Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Let's talk about rape scenes

We've talked before about misogyny in film.  If you want a refresher in perhaps one of the worst scripts I ever read, check out the depravity I discussed in this entry.  It's not a topic I enjoy wading into, and yet the scripts I read often keep provoking the topic.

Most recently, KICK-ASS creator Mark Millar was interviewed about his work and the topic eventually turned to his depiction of violence against women, which many consider offensive and misogynistic.  I'm going to encourage you to check out the entire article, but these next few passages are what got the most notice:

Take some of his portrayals of women, for example. Millar has spoken out against the underrepresentation of female characters in comics, but his depictions of rape have alienated some readers. In Wanted, the sadistic protagonist gleefully commits rape over and over again, at one time bragging that he “raped an A-list celebrity and it didn’t even make the news.” In The Authority, a Captain America analog rapes two unconscious women. In issue four of Kick-Ass 2, a group of bad guys finds the young hero’s love interest, a teenaged girl named Katie, and brutally gang-rapes her. 

“You’re done banging superheroes, baby,” the ringleader says, punching her and unzipping his fly, “it’s time to see what evil dick tastes like.” 

Laura Hudson, the former editor-in-chief of the popular blog Comics Alliance and a senior editor at Wired, thought that scene was deplorable, but typical of Millar. “There's one and only one reason that happens, and it's to piss off the male character,” she said. “It's using a trauma you don't understand in a way whose implications you can't understand, and then talking about it as though you're doing the same thing as having someone's head explode. You're not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don't understand, you shouldn't be writing rape scenes.”

Millar is of the exact opposite opinion, saying they are equivalent, and that his depictions of sexual violence are all part of his ongoing quest to push boundaries. “The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “I don't really think it matters. It's the same as, like, a decapitation. It's just a horrible act to show that somebody's a bad guy.”


I've railed in the past at people who are quick to toss around the "misogyny" label.  There's a distinction between something being sexist and something being misogynist.  The definition of misogyny is "the hatred or dislike of women or girls."  So when, say, Michael Bay reduces his female characters to one dimension, has them strut around in revealing outfits and then focuses the camera on their ass, is that misogynist?  

No.  Definite display of sexism, but it's not misogyny.  But Mark Millar's work?  That's getting really damn close to misogyny.  Does it make HIM a misogynist? I don't know.  It depends on if he really believes his own defense of that rape scene.

The sort of scene described above is part of a trope known in comic circles as Women in Refrigerators. It has to do with the disproportionate degree that female characters in comics are beaten, depowered, raped and killed solely to get a reaction out of the male lead character.  When you look at the list, it's hard to deny that it is a common issue.  But let's examine why this happens.

Most headlining comic book heroes are male.  Going back to the Golden Age of comics, a surefire way to get the hero emotionally invested in the story was to kidnap someone close to him.  In most cases, that meant his girlfriend.  Poor Lois Lane was probably tied up more frequently than a bondage enthusiast.  Now, there are exceptions - Batman's closest relationship was with his boy sidekick Robin and Wonder Woman's boyfriend Steve Trevor often filled the "Lois Lane" role in her stories - but when you're dealing with male heroes, most often you're going to have a lot of kidnapped girlfriends and wives.

Comics got grittier, and soon it was no longer enough to just kidnap the hero's loved one.  Now it was necessary to prove just how evil the bad guy was by having him do something horrible.  The trick is that the writers wanted to provoke the audience as well as the lead character.  Obviously you can't kill or maim the lead character because the story's over.  So it would fall to someone else close to the lead to become the punching bag.

And that's how we get The Killing Joke - where in order to prove that we're dealing with a new kind of Joker, he paralyzes the former Batgirl and possibly performs other unspeakable acts upon her.  Commissioner Gordon is also put through the ringer too, though not as badly.  The point is - the Joker is doing this JUST to piss off Batman.

If this was an isolated story, it wouldn't be so bad.  However, it would be a shame that the script barely deals with the impact of this attack on Batgirl herself.  If it was motivating something in her character, it wouldn't be a gratuitous display of violence crafted only for the purpose of getting a rise out of the male lead.

And that's where the problem lies. I totally get needing to show the bad guy is... well, bad.  And it's not like you're gonna provoke the audience if the bad guy does something to the lead's paperboy.  I get how a writer might arrive at writing a violent scene towards a female character and not have any sexist or misogynistic motivations behind it.  There is a dramatic purpose to be served.

I even get how one might arrive at rape.  If you want to do something horrible to a female character, but you don't want to kill her off, it's an obvious option to land on.  It's a violent act that shows evil, but it has the "virtue" of not maiming the character so she can still bounce back.  We rough her up, but she'll recover, good as new.


