Heather D. Flowe, PhD
New wave of storytellers changing how rape is portrayed on screen
A version of this blog first appeared in The Independent on 20 December 2020.
Promising Young Woman, the debut film of Emerald Fennell (former Killing Eve showrunner), is causing quite the stir in the US ahead of its Christmas Day release.
Carey Mulligan stars as a woman in pursuit of vengeance following the rape (and later suicide) of her best friend in what has been described as a ‘game-changing’ thriller for the #MeToo era. Reviewers at Sundance Film Festival, where it played earlier this year, praised its bravery in making rape, and more specifically rape culture, the story. It tackles ideas about toxic masculinity, the normalisation of sexual assault, disbelieving authorities, and an unscrupulous and unhelpful legal system.
Those of us in the UK will have to wait until February to pass comment on the film and its story, but it will no doubt be interesting to see if, and how, it progresses how rape and sexual violence is depicted on screen.
Popular culture can provide something of a mirror to society, starting important conversations and challenging entrenched norms. That is particularly true for stories centred on rape and sexual violence. But the relationship between cinema and TV and rape is complicated, to say the least.
The John Hughes films of the 1980s present sexual assault as a humorous plot device, reflective of the ‘brush it off’ culture that persists in some places to this day. Nowhere is this more notable than in Sixteen Candles, one of his most popular films. Constance Grady penned an interesting comparison between the date-rape scene and the defense presented by Brett Kavanaugh in the high-profile 2018 case.
Though we might be moving away from such flippant references to sexual violence, we do still see rape being used as a repellent, exploitative device.
One of the most talked about TV series this century, Game of Thrones, was widely criticised for its tendency for ‘sexposition’, using gratuitous sex scenes to titillate or shock. This came to the fore with a notorious rape scene that its defenders suggested was crucial to establish the true horror of the attacker (who had already tortured someone, and fed someone to dogs).
This was, perhaps, provocation for provocation’s sake, and that is so often the way that rape is portrayed.
The likes of Roman Polanski and Lars von Trier have made a number of films in which sexual violence against women is used as a plot point – but so little time is devoted to the long-lasting impact and trauma, specifically the psychological consequences, of this violation. 1988’s The Accused would be a notable exception to this.
Tom Ford’s 2016 thriller, Nocturnal Animals, features a rape of a mother and daughter early in the story, but the focus is then switched to the consequential experiences of the male characters, exploring ideas of damaged pride and masculinity.
There is also a tendency towards a very homogenous representation of rape, victims are predominantly young, white women and attacks disproportionately involve violence, weapons, physical injury or multiple attackers.
That is not to say that such stories should never be told. But it is telling that so many high-profile films that feature rape are so heavily blurred by the male gaze and, as such, dismissive of the lived realities of sexual violation.
Now, there are those who have written wonderfully and extensively on the troubled relationship between Hollywood and rape - Angelica Jade Bastién’s article in Vulture for one – so I will focus less on the interpretation of the offence itself, but on the way in which stories address the long shadow of sexual assault.
Documentaries present an interesting space for this. Roll Red Roll, based on the Steubenville High School rape case, is a well-made investigation. What is striking, though, is how eerily familiar it feels to any number of true crime documentaries (which have become more and more popular with viewers) in its construction and delivery.
These documentaries often zero in on the extremes of crime – extremely horrific incidents, cases with extreme cases of judicial failings, or extremely high-profile victims or perpetrators. They unravel like an Agatha Christie novel, giving us breadcrumbs of pieced-together evidence, with the aim to shock us.
Roll Red Roll should be more shocking. That the local community shamed the victim and blamed her for portraying the town in a bad light should be shocking. That the perpetrators were treated more sympathetically by the media than the victim, that the superintendent of local schools obstructed the investigation, that the perpetrators were bragging about the assault on social media – these things should all shock and appall us. But we stopped being shocked a long time ago.
In the UK, only 15% of sexual violence cases are reported to the police, and only 7.5% of rape charges result in conviction. It is a similar story in the US and elsewhere.
We are conditioned to expect rape and sexual assault to be unreported, and those that are reported will likely never lead to conviction. Indeed, that the perpetrators of Steubenville High School were eventually tried and convicted was perhaps the biggest shock of all.
Fortunately, a new wave of storytellers appear to be moving us towards more nuanced and honest narratives with scripted mini-series like Unbelievable and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. At the heart of these shows is a more personal, intimate reflection on how victims are treated in the wake of sexual assault.
Unbelievable, an eight-part Netflix show, is based on the Pulitzer-winning piece An Unbelievable Story of Rape. It centres on an 18-year-old girl, raped at knifepoint in her apartment, and the aftermath of her rape. The police and her foster mother cast doubt on her recollections, suggesting that it was a plea for attention.
Toni Collette and Merritt Wever play two police officers who fly against the prevailing opinion. They believe the victims of rape. As Wever’s character says at one point, “You don’t have to explain your choices to me.”
By highlighting the contrast between those who take the stance of believing victims and those who don’t we are shown precisely how an unjust system harms a victim long after the offence.
I May Destroy You is a painfully real story that questions plenty about modern culture, but delves particularly deep into rape and its aftermath.
Arabella, the lead character, is presented as being confident and, at times, cocky, in stark contrast to the ever-present sense of risk and vulnerability that she, and her friends, experience through the travails of sex and dating.
The key scene occurs in the first episode, in which Arabella is raped in a bathroom stall of a club. We follow her through the uncertainty and doubt that follows – not just her self-doubt but that of her friends, her book agent, and the police. She is chastised for not watching her drink in the nightclub, because being drugged and sexually assaulted is almost to be expected if you are not careful.
That these two shows resonated so strongly with people is testament to excellent writing and direction, but also the horrific normality of this. So many people felt echoes of their own self-doubt, their shame, their experiences of being brushed aside by people around them and in police interviews.
That Arabella is ultimately able to correctly identify her assaulter is good, too, because her intoxication during the attack did not (as it does not in reality) impair her ability to recall pertinent information.
Yes, these are fictional stories. But in dispelling the myths around alcohol and memory, and in addressing the systemic failings in pursuing rape cases and supporting victims, they present something that is more reflective of reality than the stories that have gone before – many of which served to reinforce dangerous falsehoods.
The troubling numbers from across the world tell us that we need to be having more conversations about the prevalence of rape and a justice system that seems unfit to counter it. One would hope that the critical success of shows like this will encourage more accurate representations of the realities of rape and sexual assault on our screens.