied rape, a movie/TV show can still be really triggering for me if treatment of the survivor by the writers or other characters is particularly victim blame-y.

idk how to do spoiler alerts, but there’s a spoiler for Mad Men below vvv

(((Joan’s assault in Mad Men was really difficult for me to watch, even though it wasn’t graphic at all because of the way it was shot. There were like 5 seconds where it was shot from her perspective and it almost too much for me to handle because it was similar to my own. That simple piece of direction was powerful, as it was meant to be for the audience, but for me it was really triggering.)))

Basically, for me it is triggering when the depiction of rape and its context are realistic, but I can still respect the movie/TV show for including it if it is done respectfully. If the rape is romanticized or sexualized, it’s a triple threat of feeling angry, triggered, and hurt.

There’s a very real reason why I have chosen not to watch any of the movies made from Stieg Larsson’s “Millenium Trilogy.” I had a very difficult time reading through several scenes in those books, and although I understand why the author used those scenes–one of his main purposes in the series was to show rampant misogyny in society–I know I can’t handle seeing it in a film. I had to skim those scenes in the books, and I know I’d be physically ill if I were to see the scenes acted out.

[More TW for discussion of sexual violence]

I know I’m relieved when a scene that looked like it might become a rape scene doesn’t end up with a rape. For instance, the BF and I started watching Season 1 of Downtown Abbey for the first time a few days ago. I’m going to spoiler this just in case:

[spoiler]We’re about halfway through, and I got fucking TENSE on behalf of Mary. The Turkish ambassador had sent me creepy vibes from the get-go…so when he starts coercing her, I just felt sick. I reaaally wanted her to just punch him in the face and scream or something, and I hate that this is eating her alive.[/spoiler]

But I have a really hard time watching sexual assault on-screen. It can be very triggering for me, depending on how graphic it gets. Honestly, I can’t recall one TV show or movie in which I thought showing an actual rape was necessary.

I am a bit more tolerant of it in books. But I think, in some ways, it again has to do with how much is implied. If a book decides to describe a rape in perfect detail, more often than not I will be horrified and disgusted with the book as a whole. But, I think, in a book it is easier to describe the scene and get the horror of the act itself across while showing less of the scene.

Maybe I’m wrong about that though, and film directors just need to stop being so needlessly graphic with it.

I have mixed feelings about that scene in DA. I’m relieved nothing seemed to have happened to Mary, but at the same time, I think the scene had a purpose in showing the different attitudes society had toward men and women when it came to sex, even nonconsensual sex and rape. If they had actually been caught together, they would no doubt have been forced to marry to save Mary’s reputation, which makes me wonder whether or not Pamuk was some kind of fortune hunter who was trying to set up a situation to begin with.

I don’t know that I’m necessarily relieved when a character doesn’t rape, but I’ve definitely become more hyper aware of when it’s happening, and what the context is. I know you’re talking movies and TV, but the best example that springs to my mind is the crap-fest “50 Shades of Grey.” As I read it, I kept wishing I had a red flag I could throw in the air every time the two of them interacted. I walked away from the books shaking my head, worrying that my friend (who conned me into reading it) thought this was a healthy relationship. However, maybe 3-5 years ago (pre-Persephone, pre-goodJezebel), I wouldn’t have bat an eyelash at the power dynamics at play, and how that could be considered an abusive relationship, or even known what rape culture is.

I think that as more women and men become educated about rape culture and the damage it does to our society, the more we can “vote with our dollars” as they say, and hopefully see it dwindle. You’re definitely right that there is a place for it, if it creates the right conversation, but to glamorize it is just sick.

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