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What Does a Sympathetic Portrayal of Sexual Assault on Screen Look Like?

As Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to an end, I’d like to urge viewers and filmmakers to take a long and hard look at how rape is portrayed on screen.

It doesn’t make sense to assume viewers will mimic what they see on a screen, no matter how impressionable they may be. But that’s not the only way violence on screen impacts audiences. From causing distress to desensitization, insensitive depictions of harsh realities and violence have a myriad of negative effects. As Lisa Damour surmises, just as with suicide or smoking, sexual assault should be of importance in the conversation on what’s considered safe for consumption by teenagers and adolescents. I’d like to go one step further and suggest that maybe sexual assault can be addressed in cinema without ever portraying it on screen at all. From a point of view of necessity in the depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder in survivors of rape or in those close to the victim, the rape scene barely contributes to the exposition. If anything, a poorly shot or distastefully made rape or sexual assault scene could just perpetuate harmful stigmas about openly addressing it, and even trigger viewers. So, at the center of this conversation lies the question “Who does a rape scene really serve?”

Now, I’m aware that dialogue isn’t always the best way of addressing something cinematically. I belong to the school of thought that prefers show over tell. But showing has its own limitations as it might, if not done with the utmost care, become an unwitting participant in what it attempts to critique. A great example of this is the film Blonde. It’s entirely possible that the creative team didn’t have the right intentions, to begin with, but I’m choosing not to be that cynical today. Whatever the intentions though, the film’s portrayals of Marilyn’s abuse and the innumerable transgressions against her are so unsympathetic that it seems complicit in the reduction of the woman into a commodity for speculation and worse, scopophilia. She’s inexplicably topless in a lot of scenes, and her abuse is filmed in such a way, it’s titillating and almost pornographic. So, it contributes to her abuse in a way.

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in ‘Blonde’

Different Ways of “Tell”ing

But film is a dramatic and visual medium. So how much can you rely on just telling instead of showing? This question can be answered by the 2021 Best Screenplay Academy Award winner, Promising Young Woman. It tells the story of a woman stuck in a self-destructive cycle of vengeance against men that involves seducing them into almost abusing her and then scaring or killing them. She’s unable to cope with the rape and subsequent suicide of her best friend at the hand of a college mate. Her mission is depicted in the form of interactions with men. She pretends to be drunk and gets taken home on multiple occasions, where the men then proceed to speak to her inappropriately and attempt to initiate a sexual encounter. The boldest scene in this context shows a man groping her and taking off her underwear. She immediately gets up, stopping her pretense, and shocking the man who thought she was drunk. That’s where the scene ends. Later in the film, she finds actual footage of her friend’s rape. Instead of it being shown to us as well, the scene just shows her watching the clip and reacting. Seeing her live the trauma through the video is enough to make a mark on the viewer’s mind, and this is a way of not showing without telling.

Showing the impact instead of the actual event is a genuinely impactful way of addressing trauma caused by a harrowing experience. And this extends to sexual assault as well. Jessica Sharzer’s 2004 film Speak, based on Laurie Halse Anderson’s book of the same name, and starring Kristen Stewart shows how PTSD and clinical depression have impacted the social life of a girl who was sexually assaulted at a party. Through flashbacks, it establishes the contrast between the person she used to be before the party and the person she is now. She used to be outgoing and loved hanging out with her friends, but now she is unable to connect with people, and in fact, barely speaks. The film does an incredible job of depicting how such a traumatic experience changes a person. It does have a scene depicting her rape, but it’s focused entirely on her face and is relatively short. In fact, it’s short enough to make you wonder if the scene needed to be there at all, for the film to make the impact it does.

And that question of necessity brings me to the genre of film that one would assume must have a depiction – the rape-revenge film. Before I take you on a journey of the evolution of rape-revenge films from being devices for men to realize their femme fatale fantasies to it becoming about women taking control of their narratives, I’d like to make the point that Promising Young Woman qualifies as a rape-revenge film too, and as I mentioned before, it doesn’t feature a rape scene. I think that makes my point about the redundancy of such scenes, but let’s dive further into the topic.

Carey Mulligan in ‘Promising Young Woman’

Rape-Revenge Films With Male Gaze

I don’t believe the debate about whether the rape-revenge film is feminist or empowering will ever end. In my opinion, it’s not as black and white as that, and when well done, it can even be cathartic instead of just perpetuating the cycle of violence. Vengeance isn’t considered justice because it requires participation in the very behavior it chooses to hold accountable, but the genre often presents a means for a survivor to take control of their narrative. That’s however become a reality only recently. For a long time, as with everything else, men were the ones making rape-revenge films, and more often than not, missing the entire point of giving agency to the revenge-hungry victim!

To start with, films like Ingmar Bergman’s ­The Virgin Spring feature other people as vessels for revenge, instead of the victim themselves! In Bergman’s film, the rape and murder of a woman serve as the means for her father to justify the cold-blooded murder of the rapists and a kid who was with them but had nothing to do with the abuse himself. Since his films are always so thought-provoking and present critiques of society, I like to think he had the intention of showing how victims of rape very often become statistics or martyrs and nothing about the reaction in the aftermath is actually about them. However, the scene of the assault is lengthy and the victim’s character has no personality beyond being attractive and flirty. Forget about agency, the woman isn’t even a layered character.

