Because she is happy and content by the time he is through, the rape is transformed into satisfying sex, mending their broken relationship. This transformation teaches male viewers that resistance is something to be overcome, not just for their own sexual gratification, but for the sexual and emotional gratification of the woman (Neilson & Albiston in Carter, 1995, p.154).
The representation of rape as erotic and as something that women secretly want is not uncommon in film. Perhaps the most controversial example of this takes place in the film Straw Dogs (1971), which shall be discussed in the following chapter.
Straw Dogs (1971) was so controversial when it was first released that it was cut before its cinema release and banned on video for many years by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC), primarily because of what is considered to be an ambiguous rape scene. This chapter will look at the role of sexual violence as punishment for a woman's overt sexuality displayed through the two main female characters in the film, Amy and Janice, the eroticism of the double rape scene and the role that BBCF had in adding to the controversy.
The film tells the story of David Summer, an American mathematician, who moves to his wife's home town in Cornwall. David is not accepted by the locals and the group of men who have been hired to do building work on their garage begin to harass him. The hostility of the locals develops into extreme violence which results in the double rape of Amy and the murder of several of the locals as David tries to defend his home.
From the opening shot of Straw Dogs, where the camera focuses directly on Amy's braless breasts, the audience is made aware of Amy's overt sexuality: Susan George in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs "exuded sex like a dog in heat, suggesting not so much a woman as a walking libido, a machine de plasir, an orgone box with a woman's features" (Haskell, 1987, p.200).
From the beginning of the film the audience are viewing Amy as not only a sexual object, but one whose refusal to wear a bra gives an instant suggestion that Amy is a "loose" woman. Her husband David asks Amy why she doesn't wear a bra informing her that she can't expect people not to stare if she chooses not to. After this exchange she walks past a window topless in full view of the men (one of whom is Amy's former boyfriend) working on the roof of the garage. Before the rape scene has even begun the audience are being told that Amy is "asking for it". Her explicit sexuality, flirting and clothing are all offered to the audience as her consent to sex. The controversial rape scene is often described as ambiguous with some people questioning whether the first of the two rapes is in fact a rape at all.
The first rape is carried out by Charlie, her ex boyfriend. The men working on the garage take her husband out shooting leaving Amy alone in the house. Amy allows Charlie into the house, gives him a drink, and even kisses him, but as soon as she refuses his advances the scene becomes violent with Charlie hitting Amy and dragging her across the room by her hair. Charlie says "I don't want to rape you but I will", forcibly strips a crying Amy then rapes her. Towards the end of the rape Amy kisses Charlie and asks him to hold her. At this point one of the other men from the village, Norman, arrives with a gun and Charlie holds Amy down so he can rape her as well.
The scene demonstrates clearly the separation of rape into categories of stranger/acquaintance with the first rape committed by a previous boy friend and the second by someone who she has not had a relationship with. From an anti-rape activist perspective there is no ambiguity in the scene. Both rapes are achieved by the use of violence and consent is certainly not freely given in either rape. However the way the scene has been structured reinforces just about every rape myth that exists. In particular, that her previous sexual history with Charlie negates her right to refuse sex with him:
"This myth assumes that a woman's right to withdraw consent is voided by the fact of a relationship. It also assumes that a man may have sex whenever he wants, whether his partner is willing or not. In fact if he proceeds without consent it is rape (http://www.aphroditewounded.org).
In an interview with Garner Simmons, a Biographer of Peckinpah, Simmons describes the first rape as the love scene that they never had (Peckinpah, Straw Dogs, 1971). Charlie's betrayal, according to Simmons, does not come until he holds her down so that Norman canÂ "really" rape her. The idea that rape by partner or ex-partner is not a true rape is a common one yet from a feminist perspective it makes little sense: "These myths are not even logical because they assume that a rape can suddenly "unbecome" a rape. They assume that women must think, or behave, in prescribed ways in order for a rape to remain a rape, or for a woman to have the right of naming. Imagine if such absurd criteria were applied to robbery? (http://www.aphroditewounded.org).
Not only does her previous history with Charlie make it seem impossible for him to rape her but her submission also seems to undo the rape for many viewers. That she submits after being subjected to terrible violence suddenly becomes unimportant as Amy is deemed to be not only asking for it but also enjoying it, yet in reality many women cease to struggle because of the fear of further violence. From every perspective the first rape of Amy by Charlie can be turned into a non rape by the audience. The presentation in Straw Dogs of Amy's submission after violence is not indicative of consent but is clearly intended to be read as such and in this way reinforces the myth that women both invite and secretly want rape: "Amy repeatedly flirts with a group of men working on her and her and her husband"s property, one of whom is a former lover. Eventually the former lover and another man rape her. While she initially struggles during her rapes, at the end she seems to give in, at least to the first rape. Whether or not she actually consents to any aspects of the rapes, the film implies that her expression of sexuality contributes to the rapes" (Projansky, 2001, p.35).
