Take Back the Screen

Sarah Seltzer

In order to raise awareness of sexual assault, we have to look at the images of violent sexuality embedded in our popular visual culture, images that trivialize and misrepresent reality.

This month, college students across the country gather for marches, candlelight vigils and concerts in honor of Take Back the Night. They will share their own stories and speak out against unfair school and community sexual assault policies. They will express themselves in the strong terms the issue deserves: no means no, rape is never acceptable. And their voices are not alone: these activists are joining the chorus of brave women who are fighting to raise awareness of sexual assault in the military and the filmmakers who are shining a spotlight on the atrocities, including sexual violence, being committed against women in Darfur.

It's a powerful month for the movement, but I always haves to sigh over the "awareness" part. We shouldn't have to be raising awareness, but we always are. The problem is obviously a multifaceted one, but it stems from widespread misogyny. Our cultural arbiters have an inability to accept acquaintance rape as part of the problem of rape, which it is. And the media has an unwillingness to pay attention when the victims of stranger rape or conflict-zone rape are anyone but white and middle-class.

Part of the tide we have to swim against in order to raise awareness is embedded in our popular visual culture, and the images of sexual assault and violent sexuality it produces, images that trivialize and misrepresent the truth about sexual assault. When we watch scenes of rape and attempted rape, we often tend to see the moment of the assault itself, in a highly titillating, artsy context, the same way an edgy scene of consensual sex would be filmed. Sometimes, we see rape as a mere symbol of who has the power dynamic at a particular moment-when a man holds the woman, he holds the cards, so to speak. And in most cases, movies and television rarely show the deeply traumatic aspect of rape, the unpleasant flashbacks, nightmares, physical repulsion that women feel, save for a few token tears or a gun-toting revenge plot. It's this "rape culture" that makes it hard to raise our voices without having to raise awareness first.

One of the biggest problems with the way rape is portrayed in pop culture is as a glamorous product of male desire-as tiny step beyond the seduction and manipulation we love on soap-opera plots. One culprit in recent years has been rich-kids-drama Gossip Girl. Its first few episodes drew criticism on the internet for interspersing and blurring scenes of attempted date rape and consensual sex, and for featuring a serial date-rapist as a standard-issue sneering villain without addressing the trauma his attempted victims would be going through.

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Another problem with the way rape is portrayed, particularly in action movies, is as a stand-in for a power-struggle. In The 300, the rape of the queen of Sparta is all about the competition between two men over the throne. In Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, the Sheriff of Nottingham's abduction of Marian is a stand-in for his rivalry with Robin.

And finally, there's a widespread ignorance of the trauma of attempted assault. Over and over, women are victims of assault or attempted assault, they are rescued by a male protagonist, and then they invariably engage in some nooky with the hero-Mary Jane's famous upside-down smooch with Spiderman occurred after an attempted assault, for instance. Chances are in real life these women would be heading to a police station, a hospital, or the bathroom to throw up, not towards a makeout session.

These are just a few of the myths about rape perpetuated in pop culture. But with all the "bad" scenes I've witnessed, only two accurate and thoughtful portrayals of assault come to my mind, and both are therefore pretty painful. One is in the recent Romanian film, Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days. I already discussed its depiction of abortion, but it also showed rape in an entirely accurate light as well. The kind of rape involved in the film isn't violent rape, but rape as abuse of power. We only see the protagonist taking her shoes and socks off. Then the camera moves to her friend sitting in the bathroom, knowing what is happening, knowing her turn is next. After it is over, the victim runs into the bathroom, naked from the waist down, and turns the shower on herself with such grim ferocity that it's viscerally sickening for the audience. There is absolutely nothing sexual about this scene, no gorgeous shots of female torsos, no unbridled lust. It shows rape as what it is: an exercise in power, domination, and cruelty.

Another scene I recall was from corset and cleavage period drama The Buccaneers, broadcast on PBS over a decade ago (It's an adaptation of an Edith Wharton novel, and Wharton understood the oppression of women). The rape occurs within a loveless marriage of convenience, and the director takes time to zoom in the shock and horror on the victim's face, not to mention highlighting her physical pain. It also focuses on the violence and rage of the perpetrator rather than the body of the victim. Just to make it extra clear, the camera, and the victim's gaze, turn to a soft painting of lovers on the ceiling, contrasting its image of sensuality with the violence taking place beneath it.

The problem of course, is that both of these scenes are intensely disturbing and also realistic, and most directors must think public probably doesn't want to be confronted with such images. But it's cyclical-if media depicted rape more honestly, it could help combat rape mythology. And if movie and television directors are unafraid to show more and more disturbingly honest images of violence (look at the Academy Award winners in the past two years), we can lobby them to make rape realistic, or not include it at all.

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