A Quick Note on Rape as a Plot Device and the 'Sympathetic Rapist'

By Rebecca Pahle | Think Pieces | April 29, 2016 | Comments ()

By Rebecca Pahle | Think Pieces | April 29, 2016 |


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This weekend, a movie named Sunset Song hits theatres. Based on a 1932 novel about a young woman coming of age in early 20th century Scotland, it’s directed by Terence Davies, whose other work (British period drama The House of Mirth is his best known) isn’t the sort of stuff that usually inspires #hottakes. And gorgeously shot with a subtle, nuanced star turn from Agyness Deyn, Sunset Song is a very good film… until about 3/4 of the way through.

Writers and directors. We need to talk about you trying to make me feel bad for characters who commit rape.

Major spoilers for Sunset Song follow.

So, some context. Chris (Deyn) grew up with a nightmare of a father who physically and emotionally abuses his children and rapes his wife, because what’s she about not wanting to constantly be pregnant, anyway? Doesn’t she know that every sperm is sacred? Eventually, Chris’ father dies, and Chris marries Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), a sweet, even-tempered man who worships the ground she walks on. Seriously, look at this dude. He’s a muffin.

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…until he ships off to World War I, which psychologically scars him to the point that when he comes back for a short leave he’s suddenly turned into Chris’ father’s mini-me. He screams at his wife and child, accuses Chris of infidelity, and violently rapes her on the floor next to her bed as she struggles and begs him to blow out the light. 15 or 20 minutes later, we learn that Ewan was executed for attempted desertion. In an emotional scene right before he’s shot by a firing squad, he tearfully tells a friend that the reason he tried to run is that he loves Chris so much; we, the audience, are meant to understand that the horrors of war have not entirely stripped away his humanity.

And sure, maybe they haven’t.

One question, though.

How are you going to try to make me feel sorry about this guy dying when we just saw him rape his wife like four scenes ago? When that happens, audiences can see Chris’ long future at the mercy of an abusive tyrant looming ahead of her. It’s the same fate we saw take her mother, whose unwanted pregnancy and unending misery at the hands of her husband caused her to commit suicide. It’s the same fate Chris escaped once when her father died. And I’m supposed to be sad that she avoided getting right back into that situation?

Chris—clutching the suit her husband wore at their wedding and sobbing about how she understands him—may not be happy for herself, but girl, I am happy for you.

The scene doesn’t work in the movie, being as it is far too abrupt. (Yeah, I know fighting in WWI was an enormously traumatic experience that left the soldiers who survived with lifelong psychological effects. But we don’t see anything Ewan’s gone through, so it’s tougher to relate to him. All we see is him storming into his house and abusing his wife.) More than that, it erases all ability (for me, anyway) to give a single shit about what happens to Ewan from that point forward. But it’s not just about Sunset Song. Movies need to stop having characters rape people and then trying to make viewers feel sympathetic when bad things happen to them later.

Vikings, an otherwise great show (back when I watched it), did this. Rollo (Clive Standen), the main character’s black sheep brother, is shown violently raping a woman in the first few episodes. It’s one of the first things we see him do, a way to establish that he’s not a good guy. (No other way to do that, of course.) Later on, he gets a redemption arc, and the fact that he’s a rapist is completely forgotten. (Though presumably not by his victim, who is never seen nor heard from again.)

(By the by, I don’t want to hear “but historical accuracy!” arguments about Vikings. Literal fucking gods show up in Vikings. A character can tell the future. Similarly, “but it happened in the book!” doesn’t matter for Sunset Song. Screenwriters can change things, ya know?)

You have some sibling rivalry, Loki-type insecurity issues about your brother, Rollo? Aw, that’s great. I don’t care.

Another example: The Gift, which (spoiler) had as the twist ending “the antagonist (Joel Egerton) may or may not have gotten back at the protagonist (Jason Bateman) for bullying him in high school and generally being a horrible person by raping the protagonist’s wife (Rebecca Hall).”

As the credits roll, the movie asks us to ponder whether Edgerton’s character was really all that much worse than Bateman? I’d have said no, until Egerton’s character drugged a woman and made a whole big thing about how did he rape her? Did he not? It’s a mystery!

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Of course, we never see Rebecca Hall’s reaction to the fact that she may have been sexually assaulted. She never even finds out. There’s little attention paid to the emotional/psychological trauma resulting from Chris’ attack, either; we jump from her being raped to her husband dying fairly quickly. This sort of thing is par for the course with movies and TV; for an example of a film that treats the post-rape recovery process with the respect and sensitivity it deserves, check out Ida Lupino’s Outrage. That particular subject is a whole different post, if one mostly filled with screaming rage gifs.

Basically, sexual assault affects the victim long past the event itself, and it affects the perpetrator, too, albeit in a different way. Namely: If a fictional character (…or a real person, too) rapes someone, that character is a horrible person.

A shitbean.

A tool.

A whiskeydick pencilfucker.

And you, the writer, should not ask me to feel ~*~*~baaaad~*~*~ for them because of their ~*~*~drama~*~*~ later on. Because it’s a shitty thing to do, and because I won’t be able to do it anyway. I’m guessing that most audience members of the female persuasion won’t be able to, or at least won’t be able to without some heavy-duty compartmentalization. Your movie and I will come to a fork in the road, with the movie going down the path of “he made some mistakes, but ultimately don’t we all? He’s a good guy,” and me continuing down No, Fuck You Road.

Rebecca made it through an entire post about sexual assault in popular culture without mentioning Game of Thrones ONCE. Also, she apologizes for calling this “a quick note.” It isn’t, really. You can follow her on Twitter.


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