Charlie's sexuality also contributes towards the acceptance of the rape. In contrast to David's character he is seen as masculine and is therefore able to provide Amy with what she is missing in her marriage. Rape is shown as powerful and manly behaviour that women desire and need. David also discovers his masculinity through violence against the locals at the end of the film firmly establishing the link between the two. In interviews Susan George (Amy) admits that the fact that Amy enjoyed being raped was in the script (Peckinpah, Straw Dogs, 1971). The scene is intended to be erotic to the audience, using in particular Amy's nudity and apparent enjoyment of being raped to achieve this. The scene is set up to be read as sex not rape but "This is not 'sex' from the perspective of "woman" but sex in a phallocentric masculine gaze" (Usher, 1997, p.420). It is almost impossible for the audience, unless they are coming from a specific anti-rape perspective, to feel sorry for Amy during these scenes where she is deemed to be getting what she deserves:
"Susan George in Straw Dogs, struts around like Daisy Mae before the briar-patch yokels, and gets it once, twice and again for the little tease that she is (Haskall, 1987, p.363)."
In fact a cinema manager contributing to Lord Longford's Committee on Pornography reported that audiences "greeted the rape scene with "delighted howls" (Mathews, 1994, p.202).
The second rape caused more controversy than the first. While it was generally considered to be a real rape this part of the scene proved to be problematic because it appeared that the second man, Norman, was raping Amy anally. This apparent confusion was ironically created by the BBFC itself when Stephen Murphy, the Secretary of the Board at the time of Straw Dogs release demanded that the four minutes rape scene be cut: "What transpired then is one of those awkward ironies when the requirements of the censor do not so much muddy the water as stir up a wholly new apparition. Straw Dogs producers duly carried out Murphy's orders but what had initially appeared to be vaginal rape in which the victim was taken from behind now looked like buggery (Matthews, 1994, p. 200)."
This created problems with its release because; while rear entry was considered acceptable, sodomy was not. It could be suggested that the reason that it was felt that vaginal rape was "acceptable" while anal rape was not is because anal rape is not something that is restricted to women only but can also happen to a man. From this perspective vaginal rape is something that is normal and acceptable while anal rape, which is an issue that also affects men, should not be shown on the screen. As Usher points out:
"We don't see the depiction of sexual attacks on men as a regular part of film and television viewing. Perhaps it is less likely to be seen as entertainment. It just isn't funny is it? (Usher, 1997, p.134)."
Yet the rape scene in Straw Dogs was considered to be entertaining and was structured in a way that it places the audience in a position to experiencing pleasure from watching it through identification with both David's and Charlie's characters.
The other main female character in the film, Janice, is presented as a junior version of Amy. Janice's sexuality is also blatant and after her advances are refused by Amy's husband, David, she turns her attentions to a local man, Henry Niles, who has a history of abusing children. After behaving in a seductive manner towards him, he is startled by those searching for them and accidentally kills her. Here again a woman's sexuality is being portrayed as dangerous, entrapping men (in the first scene Amy and Janice are seen together carrying a man trap) into abuse and rape and in turn unleashing even more violence. For it is the death of Janice that triggers the final stand off between David and the locals which ends up in the death of several of the villagers. Therefore woman's expression of sexuality, followed by a violent rape, unleashes even more excessive sustained violence. (Projansky, 2001, p.35).
Both Amy and Janice are representing two dominant male fantasies in Straw Dogs; that women are sex obsessed in a dangerous way and secondly that women fantasise about being raped:
Within a sexist ideology and a male dominated cinema, woman is presented as what she represents for man. (Nichols, 1976, p.211).
As Amy represents dangerous sexuality from a dominant male point of view the film then allows the male viewer to attack what it fears about Amy (her overt sexuality) by raping her. Janice's sexuality is equally brought back into the patriarchal line when she is murdered as a result of her seductive behaviour. Amy's rape and Janice's seductive behaviour not only act as a catalyst for the violence that follows but the narrative portrays it as an attack on the men in the film. The attack on Amy is a prelude to the attack on the house - both are attacks on David's property, and the death of Janice is an attack on the men of the village. Therefore the film also reinforces the myth of man as "hero" who is required to both protect from and avenge the violence against women which is viewed as an attack on his property.
The scene that is used to defend Peckinpah against allegations of misogyny is the one that follows the double rape where Amy next sees the rapists in public. The scene is intercut with Amy's flashbacks to the rapes. It could be argued that this scene does offer the audience a feminist understanding of rape by portraying the effects of the rapes on Amy. The scene, however, does little to detract from the overall misogyny that underlies the film which ends with David and Henry Niles -Â two men torn apart by the destructive power of female sexuality driving off into the night, while Amy presumably has been left in the house surrounded by the dead bodies of her rapists.
Aided by the BBFC's attempts at censorship Straw Dogs successfully provided its audience with a double rape scene that was both ambiguous and coded as erotic and at the same time side stepped any sympathy for the violation of Amy or for the murder of Janice, instead portraying the men in the film as the victims of the destructive power of female sexuality.
