This past weekend, I saw two great films, and I witnessed two quick rape scenarios in a row. “I saw it in the movies” as they say. How can these incredible script writers, who managed to write such wonderful stories, be so off-point when it comes to rape?
Hollywood positions Jane Russell between the lines of sex and violence for us more than half a century ago.
First, I watched Lawless, which showed the onset of a rape. Of course, I was saddened, thinking of the many rape victims and survivors, my own past trauma, but also, mainly, I worried about the viewers that love Hollywood and have also never experienced being raped before. Is Hollywood’s illustrations of rape the only depiction of rape these viewers have been exposed to? Does Hollywood provide them with their definition of rape?
The next day we went to the movies to see Birdman, which was phenomenal. I could spend days analyzing themes, symbols, plot, character, camera angles, imagery etc. But…in the midst of my what-should-be-a-fun experience, another onrush of rape was played out. Two movies in a row. Think about it. Two movies. One weekend. Two movies in a row that made me think of rape.
Interestingly, what freaks me out most about the two scenes isn’t any visuals of gory sexual violence and suffering, but the opposite. Let me explain the two scenes briefly so you can get an idea. I’ll call them scene 1. (Lawless scene) and scene 2. (Birdman scene). I won’t give away any details on the movies’ storylines in case you plan to watch them (like I said, they’re actually pretty good).
In scene 1, the female character (played by Interstellar star, Jessica Chastain) finds herself in a saloon alone with two greasy cowboys. She is cornered in the saloon by their guns and intentions. One greaseball grabs her from behind, moans something about “Oh yeah,” while creeping his dirty hand into her blouse. Viewers know she is raped from witnessing the setup and seeing the female character planning to leave town to “get away from guys like this.”
In scene 2, a female character finds herself trapped under white sheets on a Broadway stage with her co-star. He suggests that they literally “f#ck” instead of act like they are to give the audience a more “real” experience. For about half a second, it’s funny. You think, “what a joker.” However, his suggestions turn into insists. She declares, “no,” “stop it,” and “get off me.” It’s only when he is literally about to penetrate (maybe he has for all we know!) that she (played by the talented Naomi Watts) uses all her might, grunting, and with a big puff and flexed armed says, “get off me.”
I was scared. What I saw was a rape about to happen. A man in the theater next to me laughed. It was his laughter that scared me even more than the scene. Was he not aware that this was a threatening situation for the female character? Did he not realize that the line had been crossed? How many other people can’t see this line which is so obviously there?
Once the character in scene 2. is free from the stage and able to vent, she keeps saying, “he tried to f#ck me on stage!” over and over. Another female character responds, “That’s actually kind of hot.” I can tell you from experience that this person/character was not trying to f*ck her, he was trying to rape her. There’s a big difference– someone trying to have sex with another person may attempt to seduce, flirt, bargain etc. He/she may get what they’re hoping for or not. In rape or attempt at rape there’s no “hoping” for an outcome; the outcome is already determined by the perpetrator regardless of the other person’s will.
So, she wasn’t actually raped. What’s the big deal then? I mean she did push him off. It was hilarious. The guy is obviously a douche bag. Obviously. And what about the girl in the saloon? She seemed to recover well. She should just leave town,unless she wants to be raped again. I envision so many viewers challenging me with these reactions. Fine. Ok, maybe it isn’t a big deal.
But it’s also not a big deal to change one word in a script, to refer to what happens in the films as “rape.” It’s one word. It’s accurate. It’s brings about even more tension in viewers (which is the purpose of a rape scene anyway right?). Call it out for what it is. Help men and women comprehend what “no,” “stop it,” and “get off me” means. I understand it’s a movie. I understand writers want to demonstrate horror or “douche bagness,” but as a writer myself, I also know that being too ideal, unrealistic and cliché are basic traits of bad writing. But these writers are not bad writers. They are talented and smart. However, why do they illustrate the highly dramatic scenes of rape so poorly with little to no dynamics?
The truth is women can’t just pack up their bags and leave town when someone rapes them. They have to keep living, going to work, supporting families, creating homes, careers, paying rent in the same town they were raped in, many times continuing to encounter their rapists regularly. It’s unrealistic that a woman’s plan is to regally and graciously leave town with her hair nicely done. She more likely would react by puking, getting wasted in her bed, shutting off her phone, pulling down the drapes, hating herself on so many levels, looking like shit, feeling dirty, wishing she was dead. The truth is women can’t just “go on with the show” as the female character so gracefully does in Birdman after literally being assaulted with an attempt at rape. The Rape Crisis Centre explains a victim’s behavior right after the trauma occurs, “Immediately after a rape, survivors often experience shock: they are likely to feel cold, faint, become mentally confused (disoriented), tremble, feel nauseous and sometimes vomit.”
The truth is rape or nearly getting raped is absolutely terrifying. It’s crippling. It’s like getting shot, but without the bullet hole to show for it and without a story people want to hear. You can recover from getting shot, but you need time, people’s patience and the right care. Even then, once you’re physically recovered, you have that scar in place. You probably have PTSD. You probably get startled every time someone walks into a room or turns a corner or pops open a bottle of champagne.
I love movies. I love these two movies, but they let viewers down by idealizing the outcomes of rape and portraying a fantastical post-trauma-stability. I wish rape scenes were called what they are. I wish rape scenes were not used as dramatic effects or character development tools. I wish rape scenes could help us understand sexual strategies, illustrate what human rights are, what a violation of human rights does, what language like “get off me” means. I wish rape scenes could show us that rape isn’t just getting fucked.
Suggested further reading:
The Good Men Project’s When’s The Right Time To Stop Mid (Consensual) Sex? Any Time Your Partner Says “Stop”