Hollywood’s Awards Season Fascination with Rape and Sexual Abuse

by Winnie M Li 

Content warning: includes references to rape and sexual abuse

A few months ago at the Golden Globes, Isabelle Huppert won a Golden Globe for playing a
globerape survivor, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson won for playing a rapist-murderer.
While subsequent awards shows haven’t panned out the same way, both actors continue to be lauded for their performances, and Huppert heads into the Oscars this weekend as one of five illustrious Best Actress nominees.  Does Hollywood generate ‘awards-worthy’ drama from narratives about rape? Yes. But what do these narratives actually say about the lived experience that so many survivors undergo?

As a rape survivor, activist, and former film producer (my own rape took place the day before the red carpet premiere of one of my films), I am well aware of the problematic way in which the movies portray sexual assault and abuse.

Last year’s Oscars perhaps can be seen as a high-water mark for a visibly brielarsonsensitive awareness of the issue.  Brie Larson won Best Actress for portraying a rape and kidnapping survivor in Room, Spotlight won Best Picture for its story of journalists uncovering child sexual abuse within the Catholic church, and Lady Gaga performed her nominated song ‘Till It Happens to You,’ as a group of campus sexual assault survivors walked on stage, hand in hand.

It’s important to point out, all of last year’s films and performances highlighted the importance of the survivor in the story, unlike many of this year’s Oscar-nominated films. It’s also important to note, this year’s crop of rape-centric pictures are all written and directed by men. Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals has been roundly criticised for his male-centred approach to sexual violence: when Jake Gyllenhaal’s wife and daughter are abducted by a gang of red-necks on a dark country road, the emphasis is on his pain and suffering.  The emotional tension focuses on his challenged sense of masculinity, especially when he seeks revenge on Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s taunting, macho rapist. Meanwhile, the real victims — the women — are conveniently elided out of the picture, only to appear later (spoiler alert) as a pair of nude, lifeless, yet artfully arranged bodies. All of this is a reductionist vision of sexual violence as a male way of insulting other men, by way of raping and murdering their women.  We’ve seen this in Cape Fear, Titus Andronicus, The Bible, and, sigh, many many other narratives.

elle-2016-filmplakat-rcm236x336uIn contrast, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle features a mesmerising central performance by Isabelle Huppert, as Michele, an inscrutable, high-powered career woman who is violently raped by an intruder in the opening scene of the film.  Ostensibly, this is a survivor-centric narrative, which some have lauded as feminist and clearly impressed enough to earn Huppert the Golden Globe.  Only she doesn’t behave like any rape survivor I’ve ever encountered in my work in the field.  By this, I don’t mean her decision not to report it to the police or her insistence on continuing with her professional work (which many survivors have done).  It is the distinctive lack of being diminished psychologically by her rape: within days of the assault, she is attempting to track down her rapist. And then, most preposterously, she develops sexual fantasies fuelled by her memory of the rape.  This more than anything is insulting to actual survivors, for whom memories of their trauma continue to invade and obstruct their capacity to enjoy life. Elle not only underplays the detrimental impact of rape on a victim, but it also presents a completely unrealistic portrait of how one would behave in the wake of an assault.  Huppert herself admits the film is a fantasy, but how many viewers are aware of that while they are being entertained?  And what is the potential damage of deluding the public understanding of an already misunderstood experience?

So, to summarise the message of these two admittedly suspenseful and entertaining films, rape victims either end up: a) dead (but artfully arranged), or b) sexually deviant and emotionally heartless.

One Oscar-nominated film which does get it right is The Salesman by acclaimed Iranian Salesmanfilmmaker Asghar Farhadi, currently up for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar (he previously won that award for the masterful A Separation).  Spoiler alert: Rana accidentally lets a strange man into their new apartment, thinking it’s her husband Emad. An assault takes place off screen. What’s so ingenious about the film is that it implies what happened, without ever explicitly showing or stating it — and then proceeds to explore the strains on their marriage and community. Rana doesn’t want to talk about it, but also doesn’t want to be left alone at home.  Emad tells her to pull herself together (something many victims are used to hearing) and searches for his wife’s assailant. In an echo of Nocturnal Animals, the film shows post-rape revenge as a specifically male hang-up, but it’s Emad’s inability to really understand his wife’s situation and engage with her which causes the real damage.  In this sense, Farhadi’s observations are realistically drawn from the lived experience and all the more devastating.