Straw Dogs is an example of the way in which film structures the gaze of the audience to identify with the male protagonist and how that identification successfully removes any identification, and in turn sympathy, with the women in the film. The film also demonstrates the link between rape and a woman's independent sexuality as well as using rape as a narrative device to push the story forward. Straw Dogs is a film that set out to create an erotic rape scene; however films which aim to make responsible depictions of rape also often allow the men to remain in control of the narrative and the gaze. The Accused (1988) claimed to be a film that would look at rape and the justice system with the aim of raising awareness in what remains one of "popular cultures" foundational representations of rape (Horeck, 2000, www.utpjournals.com)." This film and it's representation of rape will be discussed in the following chapter.
There are few films that set out directly to speak about rape but of those that do perhaps the best known is The Accused (1988). In this chapter the feminist message of The Accused will be broken down and challenged. Questions will be raised about the graphic rape scene shown towards the end of the film and the role of Ken who watches the rape and is then offered the role of hero as a result.
Loosely based on a real trial in America known as the Big Dan Case (although the film does not acknowledge this), The Accused , tells the story of Sarah Tobias a poor "white trash" girl who is gang raped in the back of a bar after a night of drinking, flirting and smoking pot in what is considered to be "the most infamous rape scene ever filmed" (Horeck, 2000, www.utpjournals.com). The film then charts her fight for justice with the help of a female lawyer.
The message the film is trying to give is clear: that no matter the class or behaviour of a woman she does not deserve to be raped and is entitled to justice:
A central theme of "The Accused" is the notion "that victims of gang rape do not "deserve" what they get even if their social background, dress, habits and addictions, or sexual histories call into question their "victimhood" under the traditional model of rape (Cuklanz, 1996, pp.94-95).
By portraying Sarah Tobias as having what might be considered by some to be a dubious lifestyle the film challenges the myth that certain women ask to be raped through their actions, history (Sarah has a criminal record), or character. The film looks at Sarah's journey after the rape showing her going through the trauma of a hospital examination, the inappropriate comments on her lifestyle and the ways in which the rape impacts upon her life. In this respect the film works to highlight the impact of rape on a person's life:
"It presents a highly personalised account largely from the perspective of the victim, clearly articulating feminist ideas about rape while simultaneously raising issues about class and justice (Cuklanz, 1996, p.100). "
The main narrative of the film, however, focuses on Sarah's fight for justice. The film starts this aspect of the narrative by having Sarah's district attorney plea bargain a down grading of the crime from rape to one of reckless endangerment for the three rapists meaning for them minimal time in prison and no rape on their records. Sarah's fury at not having been given the opportunity to tell her story herself prompts the district attorney to fight to prosecute the men who watched and cheered on the gang rape. Sarah displays a feminist attitude towards the rape by refusing to be silenced:
Tobias expresses a feminist perspective on rape, speaking at length about the degradation and humiliation she has experienced, and insists that the men responsible be brought to justice. She insists that her horrifying experiences should be publicly and legally validated as such (Cuklanz, 1996, p101).
Sarah refuses to feel ashamed of her behaviour prior to the rape and does not waver from her determination to fight for the justice that she is entitled to. This refusal to feel either shame or responsibility for the rape again challenges a key myth that surrounds sexual violence -that rape is a shameful thing that women cause through their actions:
The emphasis on Tobias' "low-class", sexually active, drug using character, as well as sympathetic scenes that portray the effects of rape on her personal life, suggest that no one asks for gang rape, that gang rape is not an unconscious desire, and that it is not the deserved outcome of any woman's behaviour (Cuklanz, 1996, p.103).
While the character of Sarah is both strongly developed and portrayed sympathetically the characters of the rapists and the onlookers are barely portrayed at all. The male character the audience sees the most of (apart from Ken) is one of the men who cheered the rape on who is portrayed as extremely sexist and unpleasant. By choosing this particular representation of the main defendant the film avoids challenging the myth of the "typical rapist"-a dark stranger who is sexist towards women, as Cuklanz writes:
"This characterisation of the primary defendant reinforces the traditional explanation of stranger rape as a crime committed by easily identifiable, sexually aggressive men (Cuklanz, 1996, p.104)."
Anti-rape activists, on the other hand, have worked long and hard to dispel the myth of the evil, dark stranger as most rapes are committed by men women know. The film avoids exploring the difficulties of being believed when a woman is raped by a man considered respectable and of higher social status. The film also opts out of criticising the legal system. Although Sarah struggles against the system, particularly because attitudes towards her behaviour, along with her attorney she still manages to secure a guilty verdict for the men who watched the rape. Yet the experience of most rape survivors is that legal system is not only stacked against but that justice is extremely hard to obtain:
"Although the film is fairly open in its critique of traditional views, it is still overly optimistic in its guilty verdict for the three men who only looked on and cheered. Indeed The Accused portrays the legal process as a vehicle for the vindication of female victims. This portrayal is directly contradicted by the real experiences of rape victims, especially those who, like Sarah Tobias, have questionable backgrounds. While manifestly articulating a feminist perspective on rape, The Accused also misrepresents the reality of rape and rape trials as understood and critiqued by feminist rape law reformers (Cuklanz, 1996, p.103)."