Here's what Laura Hudson is talking about above.  Writers who write about rape don't always understand the implications of that trauma.  For the writer, the horror of the act ends when the rape is over.  The scene has served its purpose, the lines drawn and so on.  For the character, that's just the beginning.

I've seen this in a lot of scripts, in a lot of comics and a lot of TV shows. It's rare that an assault like that is used as springboard for a female character's development in the same way it's used to provoke the male character.  I find the KICK-ASS example above so repugnant that the only way to redeem it from being shock value would be if Katie was the main character and the rest of the story was about her journey. I've used a lot of comics examples, but don't think that doesn't mean the trope is isolated there. 

I also don't understand how most writers stand writing rape scenes, let alone end up writing rape scenes that feel like they were getting excited while writing it.  (I debated a lot about if I should write that last sentence, but I absolutely have read sequences like that where the writer took a perverse glee in inflicting that violence.  And if it horrifies you to be told about that, it should.)  Even so, I will concede that a story might call for that.  Don't take the message of this post as "never write rape."  But really, use some restraint.

I've made an effort here to try to understand how someone might "logically" arrive at a rape as their big plot twist without the motivation being misogynist in nature.  I'm doing my part to extend an olive branch to those writers.  Calling them "misogynist pigs" would have been a good way to ensure none of my message was heard.  In return, I'd hope that those who write such scenes would reach out and attempt to understand the position of Laura Hudson.  Those violent actions carry an impact that goes beyond their intent.  Meet us halfway, guys.


  1. Women in Refrigerators was a massive eye opener for me, not just as a writer, but as a lifelong comic book fan. It made me feel a little complicit and a lot angry because it was so dead-on accurate. I was ashamed that it was all so obvious and I never saw it before that article.

    The script that I have written that is closest to my heart has a rape scene. I agonized over it. I worried greatly that I was doing a Women in Refrigerator or being exploitative and I tried to pull the punch of that scene as much as I could without being dishonest or patronizing. It's not done for shock. It's not done to stress out the male characters. It's written purposely subtle and non-descriptive, not luridly or pornographically. And despite me STILL agonizing over that scene, it's 100% necessary because the whole point of my script is that horrible things from our past can destroy our lives if we do not come to terms with them.

    I don't say that to hold myself up as any kind of hero of womanhood, but to say that ANYONE who chooses to include a sexual assault in their story should agonize to that extent. Question it. Even after writing it. Especially after writing it. Is this ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY for the character and does it serve a legitimate purpose? Or is it just shock and horror? Or worse...dehumanization and cruelty.

    If it's not absolutely necessary. Then don't put it in your damn script.

    To take it back to comics. There's this whole gross sub-genre of comics that were prevalent in the 90s with "bad ass killer ladies" who sliced up bad dudes. And you could tell that every one of those writers/artists were patting themselves on the back for writing "strong female characters". But every single character without exception was brutally raped as her origin story.

    Imagine if The Punisher killed criminals not because his family accidentally wandered into a gang hit and were taken from him, but because some wiseguys held him down and gang raped him when he was an innocent 13 year old.

    That's not "acceptable" so why is it acceptable when it's a woman?

    Hint: It's not.

  2. Unfortunately, in his quest to 'push boundaries', Millar has taken Kick-Ass beyond knowing, self-referential and purposeful over the top theatrics and into some darker, nastier territory.

    I had similar issues with 'Sucker Punch' (yes, I am still going on about it, sorry :P), in that the violence and treatment of women wholly undermines any attempts at ass-kicking liberation the movie attempted. You can't execute two lead characters with point blank shots to the back of the head and have there be no obvious difference to the movie as a result!

    Kick-Ass 2 suffered the same thing - it was so grisly, gory and grim that the subversive intent of such scenes, the black humour and knowing winks at the audience over how ridiculous this was got lost. It was supposed to be FUN, dang it, not an exercise in video nasty style rule-breaking.

  3. Thanks you for this post, Bitter. And Amen.

    Anne Billson made a great point in a recent article in The Telegraph, Do rape scenes have a place in modern cinema?:

    > More often rape is depicted in films as "a crime of property" (...) against the husband or father whose wife or daughter is raped. (...)

    In other words, most modern film rape scenes go beyond making women objects and reduce them to chattel.

    Did you catch Patton Oswalt's mea culpa on rape jokes? Highly relevant to this discussion. (If you weren't already following that conversation, this link gives the context: Rape culture meets rape jokes.)

    Finally, Rape Joke by Patricia Lockwood drives all of this home better than anything I've ever read.

    Thank you again for writing this. I hope you reach the people who need to read it.

  4. Great post, BSR! I agree with your assessment. If the writer appears excited or "in to" the rape scene they're writing about -- there's something disturbing there.

    I recently wrote a rape scene for a short and it was the most difficult 5 sentences I've ever written. They were the very LAST thing to put in the script.