And along the same lines is Irréversible, infamous for having one of the most unwatchable rape scenes ever. Unnecessarily lengthy, the scene features minimum camera movement and editing and feels almost too real to watch. It’s about her boyfriend avenging this rape, but beyond being very attractive, she barely has any personality and the film shows more sympathy for the boyfriend’s struggle in finding the rapist and avenging the rape and murder, instead of the victim herself. One film that somewhat succeeds in doing what I hypothesized The Virgin Spring was trying to achieve, is Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel. But it doesn’t do a good job of critiquing how the rape gets reduced to an excuse for two men to duke it out in a duel, while the woman is forced to sit back and let it happen. It participates in robbing her of her agency because the storytelling isn’t from her point of view. The rape scene is shown thrice from three different points of view though, and one must wonder what role male privilege plays in deciding the tone of an encounter and if the subtle differences in the cinematography and the narrative actually provide perspective.

A still from ‘The Virgin Spring’

The Female Gaze in Rape-Revenge

Films like the Soska sisters’ American Mary or Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge are incredibly gory and do feature harrowing rape scenes, but the first major difference is that the films are made through the female gaze, not just visually, but narratively as well. There are scenes and storylines dedicated to the woman’s suffering in the aftermath. The plots are still revenge fantasies, but the storytelling is inherently sympathetic to the victims. Also, it’s almost always the victim herself who is allowed to take revenge. In a film like Bulbbul, for example, even if the victim is dead, this is done through supernatural elements. The rape scenes in these films named here are kind of gratuitous, but the sympathetic gaze makes them less harrowing. The revenge scenes are almost as gratuitous and despite being militant, are feminist in their own way. However, the question of necessity still remains, because despite being sensitive, there’s a certain shock value to the scenes. A survivor may want to present a story of rape in painful details and proportions to better communicate the nature of the experience and process the trauma through the cathartic release of committing the narrative to film.

Before I discuss the more nuanced rape-revenge film, I’d like to mention Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 and others of its kind which, though directed by men, do feature short rape scenes and give agency to the victims of the rapes themselves. Now, these might present fantasies to process pain, but a film like Natalia Leite’s M.F.A. is more advanced or nuanced because it presents a pathway to healing. M.F.A. is the story of a college student who is raped at a party and then kills her rapist, following up that murder with the murder of more rapists she finds out about. When she kills the man who raped her friend, they have an altercation where the friend reminds her that the police investigation into the murder is bringing back the story of her assault when all she wanted was to continue her life without pursuing revenge. M.F.A. as a film has its own flaws, including featuring a rape scene that’s not easy to watch, and gratuitous violence from the victim during her revenge. However, it stands out because of that layer of nuance of questioning the intention of the genre it belongs to.

Revenge isn’t justice, and the poorly balanced gender dynamics don’t change on avenging rape. Plus, it almost always comes at a personal cost beyond the rape itself. Worth it for revenge? Maybe, but shouldn’t we let the victim herself decide that? Promising Young Woman, as mentioned earlier, doesn’t show the rape in question, but it also questions the necessity of revenge through the rape victim’s mother who reacts negatively to the proposal of vengeance. M.F.A. and Promising Young Woman also acknowledge the lack of balance in their narratives and, spoiler alert, the avenger doesn’t get away with avenging the crime that the original criminal got away with committing! These two films are rooted in reality, deconstructing the genre and also focusing on the healing journey of the protagonist more than glamourizing revenge by getting lost in the formulation of elaborate plots.

The protagonist gets ready to avenge her rape in ‘Revenge’

The Narratives of Healing

A film that takes the rape-revenge into further territories of being about healing instead of avenging, is Luckiest Girl Alive. The protagonist, a survivor of multiple counts of rape, goes about avenging her assault by overachieving. She has a toxic relationship with work and herself, so what Luckiest Girl Alive does that none of the rape-revenge films I mentioned above does, is depict the dysfunction that comes from unhealed trauma. Through the film, she gradually learns to be kinder to herself and to look at work and success as a means of taking back control of her life instead of letting it get derailed because some terrible men left her with so much PTSD. She focuses on herself instead of her work and the expectations of others on her and realizes that she has been carrying the abuse with her and using it against herself. In a scene of confrontation, she figuratively gives back the hurt and starts life with a new outlook, determined to be kinder to herself. So what starts as a revenge story, becomes a narrative of healing. The film got a mixed reception though, because the rape scenes were borderline gratuitous, and I wonder if they contributed to the take-home message anyway.