The emphasis on Sarah's determination to bring the men to justice, although highlighting the many hurdles a woman faces in the legal system, also could suggest that it is a woman's responsibility to obtain justice at whatever cost.
Although hailed as a film with a strong feminist message The Accused has also been criticised - mainly for the long and graphic portrayal of the gang rape itself which runs at five minutes and fourteen seconds. The rape does not occur until the end of the film. Cukalnz (1996) suggests that this "allows viewers ample time to formulate their own ideas about innocence and guilt based on their own attitudes about rape myths" (Cuklanz, 1996, p.101). In other words Sarah Tobias could not be believed on her word alone, the rape had to be seen to be believed. It not only had to be seen by the audience but the narrative also includes a witness who is the key to the successful prosecution of the men who watched and cheered on the rape:
By openly underscoring the victim's need for eye-witness testimony, the film argues that the word of a victim still is not sufficient to obtain a conviction even in these extreme circumstances (Cuklanz, 1996, pp. 104-105).
Despite the audience seeing Sarah running from the bar screaming, the bruises to her body and the effects of the rape on her life; the graphic rape scene is still deemed as necessary to allow the audience to believe that she is telling the truth. The placing of the rape scene can be criticised not only because it can be read as a necessary scene for the audience to believe that Sarah was raped but also because the flashback in which the scene occurs belongs not to Sarah but the key witness Ken. Although Sarah's determination to tell her story drives the film it is not her account of the rape that is shown to the audience:
As critics of the film have pointed out, while Sarah tells her story at the trial, the film does not provide a flashback to a visual representation of the rape until Ken takes the stand and tells his version of the story (Projansky, 2001, p.112).
So not only does Sarah need an eye witness to be believed in the film and by the audience, the account of the witness is what the audience see. The witness also happens to be a man meaning that it is a male account of the rape scene that the viewers watch, which could be read as the man's version of , or the man's gaze on what happened being more reliable than woman's own account and experience of rape. Here the male gaze becomes a legitimating one rather than a sexual one as Ken becomes the factual account of the rape. Even the first words of the film belong to Ken as he calls the emergency services to tell them about Sarah being raped meaning that he is also the first to name the rape. The only other female there on the night of the rape her friend and barmaid of the bar where the rape took place is quickly eliminated as a helpful witness leaving Sarah to be rescued by Ken's account:
"Seldom has a set of male eyes been more privileged; without their witness, there would be no case -Â there would in fact, as the defence attorney notes, be no rape (Clover in Horeck, 2000, www.utpjournals.com). "
Although it is Ken's account it is not shot from just his perspective. The view of the audience moves between Ken's view, Sarah's view and the view of the men who cheered the rape on. Therefore during the trial against the men who cheered the rape on the audience experiences the rape from their perspective. While the film claims to be criticising the men who watched the rape, the long and graphic rape scene allows the audience to do the same thing. The rape scene also chooses to show close-ups on the faces of two of the rapists as they climax focusing the audiences attention on the pleasure the men are receiving from raping Sarah. The scene also contains nudity with Jodi Foster's (Sarah) breasts being visible throughout the rape opening the scene up to erotic readings from its audience. The rape itself takes place with Sarah on top of a pinball machine which pictures a sexy and half naked woman on it suggesting that Sarah herself has, for the men, become the game. The question of why Ken waits until the third rape is underway before running to call the police remains unanswered in the film and his character's role remains as the key to justice for Sarah and her attorney. Even the placing of the flashback can be criticised - the rape scene take place towards the end of the film at what is considered in mainstream Hollywood narrative structures to be the dramatic climax meaning that both the rapists and the film itself climax at the rape. The camera watches the rape, the cheering men watch the rape, Ken watches and now the audience watches the rape and only Ken is not receiving pleasure in watching. The men are clearly enjoying their roles as spectators to Sarah's violation and the audience are enabled to receive a covert pleasure from looking not only because it is their chance to satisfy their curiosity to what actually happened (as Sarah's word alone can not be believed), but also because the erotic remains coded in the scene.
It could be argued that by showing the gang rape the film allows the audience to understand the full horror of rape, but as Faludi (1992) asks "Did people really need to be reminded that rape victims deserve sympathy? (Faludi, 1992, p. 170)," before going on to give an account of the many young men who cheered throughout the rape scene when The Accused was showing in cinemas. While the long and graphic rape scene may have challenged some viewers beliefs in rape myths the portrayal of the rape also serves to increase the amount of violence against women that exists in popular culture representations" (Projansky, 2001, p.96). Projansky describes this as a paradox that is common to nearly all films that include rape even those that set out to be anti rape in purpose including The Accused: "Thus, in this film the graphic rape scene functions, paradoxically, both to challenge rape myths from a feminist perspective and to contribute to the existence of violence against women in media culture (Projansky, 2001, p.96).
