Why Hollywood Can't Tell A Sexual Violence Story

Film is a visual medium, suited to telling visual stories. Narration frequently (not always) is a burden to a film, dragging down the story rather than advancing it. To pick one well-known example, Harrison Ford's hammy narration in Blade Runner was imposed on the director by the producers, who found the story too confusing. The recently released "director's cut" of the movie removes the narration.

A scene of a man looking sadly out the window because a loved one has died speaks for itself; it doesn't require a voice on the soundtrack telling us, "He would never recover from Lola's death." Dialog is, in fact, completely secondary to a film; many great films have only minimal dialog, or even have overlapping, incomprehensible dialog which helps establish atmosphere without communicating a lot of information. By contrast, films where dialog is king are often criticized as being too "talky" and static, and are suspected of being incompletely transposed stage plays (which they often are.)

The actors in films, especially the women, are all objects first, people second; they must look really great before they are expected to do anything else. Film famously creates an illusion, weaving the ordinary, the stale and the plain into magic. A wonderful dramatization of this idea is deNiro's bit of business in The Last Tycoon, when he improvises a story with a pair of gloves and a nickel. The scene he makes up means nothing--it has no plot, no explanation-- but is completely captivating.

Recently, I saw Chris Hynde and the Pretenders perform. Chris Hynde has a powerful and interesting presence, and writes songs that capture me and make me think. Her personality and power are in her voice and her stories; she does not present as an object on stage. She did a guest shot recently on a half hour sitcom and in the clip I saw, they had managed to make her trivially pretty. It is as a result of this phenomenon that people, catching sight of a star in person, often comment how "ordinary" they look.

On the Entertainment network, when they show videotaped clips from movies in progress, they are always laughable--on video, you can see that the action is being faked and that the props are cardboard. But in the final film version, everything has been transformed-- the guns, flame and danger are all real.

Finally, a film, even if its goal is to educate or provoke thought, must foremost entertain. It is not a good medium for cataloging a shell collection or a discourse on how to design a better gasoline engine. Even serious movies must entertain us;La Strada has a carnival atmosphere, love, a kind of sad beauty, and some suspense, while still qualifying as one of the most "serious" movies ever made. Schindler's List--a wannabe serious movie--has many Indiana Jones type moments; witness the Auschwitz shower scene, where you do not know if gas or water will emerge when the showers are turned on.

So, since film is a visual medium; an actress must first be an object; and every scene must entertain, it follows that Hollywood can never tell an honest story about sexual violence. The text of the movie may be that rape is horrible, but the subtext is always that something rather erotic is happening to an attractive object onscreen.

The movie Lipstick was, as far as I know, the first mainstream Hollywood film to portray a rape really graphically; both Hemingway sisters were attacked by the same man in scenes where the music and camerawork combined to make the rapes an alluring spectacle. Of course, the older sister shot the rapist at the end; this is an example of the old hypocritical balance in Hollywood films, which I also discuss in Fantasy and Morality, in which the audience enjoys both the rape and the punishment of the rapist. Yet Lipstick masqueraded as being a serious treatment of its subject, as did the series of TV movies (for a while, it seemed the series was "ABC Rape Movie of the Week") which followed. These showed actresses like Elizabeth Montgomery in scenes that were as erotic as TV standards would permit.

A poster a few years ago in the New York subway showed fifteen girls and women, from toddlers to elderly, and announced they had one thing in common: they were potential victims of sexual assault. It was a thought-provoking moment: if all you knew about rape was from the movies and TV, you would think (as most men probably do) that only beautiful young women are raped. Though I don't agree with certain feminists that rape is about violence only, not sex--I think rapists are wired in such a way that violence, power and sex get mixed up together--movies, because of their visual and exciting quality make rapes only sex, with the violence merely adding an additional frisson, an add-on like body oil or sexual paraphenalia.

I have written before that Hollywood also cannot tell a sexual harassment story because sex harassment is so deeply built in to the Hollywood studio system and into the nature of film itself. It is the only sphere of life left where a talented woman can be denied a job because her breasts are not big enough and no-one thinks twice about it. Thus Hollywood, when it tries to approach serious sexual topics, tends to reverse stories and make the victim a man--witness Disclosure, Hollywood's first attempt at a sexual harassment story, with Demi Moore forcing sex on Michael Douglas. Similarly, one of the first TV rape movies had a man--a pudgy, ordinary man--raped by a woman.

A movie could, of course, tell an honest story about sexual violence if it happened to someone the audience didn't find attractive, in a way that was not exciting but frightening only--and even then certain elements of the audience would still enjoy it. Another approach, of course, would be to show the events prior to the assault and then the consequences without portraying the violence itself. Both choices are completely inimical to the nature of film.

As DeNiro's character demonstrated in Last Tycoon, Hollywood film-makers must think about spectacle first; ideas are secondary. When it comes to sexual violence, the spectacle perverts and contradicts the idea. Hollywood serves up whatever audiences will pay to see; if audiences will pay to watch sexual violence, Hollywood will make rape movies, while overlaying a thin veneer of political correctness. There are some stories that it is a better choice not to tell.