Its Hard to Say Rape

Its hard to say rape, nevermind talk about it.  Yet talking about rape is the surest way to fight it.  Leaving rape as an unspeakable part of our discourse leaves victims and criminals out of the public consciousness, and only serves to aide rapists and rape-apologists.  The more we talk about rape, the less they have to stand on.

I’d like to talk about the date rape scene in Observe and Report, as well as Lil Wayne’s interview on Jimmy Kimmel.  They both provide an opportunity to discuss one of the more problematic and persistent aspects of rape apologetics: the notion that the victim deserves or wants the rape to occur.  (Trigger Warning).

The date rape scene in Observe and Report generated a lot of discussion (Feministing, Majikthise, Huff Post).  The scene in question depicts a mall cop (Ronnie, played by Seth Rogen) having sex with a woman (Brandi, played by Anna Farris) passed out from psychoactive medication and alcohol.  He has a brief moment of doubt, dispelled when Farris’s character says “Why are you stopping, motherfucker?”.  Within the context of the film the scene may or may not make sense.  The problem with the scene lies not within the scene itself as in the reaction to it.  It is being defended as sex rather than rape.

Then there’s an infuriating middle ground, which expands on Rogen’s statement in an interview that its only a quasi-rape scene.  NYMag, emphasis mine:

And he even shows a glimmer of self-awareness — after all, mid-rape, he stops for a moment, worried about whether he’s doing the right thing. Yeah, he’s so deluded and terrified that her drunken reprimand convinces him he is doing the right thing, but at least he thinks about it, which is more than you can say for his behavior in the rest of Observe and Report.

Because that makes a fucking difference.  But it is important to note that mainstream reviewers seem especially keen on reducing the severity of the scene.  There’s a real anxiety about allowing that scene to be seen as rape.

That’s when its even brought up.  Reviews at Pajiba are one of my favorite things (How could they not be with a slogan like “scathing reviews for bitchy people”?).  While they truly shine when reviewing the straight to dvd dross poured into theaters disguised as film, they also offer some fascinating analysis of the social and political implications of films.  Which made the review of Observe and Report all the more striking for its utter failure to even mention, let alone address the rape scene.  The comment section has a lively discussion going.  Cleveland writes:

Just once I want to see a mainstream Hollywood movie where a man is passed out drunk and raped and the critics see it as a great example of dark humor.

Actually scenes like this do occur.  A common thought in Hollywood is that “women raping men” = comedy gold.  For example, take 40 days and 40 nights. (Spoiler Alert).  A man (Matt) gives up sex for lent, and during this time meets the woman of his dreams (Erica).  At the same time an office pool has formed, betting on how long he can keep his vow.  His ex-girlfriend (Nicole), who was recently turned down when she tried to get back together with him, decides to get in on the bet, and ends up raping Matt.  Erica comes in as Nicole leaves, and storms out enraged at Matt.  At no point during the film does Nicole get in any trouble for what she did.  In fact the rape simply becomes another “romantic comedy obstacle” for Matt to overcome to get to Erica.

Rape is portrayed in movies in a couple of ways.  It is sometimes shown as the brutal, criminal act it is (in relation to the plot).  It is sometimes gratuitous, shown for its shock/titillation factor (often alongside scenes of torture, murder, and other forms of violence).  It is also sometimes depicted as acceptable.  This is usually the case in comedies, where the rape scene is meant to either turn our expectations on their head (“Oh a woman is raping a man, hahaha, that never happens”), or reflect some “fact of life” (“Hah, that frat boy had sex with that passed out girl, isn’t college hi-la-ri-ous?”).

What these sorts of “acceptable rape” scenes hold in common with the scene in Observe and Report (which seems to fall somewhere in between being perceived as “acceptable rape” and “plot driven, obviously criminal rape” depending on who one talks to), is that they are often perceived as being simply “shocking sex” rather than rape.  Take these two examples from the comments section at Pajiba (emphasis mine):

Okay, I’m sick of this date rape bullshit. She’s not out of it during the scene, and truthfully, Anna Farris’s character is a pretty horrible person. However, it’s nice to see her in a good movie for once. She’s actually a pretty good actress, at least that’s what this movie indicates. – George

Without the benefit of having viewed it, and only going by I have read here. How is it a rape if she consented before she passes out? – BarbadoSlim

Samanthrax fires back (emphasis mine):

That’s right, George. She was a terrible person. Bitch totally deserved it.

Oh wait, no… that’s not right. Are you fucking dense? I saw the movie and homegirl was unconscious during the act. Without even hypothesizing if he got consent or not in the beginning, he should have stopped when she noticed she was passed out. Her semi-conscious utterances do not equal consent. And if that’s not good enough for you, Rogen himself refers to it at the rape scene.