The feminist perspective of the film however, could be said to be weak. While being clear in its message that Sarah did not deserve to be raped regardless of her behaviour or character The Accused steps back from challenging the audience in relation to the many other myths about rape:
Lansing said The Accused should be hailed as a breakthrough movie because it tells America a woman has the "right" not to be raped. But is seems more reasonable that it should be mourned as a depressing artefact of the times because it tells us only how much ground we have already lost. By the end of the 1980's a film that simply opposes the mauling of a young woman could be passed off as a daring feminist statement (Faludi, 1992, p.170).
The film is also very open to being misinterpreted -Â a concern that is raised by women in the study Women Viewing Violence (1992) there's a lot of people who would actually watch the film and would not see it in the way we're seeing it at the moment and would think, "Oh that's a bit of fun", or take it the wrong way, and it could lead to rape" (Schlesinger, Dobash, Dobash & Weaver, 1992, p.155).
While The Accused does successfully challenge some of the myths about rape (mainly those that relate to the character and behaviour of a woman causing rape), and the film encouraged discussion about the issue of rape in the media, the film leaves many of the standard myths and representations of rape intact. The characterisation of the main defendant and the success of the trial both come across as easy options that ignore the reality of the real experience of many rape victims. Although it could be argued that the depiction of the gang-rape allows the audience to see the horror of rape and maybe even challenges them to think about the way that women's bodies are looked at the film is still "submitting to the structures of voyeurism it professes to subvert" (Horeck, 2000, www.utpjournals.com). The role of Ken as key witness and narrator of the flashback to the rape scene mean that Sarah's voice is neither enough to believe the rape took place, and that her story is never really told.
Sarah remains passive in The Accused as the film hands over ultimate control of the narrative to Ken. It could therefore be asked if handing over control of a narrative to a female character would work to challenge the male gaze. Also how would a film that allows women to drive the narrative represent rape? These questions shall be explored in the following chapter by looking at the film Thelma & Louise (1991).
While most film narratives are driven by men and most rape sequences lead to women being reinstated into the patriarchal order (by the law and with the help of a man in The Accused or by a man discovering his masculinity in Straw Dogs) one notable exception to this narrative structure is the film Thelma & Louise (1991). Like The Accused, Thelma & Louise is considered by many to be a feminist film, not only linking rape to men's control of the gaze directly but also claiming that men's gaze and masculine language are in themselves assaultive to women. While the film can be read in this way, Thelma & Louise is not unproblematic when it comes to the way it represents rape or in its narrative structure.
Two female friends Thelma and Louise set off for a weekend a way from their partners, one of whom is abusive. On their way they stop off at a bar where Thelma meets and dances with a regular, Harlan, who takes her outside and rapes her in the car park. Saving her from her attacker Louise puts a gun to Harlan's head and demands that he let Thelma go. Although he does so he continues to verbally assault Louise at which point she shoots him. The rest of the film follows them as fugitives of the law, during which they are robbed by a charming young man and encounter a trucker who repeatedly assaults them verbally and visually. The film ends when the police finally catch up with them at the edge of the Grand Canyon where Thelma and Louise choose to continue their journey off the edge of the cliff rather than be passed into the hands of the law. The final shot shows the two women frozen in space just after driving off the cliff, then focuses on a photograph of Thelma and Louise before they began their journey.
Although the film does work against many traditional rape narrative codes it does not move away from them altogether. The rape both instigates the driving of the narrative forward to the run from the law and also comes after Thelma makes a break away from her abusive husband: "Until this moment, Thelma and Louise move in fits and starts, delayed by tasks at home, Louise's work, and Thelma's husband, only just barely getting out of town, buried as they are under the weight of Thelma's excessive luggage. Even when they are on the road heading towards their weekend getaway in the woods, Thelma immediately persuades Louise to stop for something to eat. That stop precipitates the rape and the death that set the narrative in motion, justifies the road trip to Mexico, and change Thelma and Louise's future forever (Projansky, 2001, p.124).
Once again rape is both as a result of a woman's independence and leads to a woman's independence. For Thelma it also releases a sense of sexual freedom as she enjoys a night of passionate sex for the first time with J.D, a hitchhiker the women pick up who goes on to rob them, after she is raped. Nevertheless the film also "at least potentially offers a feminist perspective on and critique of rape" (Projansky, 2001, p.125.