74th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Press RoomWhile Sunday night will reveal how these films fare at the Oscars, I’d like to ask a further question: Can the film industry move beyond using rape narratives to fuel prestige pictures, those earnest awards-contenders which roll out at the same time each year — to embedding an awareness of sexual assault and harassment in its everyday practice?  This comes at a time when the broader issue has reared its head in other behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories.  Casey Affleck (currently tipped to win Best Actor) has been sued for sexual harassment by two former female colleagues. The awards prospects for prestige picture Birth of a Nation vanished, once the story emerged of writer-director-star Nate Parker’s previous charge of sexual assault. And of course, there’s the Last Tango in Paris controversy, when it was revealed that in 1972, Oscar-winning director Bernardo Bertolucci  and Marlon Brando subjected the 19-year-old actress Maria Schneider to a nonconsensual, staged assault, so as to achieve a more realistic performance from her in the film’s infamous ‘butter rape scene.’ Clearly, Schneider’s well-being was seen as secondary to achieving the best art.  In short, when considering which films to praise, shouldn’t we also start evaluating the practice and behaviour of the filmmakers — the process by which a film is made, as much as the product of the film itself?

Greater gender equality in the film industry would undoubtedly lead to more nuanced film narratives and filmmaking practices.  Audiences look to the stories we see on screen to spark our own discussions and connect to our real-life experiences.  If these narratives — and the way in which they are produced — do not acknowledge the reality of gender-based violence and aggression, then we need to start holding institutions like Hollywood to account.  How we do that is another question.  But for now, we can start by thinking critically about the narratives around sexual violence which are fed to us each awards season.

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Winnie M Li is an award-winning writer, activist, and filmmaker.  Her debut novel, DARK winnie-cwa-publicityCHAPTER, will be published worldwide in 2017. She is Co-Founder of the Clear Lines Festival, the UK’s first-ever festival addressing sexual assault and consent through the arts and discussion. A Harvard graduate, Winnie has written on the topic across a variety of formats. Through her PhD research at the London School of Economics, she is exploring the impact of social media on the public dialogue about rape and recovery.  Previously, she worked as a producer on six independent feature films. Follow her on @winniemli or visit http://winniemli.com

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1 reply

  1. Well done, I could not agree more. Long have I thought it was a double-edged sword dealing with this subject of rape and sexual abuse. On the one hand we are supposed to be knee-jerk-grateful that anything is being said about rape, especially in light of the proliferation of rape acceptance at Universities and other settings, let alone in other countries. On the other hand, there is a disquieting feeling when you see rape ‘represented’ on screen. As you point out, often this is the male-perspective, moreover it is titilating and not fully fleshed out. How often have we seen what would stand as a true testament to the entire experience? Some may say, this simply is not possible in film, but I disagree, film can explore many subjects, we simply need to quit thinking rape is sex and sex can be rape and we need to stop making it ‘beautiful’ on screen. Equally, putting a splash of blood here and there, does nothing to uncover the true narrative. It takes understanding. Until someone understands, any attempt will be superficial at best. I also think it comes down to what’s ‘in’ fashion and the idea of rape being in fashion is sickening. I recall watching some old films with Clint Eastwood where he actually rapes women and thinking that’s ‘just’ how it was with sex, the two blurring together. Maybe we can argue, some men have such blurred notions, but it’s even worse than that, some men and women are liable to judge others just because they feel being raped is a weakness, or inherently something a woman wants. As long as films like Last Tango in Paris exist, and Nine and a Half Weeks, can we be surprised? But those are ‘old’ comparatively, we have come far, or have we? I think your article answers that question and locates what we need to do to change this even more. For those women who feel rape is talked about too much and should be less visible, I say, no, it’s time we talked sensibly and did not make an art form out of rape but rather, a dialogue that changes any acceptance our society has for it. Thank you for posting this.

    Like

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