You know the management-seminar myth about boiled frogs?
If you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it says, the frog will hop out of it. But if you put said frog into a pot of cool water and slowly turn the heat up, it’ll stay there till it’s boiled. It’s not true, not for realistic frog cooking times at least. But it’s a useful metaphor for the tendency to endure much worse conditions if they come upon us gradually than we would accept in a sudden imposition.
What’s interesting and valuable, though, are those frogs who suddenly stick their heads out of the increasingly warm fluid and say Actually, you know, it’s too hot in here. Enough, already.
Over the course of my life, I’d wager I’ve seen at least 10,000 movies. Maybe more. I’ve had years where I’ve mainlined as many as 500 movies, many of them older catalog titles. I have a voracious appetite for all types of movies, both high art and low. I love smart sophisticated movies, I love experimental films, and I love genre junk. I love any movie that offers me a genuine experience of some sort, where there’s something that moves me or that I recognize as true and well-observed or where someone just plain surprises me. I am open to pretty much anything when I sit down to a new film.
But at the age of 41, at about 94 minutes into “The Divide,” I reached a breaking point, and I realized that I am pretty much incapable of sitting through one more cheap, pointless, exploitative rape in a movie.
McWeeny goes on to point out that an explicit rape in a film may give it an R rating—but a consensual sex scene will trigger an NC-17, or force the film to go out unrated1. He theorizes, and I think he’s right, that many directors use rape as a way to get nudity or sex into movies without losing too much of their potential audience. This has a cost, of course, both to the actors (a rarely-cited thing, but important) and the increasingly jaded audience.
You push your actress, you brutalize the character, and you have a couple of actors play the absolute worst of humanity turned up to “cartoon,” and it means nothing. It is empty shock. It is without effect because of just how hollow a gesture it is. How can you justify asking an actress to bare herself both physically and emotionally for something as grimy as that without any real point to the scene? It can’t just be one more item on a checklist of atrocity. If that’s what you’re doing, then ask yourself why. What do you think any audience will get out of that? Are you doing it to horrify them, or do you feel like that’s what the audience wants and you need to give it to them? And if that’s the case, do you really want to feed that appetite?
As a film critic, McWeeny is focused primarily on the ways in which writers and directors have used rape to get a movie audience’s attention. But his reaction reminded me of a recent piece by Jim Hines in Apex Magazine. Hines, who is one of my favorite internet menschen, tackles the role of rape in storytelling rather more broadly. He points out the degree to which it’s clichéd, frequently unnecessary, and usually badly written to boot.
Story after story in which rape is a quick, thoughtless way to motivate a woman to set off in search of revenge (“Red Sonja Syndrome”), or else it’s lazy shorthand to show how evil someone is, like having them kick a puppy. Or worse, it’s written in such a way that the writer seems to be reveling in the act him- or herself, glorifying and celebrating every graphic detail.
The whole article is worth a read.
I’m certainly with both Hines and McWeeny here: there are books and films that use rape and sexual violence so badly that I’ll never be able to deal with them again (Lord Foul’s Bane springs to mind). And I’ve also seen them written extremely effectively, so much so that the character’s experience is the reason I own and reread the book (Deerskin, by Robin McKinley, which I find cathartic about once a year).
But there’s something that they both skip over, which I really think is important. The pervasive depiction of violent rape in movies and books isn’t just cardboard storytelling and a way to sneak nudity into a film. It’s also teaching viewers and readers what rape is: violent sexual assault, usually by a stranger.
And that definition is wrong, dangerously so. It’s the reason that between 6 and 8% of men are willing to admit to behaviors that fit the real definition of rape or attempted rape—but don’t call it by that name. Because they know what rape is. It’s what happened in The Divide, or The Road Warrior, or Thelma and Louise. It’s not that time they used a little too much force with a girl, or got her drunk or stoned enough that they didn’t have to worry about her saying “No”2.
I don’t have any answers here. I just wanted to join Hines and McWeeny in pointing out that the water’s rather painfully hot in here, and wondering if there were somewhere slightly more comfortable we could go instead.
Nota Bene: I am aware that women rape, and men get raped, as well, both in real life and in the stories we tell. But the vast majority of the incidents and depictions are male-on-female, and since I’m talking about popular culture here—peak of the bell curve stuff—I’m deliberately focusing on that subset. I do think that a more enlightened attitude toward violence and consent would improve even the rarest of edge cases, so though these other circumstances are neglected here, they are not forgotten.