Throughout the film the gaze is linked to masculine control and to rape. Louise in particular responds to men's look as assaultive both in the bar previous to the rape and in response to the trucker who harasses them on the road. Projansky (2001) argues that when Harlan tries to chat up the women in the bar Louise breaks his gaze by blowing cigarette smoke into his face:
Louise responds to his words and gaze as assaultive. Three close-ups capture each characters different perspective on the situation. While Thelma enjoys Harlan's attention, batting her eyelashes and smiling broadly, a close up of Louise reveals her attacking Harlan's instrument of assault - his gaze - by blowing cigarette smoke in his face. A third close-up shows Harlan batting his own eyelids in frustrated response and purposefully turning his gaze from Louise to Thelma. These three close-ups construct a complex power-dynamic of sexual harassment and eventually rape. (Projansky, 2001, p.125).
While Louise is able to recognise the threat that goes with Harlan's gaze and to break his gaze by blowing cigarette smoke in his face, Thelma is not and Louise's fears are realised when she finds Harlan raping Thelma in the car park The gun Louise has, a symbol of power usually in the hands of men - is successful in stopping the physical rape of Thelma but it does not stop the verbal assaults from Harlan and it is at this point that Louise shoots Harlan dead linking the control of the gaze and of language not only to explicit rape but to the various forms of sexualised assault including verbal assaultsÂ "that pervade women's lives" (Projansky, 2001, p.127).
After Louise shoots Harlan she offers both Thelma and the audience a criticism of the law making it clear that the male dominated law will neither believe them nor get Thelma justice. She articulates to the viewer that the myths that exist within the law's patriarchal perception of rape, such as Thelma having danced, drank and flirted with Harlan, will assume Thelma's consent to sex as a result of her actions. This theme continues throughout the film as Louise's knowledge about rape and the way it is viewed by the law and by a male dominated society as the woman's fault enables her to counter that myth by teaching Thelma that rape is in fact never the woman's fault.
The narrative structure also offers fighting back against rape and rape culture throughout the film as a viable option, not only when Louise shoots Harlan but through the way the two women respond to the sexist trucker. Again the character of the trucker links the control men have over the gaze to sexual assault. Like Harlan the trucker at first appears to be courteous indicating to the women that they are free to pass his truck. As with Harlan, Thelma accepts his behaviour as nothing more than polite. Louise however notices the silhouettes of naked women emblazoned to his mud flaps and responds to the trucker negatively.
Once again Louise's ability to connect the way that men look at women with sexual assault and threat are proved right as the trucker goes on to assault them both verbally and by making obscene gestures to them. The second time the women encounter the truck driver they choose to ignore him but the third time they decide to take action which results in the women blowing up the truck driver's truck when he refuses to apologise for he behaviour towards them. The women fight back against his gaze and his verbal assaults and destroy his truck - "the symbol of his power to rape and harrass" (Projansky, 2001, p.129) and refuse to remain passive objects of the gaze.
Not only does the film criticise the male gaze and the ways in which it is related to rape culture it can also be argued that Thelma & Louise subverts the male gaze and creates a female gaze instead:
"The film's female gazes undercut and appropriate the dominant male gazes typical of mainstream Hollywood cinema by using mockery as a narrative device to illustrate the sexism inherent in the male gaze (Cooper, 2000, p.277)."
Cooper (2000) argues that the film's ridicule of overtly sexist characters such as the truck driver disrupts and replaces the male gaze with a female one. The extreme sexism of the trucker therefore becomes a necessary and deliberate part of the narrative structure: "the trucker's sexism is exaggerated precisely to encourage spectators to share Thelma and Louise's perspective and to participate in their mockery of this character." (Cooper, 2000, p.286).
The film's encouragement of the viewer to partake in the ridiculing of the male gaze can be seen particularly in the sequence where the women destroy the truck which is "coded by the upbeat music and the main characters laughter" (Projansky, 2001, p.129) as a pleasurable experience.
Thelma & Louise also makes use of the female gaze when they choose to look at men as objects of sexual desire in a similar fashion to the way that women are commonly looked at in mainstream films. J.D. is openly commented on in a sexual way by Thelma who tells Louise to "look at his butt". Cooper (2000) also points out that after Thelma spends the night with J.D. she discusses the evening's events with Louise in a manor which reflects they way that men often boast about sex:
Louise is happy that her best friend has finally beenÂ "laid properly:" "Oh darlin', I'm so happy for you," Louise says appreciatively, "That's great." Here the women's "girl talk" mocks standard male "locker room" bragging: Thelma and Louise appreciate and share the intimacy of Thelma's sexual awakening, bonding in a way that ridicules the macho bravado typical in media depictions of men's discussions about their sexual conquests (Cooper, 2000, p.290).
Another aspect of the film's narrative that subverts the male gaze is the focus on the friendship between the two women. Both women reject men in favour of each others company - Thelma chooses to go on the weekend trip knowing that her husband won't approve and Louise refuses a marriage proposal from her boyfriend. Men are not the focal point of the film's narrative rather the strength of the women's friendship is what drives the film:
"What seems to disquiet this movie's critics is the portrayal of two women who, contrary to every law of God and popular culture, have something on their minds besides men. Yet they can't be dismissed as "man haters". The simple but subversive truth is that neither woman needs a man to complete her. Of course they're feminists, but not because they have pistols tucked in their jeans. This is a movie about two women whose clasped hands are their most powerful weapon (Shapiro in Projansky, 2001, p.140).
