Last night my husband and I decided we’d settle in for a movie, and I picked out Secret in Their Eyes because I’d heard it was a good mystery. I didn’t know much about the story, and vaguely remembered seeing a preview, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Within the first five minutes, the movie depicted intense flashbacks of a young woman being raped and murdered. We made it about halfway through the movie before deciding to turn it off.
Now, to be fair, I hadn’t researched the movie extensively. I’d looked up a brief synopsis which described the plotline but didn’t make any mention of rape. However, I feel like it’s becoming easier and easier to stumble across rape scenes in movies and television shows. I don’t watch a lot of movies, maybe one every week or two, and I keep coming across these brutal images and stories inadvertently. As someone who is struggling with overcoming the after effects of rape, I find it ridiculous how often this topic is cheaply and carelessly tossed into a movie for emotional manipulation.
Rape is, sadly, a part of life for many people. After all, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men has experienced attempted or complete rape. And this doesn’t even include other insidious forms of sexual abuse that aren’t classified as ‘rape’. The thing that bothers me isn’t that movies talk about rape, what bothers me is that they’re selling the horror of rape for an emotional reaction.
The movie makers want us to be fired up about what’s happened to their victim – they want us to seethe with anger at the person who committed this crime on-screen. They want to shock us and horrify us the way a horror movie shocks and horrifies us. The difference is, that they’re not selling made-up demons and monsters, they’re selling the trauma and suffering of millions of real people. And they’re not doing it to help anyone, they’re doing it to manipulate us and make more money. Many of the movies that focus on rape use it as a form of “torture porn” – a catalyst created for the character to seek unabashed violence and revenge (think Kill Bill), or for a male counterpart to seek violence and revenge on behalf of the hopeless female victim.
Rape for Laughs
Rape has even been used as a source of comedy in movies like Horrible Bosses and Horrible Bosses 2 where a man is raped and consistently sexually demeaned by his boss, and it’s meant to be funny. If Dale in Horrible Bosses had been a female and Jennifer Aniston’s character had been a male, I doubt anyone would have been laughing. But nobody should have been laughing either way. Horrible Bosses gave us a sad look at how seriously we don’t take male rape and sexual abuse. In the context of the movie, male sexual abuse is just another punchline, another joke to laugh at.
I remember being a teenager and watching The Evil Dead with my friends. They all laughed during a particular scene where a woman is being ‘raped’ by a tree. I sat there between my friends on a couch, feeling disgusted and appalled. Call me uptight, but when you’ve actually dealt with sexual abuse and rape in your life, and you’re working hard at becoming ‘normal’ again, having it shoved in your face in such a garish way seems like a slap in the face. Rape should never be a joke. We need to stop considering it fodder for thoughtless humor, horror movies, or even titillating scenes in mysteries/dramas, etc,..
Rape Brings in More Viewers
Rape is the new way of making a movie “edgy” more “mature” and more “shocking”. Not sure how to make a female character more sympathetic to the audience? Throw in a flashback about her rape! That will solve everything. This has been done in numerous movies and TV shows like Game of Thrones, Scandal, Outlander and countless others. Many people think this is harmless – some even praise it as bringing attention to the problem of rape – but it’s not hard to see that the sensationalized, melodramatic nature of what is shown in most movies that feature rape is just another way to sell the story, sell the characters, and sell your emotions.
Roxane Gay wrote an article called The Careless Language of Sexual Violence. In it she talked about how rape has been used in numerous TV shows as a way to increase ratings. Private Practice, on ABC, incorporated a rape storyline just as February sweeps were beginning. Soap operas consistently write in a rape storyline during sweeps season. Lifetime movies, crime dramas, TV mysteries all frequently bring us images and stories of graphic, despicable sex crimes. Over time this has effectively deadened us to the true horror and serious nature of rape itself. These shows bring up a topic to hook in audiences, to get more viewers, and afterwards they neatly sweep it under the rug and move on. This is not real life.
Rape for Entertainment’s Sake Diminishes the Actual Suffering of Rape Survivors
Real life recovery from rape involves years of struggling with PTSD, anxiety, fear, feelings of worthlessness and shame. The aftermath of rape doesn’t end after ‘season 1’ of your life is over. In real life, the effects and horror of rape can last an entire lifetime. In real life, we’re scared to discuss rape and sexual abuse – people don’t want to hear about that! It’s not pleasant. Yet, we have no problem turning on our TVs and watching it and being entertained by it. We even feel a sense of dignity in the sense that we would never do these things, and that we feel such horror over these events. It makes us feel like we’re better people, when really, we just allowed ourselves to be entertained by someone else’s trauma. We’ve effectively become voyeuristic about sex crime – yet we’re scared to talk to the actual survivors of rape because it’s not a ‘nice’ topic of conversation.