Now, if you’ll excuse me while I fix my eyeballs which have apparently rolled all the way back into my head.

The idea that some victims are innately sexual, and therefore unrapeable, is discussed expertly by Cara at the Curvature (hat tip Samhita, Feministing).  I can sit here typing this and think to myself how common sense it is that no matter what a person’s background, rape is obviously rape.  Yet clearly this viewpoint is far out of the mainstream, to our great shame and detriment.

Let me ask a question.  Have you ever discussed rape with your friends?  Have you ever discussed it with your significant other?  How about family members?

I’d like to bring up another point.  From Cara’s post:

the (primary) reason that this was rape is because no affirmative, let alone enthusiastic, consent was obtained, and this would be the same even if both people were the exact same age.  Understanding that “surprising” someone with “sex” is in fact rape is required to understand that rape is what Lil’ Wayne seemingly endured, and far too many people don’t understand that.

“Enthusiastic Consent”.  Think about that.

Rape isn’t just the act of forcing someone to have sex.  It is also the effects and aftermath of the act itself.  In a situation where someone does not give enthusiastic consent, while neither participant might consider the act rape, many of the same effects may occur.

For every person raped who is socialized to believe they deserved it, or should want it, admitting to themselves they were raped can be indescribably hard (comment by llevisno at Feministing, emphasis mine):

My ex-boyfriend lost his virginity by being raped by a girl he knew. He was really drunk and it she just kind of climbed on top while they were fooling around. He was too drunk to really resist or know what was happening at the time. He still won’t call it rape though. He just describes it as “being taken advantage of.” For some men it’s just really hard for them to say those words out loud. And I know guys that know his story and say that he couldn’t have been raped because he was hard so he obviously wanted it. Actually, I know girls that say the same thing. It makes me sick.

Using the standard of affirmative and enthusiastic consent, evaluate sex while intoxicated, partially asleep, or otherwise not fully aware.  Doesn’t sound consensual at all any more, does it?

Yet our culture allows rape to be reclassified as sex even when that rape is phsycially violent, or occurs when the victim is fully unconscious, or explicitly rejects the sexual act!  All the more reason to unite around the standard of affirmative and enthusiastic consent, since it so effectively pushes the boundary of nonconsensual sex back to include situations that ought to be considered rape.

Using that standard, there is no doubt that the scene in Observe and Report is a rape scene.  There is no doubt that Lil Wayne was raped.  There never should have been, but this is a good lens through which to view sexual violence.

I therefore invite you to talk more, read more, and continue bringing the act of rape out from the shadows and into the light.  The more we discuss rape the more its occurrence and acceptance will crumble.

As a final word on this, I want to make clear the importance of allowing yourself to make mistakes.  Rape is an incredibly sensitive topic, and rightly so.  But we need to talk about it more, and in the course of doing so we are bound to mess up, trip, and potentially make fools of ourselves.  And I believe so very deeply that it is always preferable to speak up and trip up than to stay silent and errorless.  So let’s accept that risk in exchange for the very clear reward: a society less afraid to talk about rape and therefore able to be braver in fighting rape.

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17 Responses

  1. This is probably the best post I’ve seen on this subject: very well said.

    On another note that might not be of much interest to anyone but myself: I’m deeply uncomfortable with the fact that this scene is in the film, but I promised myself a long time ago that I would never make judgments one way or another about a section of a film, book, or other work of art discussed out of context. That’s a favorite tactic of the fundamentalist right, and I don’t want to be a part of it: such scenes, whether to be defended or deplored, need to be understood in context, as do all aspects of human social interaction.

    Which brings me to my biggest problem: even before this controversy, I had no desire to see this film. Now if I see it, it will only be to try to better understand this discussion by placing it in the context of the whole film. That’s a strange position to be in, and one I’m not comfortable with in either direction.

    • Thanks!

      I’d check out Lindsay’s review of the movie at Majikthise (I cannot believe I forgot to add that in!) She saw the whole thing. Its worse in context.

      I agree that viewing something out of context is far from ideal, but in this case is extremely interesting. People commenting on the scene (who had not yet seen the movie) filled in the blanks in a number of ways to support their points. It thus wasn’t the scene itself so much as our reaction to it that invites discussion.

      • I completely agree that the response is interesting, and the discussion is worth having. If nothing else, a real discussion of the role rape, rape portrayal, and rape apology play in our culture is very valuable. Thanks for contributing to that discussion.

  2. Great analysis, Dan! You’re absolutely right that silence and shame are among rapists’ most powerful weapons — this conversation is really important.

    I don’t understand how people can find rape scenes funny. I’m do alright with onscreen violence in general, but I cannot handle rape scenes; I find them way too disturbing too watch.