The last sequence of the film that sees the two women drive of the edge of the Grand Canyon rather than be passed into the hands of the law and the men controlling that law has been interpreted in a number of ways. Mostly the final scenes have been viewed as a triumphant break away from patriarchal law (Projansky, 2001, p.148.). Yet this interpretation bypasses the fact that Thelma and Louise have to leap to their deaths to escape not only the patriarchal law but the rape culture that is so pervasive the only option is death. It does, however, show two women choose their solidarity with each other over the power of masculine law:
"their ultimate decision to choose each other over men--and even to die together--articulates a strong female gaze that challenges and defies patriarchal construction. For instance, the fact that Thelma and Louise are depicted as "bonding in a sisterhood that offers an alternative to their former male-centered lives" (Man, 1993, pp. 41-42) presents a major threat to patriarchy (Cooper, 2000, p.290)."
The film has also been criticised for its portrayal of men and masculinity as stereotypically bad:
All males in this movie exist only to betray, ignore, sideswipe, penetrate or arrest our heroines. Here we have an explicit fascist theme, wedded to the bleakest form of feminism (Leo in Projansky, 2001, p. 139).
However if the film as read as not only commenting on and criticising the sexism of the male gaze but also subverting that male gaze with a female one then the stereotypical representations of men in the film are deliberate to encourage viewers to share Thelma and Louise's point of view.
It is also interesting to note that the majority of reviews of the film refer to the incident between Thelma and Harlan as attempted rape despite the fact that Thelma refers to it as rape throughout the film, meaning that the reviews themselves believe Harlan's version of the event over Thelma's. Yet the film itself works hard to break many of the patriarchal myths that surround sexual violence:
"The narrative structure of Thelma & Louise also represents significant challenges to the typical media depictions of rape, and in turn, to the male gaze. (Cooper, 2000, p.294)."
Unlike many other narratives that include rape sequences Thelma & Louise does not require a male response to rape. Commonly in dominant Hollywood films men hold the key to how a woman responds to rape
Very often it is men who teach women their errors regarding the law, "respond[ing] with a unified spirit that actively promotes female centred definitions of rape" (Moorti,258). "In these examples, men emerge as better feminists than women, taking over the voice of feminism in a text, and thus depicting feminism without women (Projansky, 2001, p.112)."
Yet Thelma is informed about rape and rape law by Louise who has an unnamed experience in Texas which although never mentioned can be read as rape. The women do not need a man to instruct them on how they should respond to the rape and they also do not require a man to have witnessed the rape as Sarah does in The Accused or a man to avenge them as in Rob Roy for example. Thelma & Louise is focussed on how the two women respond to rape and their message to each other - that rape is never the fault of the woman "works to challenge one of the most prevalent rape myths."
However, while the film does invert the male gaze it does not deconstruct it. The narrative, although driven by the two lead female characters, still depends on a masculine gender. The film can be described as a typical buddy film which replaces men with women in an otherwise "conventional and regressive road movie." (Projansky, 2001, p.150). It could also be argued that the character of Hall exists as a point of identification for male viewers and that this "belays the need for cross gender identification for men in the audience" (Projansky, 2001, p.150).
Thelma & Louise offers the spectator a narrative in which the women are not only central to the narrative but are driving that narrative forward. It also gives the audience a critique of rape and rape culture and offers self defence as a viable and pleasurable response to sexual assault, particularly in the case of the trucker. It shows two women responding to and learning about rape without needing a man to help them do it. When the two women leap of the edge of the Grand Canyon at the end of the film they are in reality leaping to their deaths. However, the camera shows only the freeze frame image of the women in a shot that is free from both men and the gaze of men. Finally we are left with a series of photographs of the women before the rape, showing them free from men and from sexual assault and as the photographs are taken by the women for the women, free from the masculine gaze. However while the women "share ownership of the gaze with men" (Projansky, 2001, p.148) the do not deconstruct it and the narrative of the film remains within a typical patriarchal structure which only plays with the gaze rather than eradicating visual pleasure from the film.
Rape and other types of sexual violence are prevalent in real life and it is inevitable that they will also continue to be prevalent in film:
"Representations of sexual violence pervade our social lives, occupying both public (e.g., movie theatres) and intimate (e.g. living rooms) spaces and defining gendered...social relations (Projansky, 2001, p.231) "
The dominance of these images of violence against women in film therefore becomes the norm:
The existence of rape is thus naturalised in life, perhaps seeming so natural that many people are unaware of the frequency with which they encounter these representations (Projansky, 2001, p.2)
The limitations of this dissertation are therefore clear. As representations of rape are so pervasive, it would be impossible to explore the implications of them all within this dissertation. Indeed it must be acknowledged that many key rape scenes have not been discussed here, one of the most notorious of which being the film A Clockwork Orange (1971) possibly one of the "most sexually violent films ever made for the commercial cinema" (Matthews, 1994, p.210). Nor has this dissertation explored the recent trend in extreme rape scenes in films such as Irreversible (2002) (which contains a nine minute rape scene) and Baise Moi (2003) or the rape scenes that are actually directed by women such as Catherine Breillat's Romance (1999) and Ah Ma Soeur! (2001).