Narratives of healing provide a refreshing perspective because they focus solely on the survivor and their relationship with themselves and their trauma. They present a sustainable form of catharsis. Rage is a very understandable and well-deserved response to a traumatizing experience like rape, and films should explore this emotion as much as any other, but to proceed to a future where the trauma is a part of you but doesn’t necessarily dictate every choice you make, healing is of the utmost importance. The rage needs an outlet, and whether healthy or not, it is absolutely necessary to have one, but eventually, after it is let out, one needs to process the experience and focus on themselves for their own sake, instead of as a means to get back at their rapist by not being limited by their trauma. This will involve nuanced and complex, often difficult, conversations, and the films that will come from this approach, like Jessica M. Thompson’s The Light of the Moon, will be inherently less sensational, but eventually more therapeutic. Jessica’s film acknowledges the protagonist’s trauma through her dysfunction and silence, much like Speak, but through the film, she learns to obsess less on trying to function without acknowledging her trauma, focusing instead on healing from it.

And that brings me to the two films which made me pick up the topic. Both came out in 2022, and both featured explorations of the trauma left by sexual assault. They feature extensive conversations about the topic and varied reactions from the rape survivors. Some are sad and quiet, some want catharsis, some want to never talk about it again, and some are hell-bent on revenge. Tackling the topic with incredible nuance, the films portray the myriad of manners in which victims try to tackle their pain. What sets them apart and almost miles ahead of their contemporaries? There is no violence on screen. The aftermath is explored in great detail, including some visuals which aren’t easy to see, but not a single scene of rape exists between the two films, but the emotional toll of the abuse isn’t watered down due to that. If anything, the lack of sensationalism makes them more grounded and accentuates their impact on the mind! The two films in question are She Said and Women Talking.

Depictions of the aftermath of rape in ‘She Said’

The Scene in 2022

In my review of She Said, I explored in detail why it stands out in its sympathetic treatment of its difficult subject matter. There are sensitive conversations about the experiences of the women who Harvey Weinstein sexually assaulted and abused, with visuals of empty hotel rooms and corridors on screen while the descriptions of the assault are presented to the viewers in voiceover. And watching the film made me realize that if Weinstein got convicted due to verbal descriptions presented to a jury during the trial, and we have tangible proof that words have such an impact, why would directors feel the need to recreate and show scenes of assault at all? I’d argue that the visuals of empty locations with inanimate objects in disarray make the experience quite harrowing because it feels like looking at a battlefield after all parties have left.  The extent of PTSD is communicated effectively through this,

Before I move on to Women Talking, I’d like to briefly talk about Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King. Gina’s film has a subplot that’s kind of rape-revenge where the protagonist of the film who was raped many years ago as a prisoner, avenged her assault at the end of the film. The major difference from most rape-revenge films is that she isn’t consumed with revenge and is instead focused on being a good leader and she just takes the opportunity to avenge her abuse when it presents itself. This is a beautiful subversion because it still presents the survivor with the fantasy of vengeance but her story is essentially about healing without forgiving the perpetrator and then exacting revenge when possible. The abuse isn’t shown either, but its repercussions weigh heavily on the protagonist as she tries to grow as a person.

Speaking of healing, we come to the film that presents my argument most strongly, Sarah Polley’s Women Talking. It tells the story of a community where the women have been serially drugged and raped for a long duration of time, and have eventually been presented with the choice to either forgive their convicted rapists and stay or else leave their homes and the community. For the school of thought that believes gory details are necessary to communicate the ordeal of sexual assault, Polley presents a middle ground that’s sympathetic and effectively empowering. The film shows the women waking up from their assaults, with blood and wounds on their bodies. So, yes, the aftermath is presented in harrowing visuals, but none of the survivors have been presented in the moment of their rape, where they were robbed of all agency, treated like objects, and used by men for their pleasure. The story is told by a woman in the film, and so the perspective adopted is the victim’s, and the control of the narrative is thus in the hands of the women who are the central characters of Women Talking. It’s a conversational film and presents a hundred-odd minutes’ worth of group therapy to a viewer.

Depictions of the aftermath of rape in ‘Women Talking’

Who Does a Rape Scene Serve?

As I discussed in my analysis of Women Talking, a depiction of sexual assault would involve presenting a survivor/victim in a state of helplessness, bereft of agency, basically a victim. If we want a film to be empowering and present agency to someone who’s been raped, is it really in our best interest to depict them on screen in a moment where all autonomy has been stolen from them? I’d argue the more sensitive and feminist thing to do would be to give control of the narrative to the survivor and present them with autonomy and agency throughout the film. There are ways of depicting the impact of such a traumatizing experience that do not involve depicting the experience itself, as my discussions of the films I mentioned make apparent. Whether or not you’re a victim, you can still hold the power in your hand, and a sympathetic narrative on rape and sexual assault would never put you in a position of powerlessness. I’d argue a rape scene, by its very nature, can never serve the victim.

So, as Sexual Assault Awareness Month comes to an end, I’d like to urge viewers and filmmakers to take a long and hard look at how rape is portrayed on screen. I’m an advocate for artistic freedom, but sensitivity must be taken into consideration. Whether or not we want them to be, films often become the only presentations of certain realities for some members of the audience, so it is imperative to prioritize a victim’s sympathetic representation on screen over a filmmaker’s interest to make the experience appropriately disturbing or realistic.