These movies and shows that use rape as a selling point do an incredible disservice to rape victims and trauma survivors all over the world. A thoughtful, non-sensationalized perspective on rape and its effects would be welcome, and there are several movies that have given us this (Room, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). Rape for the mere effect of creating horror for horror’s sake, or for creating an emotional reaction that ties us to a story feels cheap, insensitive, and careless. I’ve gotten to the point where I’m scared to watch a movie because I don’t know when Hollywood is going to cram another rape scene into the movie for viewer sympathy and the trigger will cause me to have flashbacks and fear related to my own rapes.
Laura Hudson at Wired.com put it well in her article Rape Scenes Aren’t Just Awful. They’re Lazy Writing.
“Half the time, people can’t even seem to figure out how to define rape, let alone portray it in responsible ways. Indeed, one of the most baffling things about so many rape scenes in popular culture is that the people who scripted them felt qualified to do so, despite seemingly knowing nothing about rape except that it exists and it is bad. In short, anyone can write a rape scene—but should they? Chances are, the answer is no.”
I Think You’re Overreacting – It’s Just a Movie!
Chances are, you know someone who has been sexually abused in your life – and chances are they don’t want to be faced with their past traumas when they turn on the TV. And if you’ve never been sexually abused, then you really don’t know what it’s like and how these movies and TV shows can affect those of us who have. I’m not trying to wallow in self-pity here – I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. 99% of the time I feel cheated when I come across a rape storyline in a movie or TV show. I feel like my experience and the experience of countless other survivors, has been turned into a form of entertainment. Again, certain movies have covered the topic of rape with respect and realism, but sadly these movies are few and far between.
If Hollywood really wants to tell a compassionate story about rape survivors, if they want to make a difference or help prevent sexual abuse with their story, that’s great! If they want to drop in a rape sub-plot just to garner more viewers, generate more horror, or gather more attention then that’s where the problem lies. As a long-term rape survivor myself, I have to be careful with what I watch – and I’ve come to the conclusion that books are a better use of my time. I’ve spent some long nights trapped in my own memories and my PTSD because of careless rape scenes in movies. I simply think it’s time we stopped buying and selling sex crimes for entertainment. The only exception to this is if the movie you’re watching really has a goal of reaching out to, and understanding, rape victims and helping them in some constructive way.
The Movies That Did It Right
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series was written by Stieg Larsson, a champion of women’s right and a crusader against sex trafficking. One of the main goals of his series was to address the rampant sex trafficking in Sweden and the experience of women who have been abused by trafficking, incest, and sexual violence. The movies deal with horrific rapes and sex crimes, but there was no way to tell the story and show the experience of rape victims without depicting and talking about rape. The makers of Dragon Tattoo even partnered with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) to use the movie to help women in rape crisis centers around the country. Many rape survivors, including me, found the movie to be helpful and even therapeutic in the way it compassionately and without pretense addressed the experience of survivors of sex crimes. It’s not a movie for everyone, especially younger viewers, but for sex abuse survivors or people who know them or want to understand them better, the movies and books can shine some light into the lives of women who are raped, trafficked, or abused.
Room, which came out late last year, talked about rape and abduction and the after effects of these experiences – depression, PTSD, and healing. Both these movies had something to say about rape that needed to be heard, something that was compassionate and broadened our understanding of the problem. They didn’t throw rape in to make us feel an emotional reaction, and they didn’t do it in a sensationalized way, but they put it in because it was a central part of the story. Room is one of the only movies I’ve seen that realistically portrays the natural healing process of long-term rape and sexual abuse. However, the Dragon Tattoo series and Room are the only two movies I can think of that have ever addressed rape in a respectful, constructive way. These movies are the exceptions, but the majority of movies and TV shows that feature rape do so in a way that’s completely careless, uninformed, and manipulative.
What Can We Do to Stop It?
I don’t know. I wish I had an answer to this question. I think if more people did something to help sex abuse victims and spent less time watching sex abuse on TV it would make a huge difference in our world. If we could all stop watching TV shows and movies that are trying to sell rape storylines just for the horror, just for the viewers, just to garner sympathy and emotionally manipulate us I think we’d have a lot more respectful conversations and stories about the subject. I know helping out at a women’s shelter or finding a way to practically help isn’t as relaxing or entertaining as hanging out on the couch watching a crime drama, but it would definitely make an impact. We need to stop accepting these graphic, Hollywood rape scenes as commonplace and we need to be more open to addressing the issue in real life and trying to make a difference there.
I’ll get off my soapbox now. If you have any thoughts, feel free to let me know in the comments!