    And I even wrote AROUND the rape scene. What's the point of conveying the actual event? That's just wrong.

  5. i'll try to make this simple, but it most likely won't be taken for the true nature of what the intention was, just like your comment about -- the writer finding a kind of glee in writing about the rape...

    i thought the article was great, true, showed both sides, great article... until you decided to basically call millar out about having such a great time writing the rape -- this, when he's already stated his viewpoint in complete contrast to what his detractors think... moral, don't think for other people.

    but, while you didn't say, MM got glee, there is no question that it sounds like that, to me at least. for a guy like you to even think he knows what MM is thinking is kind of a slap in the face for someone who prides himself on 'certain type of ethical bias's' .

    How can you even say, you think you know if a writer get's 'excited' about a rape scene. It's just fucked up.

    after all that, i know what you're saying, and you're - probably right - but saying it, just goes against what it's okay to presume of someone, especially professionals, on forum like this.

    Carry on

    1. You do see the irony in accusing me of "knowing" what an artist was thinking, while proclaiming you "know" what I meant by that statement, right? I never stated I knew what was in Millar's head when he wrote the scene.

      And if you'd read some of the depraved rape scenes I've read by hacks, you'd agree it is completely possible to tell when a writer is getting off on them.

  6. Let's talk about shitty scripts.

    The kind of script -- the only kind -- that Hollywood readers don't hate. The scripts in which everything is identical to every other script they've read, every movie they've seen in the last decade.

    Scripts whose characters are all alike, doing the same ol' same ol' as every other identical character in every other script, and doing the same ol' in the same ol' kinds of places and situations.

    Let's talk about the same ol' crappy, unoriginal scripts, all of them aimed solely at 14 year old boys. This is the developed world's fastest shrinking demographic. The fastest growing is the babyboomer gen and above, yet the only people writing for them are in cable network programming, if anywhere.

    So the majority of writers are churning out the same old "seen it a zillion times" dross for zit faced punks, while completely ignoring the biggest and richest market segment of them all.

    Is it because older people are harder to please? They expect quality, whereas teens will scream "FUCKIN' AWESOME, DUDE!" at the same old exploding shit?

    Are the vast majority of screenwriters talentless hacks catering to the lowest common denominator -- a shrinking one at that -- because they're incapable of writing anything better?

    Should the finger of blame be pointed at the talentless hackery of adolescent script readers, many of them being the inevitable product of rampant nepotism?

    Studio/ProdCo exec: "My illiterate teenage nephew was annoying his mom, so I've just given the little bastard a job as a reader!"

    Lackey: "An excellent plan. We can never have too many illiterate teen bastard readers."

  7. I struggle to understand why a good writer would want to use rape as a set-up scene, as an instrument purely pointed at cutting to retribution. If it isn't essential to entering the journey of your character (your female character), to understanding why such a victim can become self-destructive or self-loathing or damaged and scarred in a multitude of ways that will be explored during your story via the female character, then...what the hell are you doing? You're probably exploiting the event as a short cut to visceral payoffs.

  8. As a woman and a screenwriter, I can speak to this. I have written a graphic, brutal gang rape scene. I've gotten castigated for it: how could you do this? I've thought about this long and hard. Could I have written the scene without the gang rape? Yes, if I chickened out--if I was afraid. I had to push myself. Yes, you may write scenes that are morally repugnant, but it's not my job to moralize. My job is to tell the story as it comes to me. I'll leave the lectures to the Sunday preachers.

    1. It's not our job to moralize, but it is our job to attach the story and its events to the characters. If the victim is merely gristle for the villain to chew on, that's suspect. I don't believe writers should ever fear the dark depths of human pain and cruelty, but I do "fear" the exploitation of those depths for chickenshit purposes (i.e. visceral thrills, shock value). It's a difficult subject to pick apart in broad statements because each story possesses its own unique set of circumstances. Perspectives are as varied as the weather. It's easy for viewers to connect a character's POV or lack of empathy with the writer's, which is often a misguided exercise. PJ's scene is probably hard-earned. I've written a rape scene and been shocked that many readers didn't see it as a rape due to the lack of violence (while I found the stillness far more disturbing, and ultimately scarring to the psyche of the victim). But when said writer (Mr. Millar) makes statements that display scant grasp of the nuances of rape and how it isn't like every other violent act, I think it's important to shine a light on the matter.

  9. For me this brings up the conundrum I have recommending Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” to people

    When I saw that film I had no idea what was coming and each violent event was gut wrenching, culminating in a rape scene so brutal it still makes me shudder.

    That said it was the extreme level of violence that made, for me, the everyday scenes that follow so poignant and heartbreaking.

    BUT the rape is so repugnant I can’t bring myself to recommend the movie to friends because I do not want to put them through the trauma of that assault.
    Can anyone relate to this?