Monday, March 14, 2011

Reader question - How far is too far when a writer describes a rape scene?

Last week, Rav left this comment on an old entry of mine about The Last House on the Left remake:

I read somewhere that the director of the last house on the left wanted the viewer to feel as violated as Mari and that is why the scene seemed to take FOREVER. (some things cannot be unwatched)

My question is not about the movie per se but a general writing question... in your opinion how far is too far when a writer describes a rape scene?

In my story the main character is explaining her past and a rape that happened to her when she was a teenager. Are there actual laws against writing about minors(shes 14 in the backstory)? I am not doing it for shock value, or for entertainment (because it is far from entertaining) but to explain things the main character does in present day.

I am a big fan of Poppy Z Brite and want to push the "taboo" envelope but I do not want to lose my audience or break any laws.. I want them to feel as violated mentally as my character did physically. if that makes sense. What is your opinion on this?

This is going to be a hot button topic, and I think what you'll have to accept at first is that you WILL offend some people who read the script. Rape is a loaded subject, and I'm sure there are rape scenes that have been both defended as artful by some, and labeled exploitative trash by others.

To my knowledge there isn't any law about writing about minors being raped. The fact that many, many episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit have featured teenage rape victims would seem to back that assumption up. However, I would suggest discretion when writing a scene like that with an underage character. Characters in their late teens will probably be played by someone in their twenties, but if your lead was nine when she was raped, you're really playing with fire. A rape scene with a VERY young character is just begging for walk-outs. Beyond that, do you really want to be responsible for putting a pre-teen actress through the ordeal of performing such a scene?

I'd suggest renting A Time to Kill and taking note of how powerful the rape scene (and the subsequent description of it in closing arguments) is without being graphic at all. We see it in quick flashes from the point of view of the victim. Thus, we get what's going on, without having to be subjected to seeing a little girl actually manhandled by an adult male.

I'm glad you're not doing it for shock value. That's the fastest way to alienate an audience. If it's integral to the character and the story (as in Last House, or The Accused, to cite another example) it's a lot easier to endure that brutality as an audience member.)

Then, in writing the scene don't you DARE attempt to make the scene itself titillating. I've read too many rape scenes where you can practically feel the writer leering as he has his avatar ripping the clothes off of the nubile female lead. Nothing makes me hate a writer faster than the sense that he was typing his rape scene with one hand, if you follow me.

You admit that you want to push the envelope and make the audience feel violated mentally. That seems like a recipe for some negative blowback on that scene. The violence and the violation are bound to make some viewers uncomfortable, and often they'll process that reaction as "I hate this." Is it necessary to go that far? What are you getting out of this that you aren't getting by being suggestive rather than explicit?

If you're doing it JUST to push the envelope, then I have a hard time seeing the distinction between that and doing it for shock value. What's the purpose in violating the audience? Is the rest of the film constructed in a way that makes use of that? In Last House, the ugliness of that scene seems to be there to cement in the audience the desire to see Krug and his crew meet some nasty ends. It's to put us in the shoes of the parents in the film - to make us want vengeance as bad as they do.

When I've had to write a scene like this in my own specs, I've always made myself justify the very existence of that story beat. In every instance, if I determine the act is absolutely integral I've also found that the less graphic the scene is, the better it works for what I'm trying to do. I err on the side of caution - usually making it clear what's about to happen, then drawing out the tension as long as possible before the act. Then I either cut away just before the act, or find some way to pull the audience's focus off of the actual characters. The sounds of the act might be on screen, but the visual is kept just out of camera range. That not only prevents the reader from thinking I found this titilating - but it prevents the more perverted members of the audience from getting any such thrill from it either.

(And believe me, there are sick minds out there. When I posted that Last House entry over a year ago, there was quite a while where I saw Google searches of "Sara Paxton rape scene" were leading people to my blog.)


  1. SO with you in every way on this post my bitter friend. Nothing gives me THE RAGE more as a script reader than a supposedly "titillating" rape scene... though having said that, I am getting pretty sick of rape/abuse being one of the big motivators for female characters in general TBH. Why can't female characters have the variations of motivations their male counterparts have?

  2. Great advice on a very sensitive issue.

    I think it's also important to note that there is a very good chance that rape victims will be in your audience and will see your movie. A rape scene will always lose certain members of your audience. A graphic, drawn out rape scene will lose a great deal more, and risks triggering victims with a far deeper and more disturbing reaction than you may have intended.

    I'm not against rape references or scenes in films/television provided they ARE vital to the plot (as already said, the first hint of exploitation or titillation and you've completely lost me) and I don't believe you should censor yourself, but it's worth bearing in mind that a rape scene doesn't have to be graphic or prolonged to get the point across. However, wanting your audience to feel as violated as your character does imply it would need to be a fairly harrowing scene, and that could alienate more of your audience than you intend. Nobody goes the cinema to feel like they've been raped.

    This sounds like one of those scenes it would be useful to have several people - men and women - read for you and gauge their reaction.

    Sorry to leave such a long comment, but this is a real bugbear for me. Gratuitous, violent rape scenes in films leave me positively raging. I'm glad you're approaching it with such care and awareness.

  3. Do not, in any way, eroticize a rape scene.

    Do not even include a rape scene unless it's an absolutely unavoidable must-have scene.

    And remember: there is no such thing.

  4. My question is - how necessary is it to the character's motivations that she was raped? It always seems like a cheap cop out to me. And this is me speaking as a victim of sexual assault. Women can go through their entire life without anything bad happening to them and still be motivated a certain way.

    As for child rape - wasn't there a movie with Dakota Fanning that had a big hullabaloo over it because it showed her getting raped?