    • Thanks!

      Finding them funny is a strange thing indeed. I think rape scenes can have a place in film (as Lindsay notes in the post I am smacking myself over the head for not including in this post):

      Frustratingly, everything about the rape sequence is contrived to make Ronnie seem as non-predatory as possible. Hill implies that Ronnie’s just so infatuated with Brandi that he doesn’t notice the difference between a disgusting date rape and a romantic evening. It would have been more honest, and much darker, to allow Ronnie a more realistic macho mindset–like just not caring, or feeling entitled.

      If the scene honestly reflected the reality of date rape, it could have worked (especially within the context of this movie). That it didn’t (and combined with the later public shaming of Anna Farris’s character for “cheating” on the man who raped her) turns the scene into something truly insidious, rather than the brave commentary on culture it could have been. Instead it just excuses rape:

      We’re led to believe that Ronnie is some kind of lovesick idiot manchild who just doesn’t know any better. Hill doesn’t want his frat boy audience to have to grapple with the idea that Ronnie’s macho messiah complex has anything to do with rape. So, Hill includes dialog that’s supposed to indicate, belatedly, that she consented all along.

      What has me hesitant to see this in the theaters is to hear the crowd’s reaction to both the rape scene and Anna Farris’s character’s shaming.

  3. I agree that this is a great post, and I also agree with Daisy that I can’t handle rape scenes — e.g. I saw Clockwork Orange when I was a teenager and think I might have appreciated the general message and am vaguely interested to watch it again to try to understand it more/better, but I was honestly kind of traumatized by the rape scene, and I just don’t think I can watch that again.

    Also, as to Evil Bender’s point — given that he linked to me its probably obvious that I agree with him as a general rule, but I think the fact that the rape scene from Observe & Report is excerpted and used in the red-band trailer adds a level of complexity to the situation. Because, sure, maybe in context viewers understand that Seth Rogen’s character is totally despicable and can appreciate that the filmmakers see him as a rapist and so on and so forth — but whoever put the trailer together saw fit to pull out that scene and — as far as I can tell — play it for laughs, and certainly to use it as a selling point for the film. I think that’s what initially got people talking, and then when people reacted to those initial discussions with “It totally wasn’t rape ’cause her drunken mutterings indicated that she didn’t want him to stop! Also, bitch had it coming anyway!” it sort of developed into a teachable moment (if you will) about rape culture and rape apologism.

    • That’s a good observation, LQ, about the way this works. I think this is a productive discussion as long as we a) focus on the way the trailer portrays rape, b) focus on discussions based on analysis of the whole film, or c) focusing on the teachable moment aspect. It’s only when those get clouded that I begin to become uncomfortable, since the way films are promoted often have little to do with their actual content–i.e. “Bridge to Terabithia.

  4. Okay, from the comments here and on my response post, I agree with the idea that we should discuss the appropriateness of the scene. I don’t think all the posts that were cited here are doing that though. It sounds more like blind condemnation to me. But let’s continue to discuss because the commenters here have great points.

    So let me ask this question to those who feel strongly about this. (again, I haven’t seen the movie yet, so I’m reserving judgment).

    My question is about the other Movie where Seth Rogen has a lapse in judgment, Knocked Up. In that sex scene. Both participants were drunk and clearly impaired. In the morning, the woman clearly regretted it. While the man thought the night was awesome. So did she get raped? She seemed more lucid than Faris’s character does in the trailer. But how lucid is lucid enough for informed consent? And what if the man had also regretted it based on his impaired judgment? Does that let him off the hook for the “rape”?

    Lastly, I think we are discussing where that line lies between a dumb drunken night and a rape. But I fully agree that either partner being unconscious is firmly across that line.

    Now I really feel like I need to see this movie.

    • I think what makes the incident in Knocked Up not okay is not the fact that they had both been drinking – Heigl’s character clearly issues consent – to sex w/ a condom. However, Rogen’s character fails to do that, and later blames the mistake on a mis-communication. The thing about consent though is that each person needs to be completely sure that what they are doing is okay. He didn’t ask before he started the sex without a condom, I think that is the biggest issue with that scene.

      • This is where the argument gets murky to me. You feel that the scene in Knocked Up had enough consent but the O&R doesn’t. So then instead of making it a diatribe against our society, I would blame that on poor writing/directing. Again we’re talking about a movie here. All of this is staged. So the question arises whether the filmmakers are intentionally thinking of how much consent is enough. The folks that made Knocked Up are clearly on the right side of your personal moral line, but the folks on O&R managed to cross it just slightly. They chose to push the envelope by having her pass out. Sucks for them because now they are condoning rape? Yeah, I don’t buy it.