However, having looked at a brief overview of the ways in which rape is commonly represented and then explored this in more detail through three case studies on Straw Dogs, The Accused and Thelma & Louise, it is clear that these representations rarely reflect the experiences of real women. If Projansky (2001) is correct when she says that "rape discourse is part of the fabric of what rape is in contemporary culture." (Projansky, 2001, p.2) then the myths that permeate these films will work effectively to "reinforce the power and authority of the heterosexual man" (Usher, 1997, p.421). By framing women within the male gaze mainstream film has "coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order" (Mulvey, 1989, p.16) making rape seem like "normal" man's reaction to an attractive women" (Usher, 1997, p.390):
Myth transmits and transforms the ideology of sexism and renders it invisible - when it is visible it evaporates and therefore natural (Nichols, 1976, p.210).
Rape sequences in film serve to position women to face sexual violence if they step out side their allotted role, whether by openly displaying her sexuality as in Straw Dogs, through risky "unfeminine" behaviour such as drinking, flirting or taking drugs as Sarah does in The Accused or by leaving the confines of the heterosexual family and relying on a woman instead of a man like Thelma in Thelma & Louise. If the male gaze serves to provide "a script for the construction of heterosexual desire" (Usher, 1997, p.106) then rape sequences which support rape myths act to:
"keep women in check and ensure that they don't stray to far from the confines of femininity, because they know what their punishment could be (Usher, 1997, p.396).
Added to this is the most prevalent rape myth of all: "that women are to blame for their own sexual violation - a belief that is incomprehensible in any context other than traditional patriarchal conceptions of rape" (Projansky, 2001, p.8).
From this it would be easy to conclude that representations of sexual violence should not even be shown in cinema asking as Usher (1997) does:
"For whom is this "entertainment?" The women who fear for their lives and believe that rape and sexual violence is rife on the streets as a result? Or the men who might fantasise about such attacks, living out vengeful fantasies by being a voyeur?" (Usher, 1997, p.134).
It certainly raises the question of how they should be represented and who should be deciding what we see. Currently the BBFC still controls censorship, yet it is still an institution dominated by men. James Ferman, former chief film censor from 1975 -1999, even went as far to state that he was a "better feminist than women are" (Matthews, 1994, p.223). It could also be argued that to censor sexual violence from films altogether would only add to the silence that surrounds sexual violence in society. Perhaps, as Mulvey suggests, visual pleasure must be eradicated from cinema before rape can be represented in a beneficial way.
From the films studied in this dissertation it is clear that narrative structure plays a big part in the way that rape is represented. As long as Hollywood cinema continues to adhere to the theory of the gaze then rape will no doubt remain as a narrative device to drive a story forward as well as a way of ensuring that women remain passive within film through the reinforcement of myths about rape which, in turn, help to reinforce patriarchy.
Ah ma soeur! d. Catherine Breillat, France, Tartan, 2001.
A Clockwork Orange d. Stanley Kubrick, US, Warner Home Video, 1971.
Baise Moi d. Virginie Despentes, France, Universal, 2003.
Basic Instinct d. Paul Verhoeven, US, Momentum Pictures, 1992.
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Gone with the Wind d. Victor Flemming, US, Warner Home Video, 1939.
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Horeck, T. "They did worse than nothing: Rape and Spectatorship in "The Accused"
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Irreversible d. Gaspar Noe, France, Tartan, 2002.
Matthews, T. Censored, London, Chatto & Widus, 1994.
Mulvey, L. Visual and Other Pleasures, London, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1989.
Nichols, B (Ed). Movies and Methods, London, University of California Press Ltd, 1976.
9 1/2 Weeks d. Adrian Lyne, US, Columbia Tri-Star, 1985
Pike, R. Aphrodite Wounded, http://pages.ivillage.com/boadicea66/aphroditewounded/ 2002.
Prince, S (ed). Screening Violence, Piscataway, Rutgers University Press, 2000.
Rob Roy d. Michael Caton-Jones, US, MGM. 1995.
Romance, d. Catherine Breillat France, blueLight,1999.
Schlesinger, P, Emmerson Dobash, R, Dobash R & Weaver, C. Women Viewing Violence, London, British Film Institute, 1992.
Straw Dogs d. Sam Peckinpah, US, Fremantle Home Entertainment, 1971.
The Accused d. Jonathan Kaplan, US, Paramount, 1988.
Thelma & Louise d. Ridley Scott, US, MGM, 1991.
Usher, J. Fantasies of Femininity, London, Penguin Books, 1997.