    And as far as annoyances with rape scenes - I'm sick and tired of every single rape victim being super model beautiful. Even on SVU when they have schizophrenic homeless women raped they could model for Victoria's Secret. Fat women get raped too. So do women covered with acne or with ugly noses or crooked teeth or flat chests. I was fat when I was assaulted and one of the reasons I never told until I was 26 (it happened in jr. high) was because everyone told me I was too ugly for anyone to want. So I thought for sure no one would believe me.

    I wish, just once, a writer would be brave enough to show a fat woman getting raped. (And also do away with the stereotype that we're all greasy, sweaty, and lazy. A lot of us aren't.) And by fat I mean someone who is actually fat. Someone 6 feet tall and a size 16 is not fat. Someone 5' 3" and a size 22 is.

  5. The best thing to do is write the script so the story and the emotional journey earns the scene.

  6. The film you're referring to JamiSings is called Hounddog. I heard so much hoopla over that scene and finally watched the film about two months ago. I don't understand what all the hoopla was over. Maybe I'm just too desensitized.

  7. @JamiSings: "And as far as annoyances with rape scenes - I'm sick and tired of every single rape victim being super model beautiful"
    That's more to do with every actor and actress having to be supermodel beautiful in films and TV. Except for the token "character actors" who producers hire in an attempt to add class to the show.

  8. I was just going to say, this post reminds me of that Dakota Fanning movie “Hounddog”…but you all beat me to it! That movie demonstrates one danger of writing a rape scene (especially one with an underage character/actress). All anyone would say about the movie was that it was the “Dakota Fanning nude/rape scene movie” and no one could ever see it as anything else. The scene drew WAY more attention than the movie itself, which was critically panned and never went anywhere.

  9. What about "Precious"? Her character's a minor (though like Bitter said, was played by a 25 year-old) I think it also handled it with the same care as "ATTK". By showing a glimpse, and then using the end scene with the mother to really make you the audience feel violated, simply by how she justifies it, since by this point we are seeing everything in the film unfold through Precious' eyes AND her imagination.

    Also, @Mouse... couldn't agree more. Heavy scenes like rape DO need to be earned through the storytelling.

  10. I was hoping some of you would bring up Hounddog because it illustrates the point better than if I'd included it in the initial post. As Z points out, all anyone knows about that film is "Dakota Fanning gets raped" Sure, it got the film some press and maybe more people know about it because of that - but who actually SAW it? And I'd bet that the publicity repulsed as many potential viewers as it enticed.

    Bear in mind if you do set out to push the envelope with an extreme scene like that - THAT is what your film will be known for. There won't be the shock value of the audience not seeing it coming. It'll be like how all the talk of IRREVERSIBLE focused on the 10-minute rape scene that never cut away. (And that's the major reason I will never see that movie.) Could you mount an artistic defense of that scene? Sure, but doesn't the cost outweigh the benefit there?

    You can make a powerful piece of film making without "pushing the envelope."

    1. As far as "Irreversible" don't talk about it if you haven't seen it. I have and the point of the scene is the viciousness and the total needlessness of it. And remember, Monica Bellucci was allowed total control by director Gaspar Noe over the content and how it was depicted. Personally I feel the scene was a perfect depiction of how violent an act rape is. It's not about sexual gratification, it's about violence. Pure and simple. It does not stray from that point.

  11. First scene that comes to my mind is Rosemary's Baby.

    My screenplay has a reverse scenario. It's a female demonic character seducing/overpowering a young 20 - something male. With the gender reversal, how much would you say these same rules apply? I'm finding it difficult to get what's in my head on paper, without overwriting. It seems the essence of your advice is "less is more" - which is definitely something I'll keep in mind.

  12. and yes, it is vital to the story, and I'm certainly NOT finding erotic pleasure from it! LOL

  13. Cary - I'd say to error on the side of "less is more," but it's probably worth noting that politically correct or not, male rape causes a lot less outrage in film than female rape. A male character seduced/overpowered by a female vixen is seen as a lot less of a victim than a female character taken advantage of by a male.

  14. @Richard - Another thing I can't stand. I know it's all visual, but geez, why can't they change the rules? Why is it writers and directors always talk about pushing the envelope but only do it with socially acceptable "beautiful" women? The chick who plays Jane on Drop Dead Diva may be chunky, but she's not bad looking and she could easily play a rape victim, I'm sure, showing that it's not just the thin women who get attacked.

    And since rape is suppose to be about power, not sexual attraction, a more realistic protrayal would be welcome. Heck, a more realistic protrayal of anything would be welcome! (Okay, I'll stop before I go into my "not all us fatties are lazy and hygeine-deprived" rant.)

    @Cary - Speaking as a woman to me rape is rape is rape. Doesn't matter the gender of the victim. It's all shocking and disgusting. I bet if you asked at the blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books (yes, it's all romance novel stuff but since rape scenes have often played a big part in romance novels it's a subject that comes up a lot) lots of women would show you the same POV as me.

    If it's absolutely nessesary for character developement for there to be a rape, fine. But I do think it's a cheap cop out. Just like making an artistic male character in a piece gay. (I've actually known more straight males whom are artistic and more uber macho can beat up Chuck Norris gay men then the other way around.) Or lots of cursing - I used to enjoy Kevin Smith, now I see the tons of cursing as a way to cover up a weak writing ability.

    This is just the opinion of a frustrated movie watcher, mind you. I can't write to save my life. Oh, playing role playing games has made me good at coming up with characters and plots. But with actual fleshing out of ideas into coherant plots and such - I suck!

  15. Yes, thanks. Perhaps I can use that PC "double standard" to help raise the stakes in the overall story. The other challenge is making the scene believable - but I think a man's body can say one thing, but he may still not want to. But that is perhaps a different discussion. Great topic!

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  17. Bad choice. Write something'll hurt fewer people...

  18. Thanks for the advice. I appreciate it!