        Again, I don’t think this movie is worth this particular argument.

        • Well, just for clarification what I said is that the knocked up scene is not okay. The reason for this is not the fact that the characters had been drinking because it was clearly not to an incapacitating factor. (Drinking and having sex is not automatically rape, it is rape when one of the parties is to drunk to consciously consent to the acts.) My issue came with the fact that Rogen’s character had unprotected sex without the consent of Heigl. That could definitely be viewed as sexual assault and potentially rape.

          Summary: Neither scene is okay, but for slightly different reasons.

  5. So the question arises whether the filmmakers are intentionally thinking of how much consent is enough.

    I disagree. The correct question isn’t what the filmmakers’ intentions were, it’s how the film “reads.” There’s no rule anywhere that says one has to intend a certain message from a text in order for that text to have that message–as famously demonstrated by Bradbury saying he never intended Fahrenheit 451 to be about censorship.

    If anything, I would say that if the filmmakers did not mean to raise issues of consent, that might be worse, since it would suggest that they included a rape scene in a film without considering the implications of that scene.

    Again, I don’t think this movie is worth this particular argument.

    Since you haven’t seen the film, deciding whether the movie is “worth” arguing about hardly seems helpful. And it’s strange that you take the time to argue we are wasting our time discussing a film, especially when you haven’t seen that film.

    People who make movies have a responsibility for the content of those movies, and can’t be shielded from criticism by the “it’s only a movie” or “it’s only a comedy” line.

    • Perhaps I’m missing what your argument is (in fact I’m almost sure of it).

      I joined this discussion to get a sense for what was being discussed. After coming to a certain understanding, I concluded that this movie wasn’t worth the time. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth bringing up.

      Many people in this discussion haven’t seen the film. But I think we can just as easily discuss the merits of the trailer and how it reads. It’s just as valid. I think it’s just as telling for you to try and dismiss my argument because I haven’t seen the film. Once you’ve made up your mind about something, it’s pretty easy to shoot down another’s points. You’re seeking to “shield your argument from criticism” by dismantling my credibility. That’s a trick I learned about from the owner of this blog 🙂

      Anyway, at the end of the day, I think it’s almost certain that a work of art will push the boundaries of someone’s moral sensibility. And that person will generally want to discuss it. The rest of us don’t see it as that big a deal because we are able to distinguish a stylized portrayal from the actual real act. Even if that portrayal is in bad taste to our minds, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. There are those that won’t be able to make that distinction between an artistic portrayal and the real situation. And I think your argument is that this portrayal is bad because of those miscreants. Well if you want to condemn all art that portrays something bad just because it might actually happen. Then you will severely cut down on the available entertainment.

      • You seem to be shifting ground. How can the discussion be worthy but the argument unworthy, as you’ve now argued?

        My point has been, and remains, that we cannot discuss the film’s merits or flaws outside of the context of having seen the film. Yes, we can absolutely discuss the trailer, as the Lizard Queen pointed out and I agreed. But to ask the question, as you have, about whether this argument is worthwhile, without having seen the subject of the argument is not me attempting to “dismantle your credibility” in any nefarious way. I continue to maintain that one cannot make any firm conclusions about the film (as opposed to the trailer, which can be analyzed) without having seen it.

        Perhaps I’m missing what your argument is (in fact I’m almost sure of it)…I think your argument is that this portrayal is bad because of those miscreants.

        Yes, you’re definitely missing the point. I began this discussion by arguing that the scene needed to be placed in context of the whole film, and then quickly made explicit my agreement that we could analyze the trailer’s portrayal of rape separately from the film’s.

        I have never, and would never, argue anything like the argument you suggest in your last paragraph. I’m a strong defender of freedom of expression (as my first comment here indicated). But I have no more patience for the argument that “this scene from a film I haven’t seen isn’t worth arguing about” than I do for those condemning a film they haven’t seen.

        As a final point, I’ll note that I haven’t seen the film either–which is precisely why I’ve avoided commenting on the discussions of it, except to note that any discussion needs to place the scene in the proper context of the film as a whole, or limit their discussion to the texts they have seen, ala the red band trailer. I stand by that position.

        • I think we ended up on opposite sides of two separate arguments. I certainly missed your point and as you’ve explained it.

          As I said before, I reserve judgment on the movie itself, but subjectively, I doubt it will provide any enlightenment. In fact, I would bet that the scene is much more tame then we have given it credit for. The purpose of trailers (and red band trailers in particular) is to get people to take notice. These days the film itself frequently falls short.

          Evil Bender I’d appreciate it if you’d comment back after you’ve seen the film (here or on my response post). If you choose to do so. I’ll be seeing it this weekend.

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