With House of the Dragon and Game of Thrones coming back into cultural focus, a common discussion I see crop up over and over again is crtiiscm of the failed depictions of sexual violence in media and whether said depictions should be in art at all. The latter is a ridiculous sentiment but the first I wanted to unpack: What does a nuanced depiction of sexual assault and its fallout look like? In live action media, does it simply come down to acting? Frequency of said act? Composition of how it’s shot? Does there need to be screen time of the character thinking about the rape and recovering from it? Can a story contain rape without it becoming a ‘rape story’? When is rape not ‘necessary’? When does it ‘serve the plot’?
Obviously there is no capital A answer to these, only answers of taste and preference. I recall Brandon Taylor’s piece ‘emotional support trauma plot‘ a response to Parul Sehgal’s piece ‘The Case Against the Trauma Plot’ (both wonderful essays), in which he says, “The trauma plot strikes me as a name we might give to fiction in which there is simply no there there, you know? Like, fiction that gropes toward or gestures at some shadowy region of the human experience because it has nothing really interesting to say about being alive.”
There is no accounting for artistic mediocrity. Sturgeon’s Law tells us that shitty writing will always vastly outnumber good writing and that shittiness fuels, I think, offense within an already paranoid audience. Some feedback I got on this essay was that they wanted me to dive more into mishandlings of sexual violence and the tropes that comes with that, like rape as shorthand to gain reader’s empathy, rape as motivation for change, rape in hurt/comfort fic. But none of these tropes are bad on their face; narrative context matters.
Part of this trend of badly-crafted trauma narratives, Taylor goes on to explain, is the trend of tone and voice, along with the ubiquity of them in popular stories. Homogeneity of experience, especially secondhand, ends up as a regurgitant formula that rings with untruth because of its rigid repetition. This is common with a lot of subject matter, be it banal or gravely serious. But I also don’t think a poor depiction of rape should be considered any more an egregeious sin than any other poor depiction of anything, which for some reason it is.
I would say along with this meditation on artistic mediocrity, partiularly with depictions of rape, there are specfic stereotypical storybeats people reach for, as seen in almost every whodunnit TV show. These procedurals vastly end up centering the attacker and romanticizing his pathology while the victim is reduced to a site for clues. Their violation becomes simply a vehicle for mystery. The sexual violence is also usually toothlessly depicted if it is shown at all. And yet these stories are immensely popular. To the general audience, as long as the rape is not centered, it’s palatable, desirable even. The violation is a means to another end, not the end itself. Like most choices in art, it all depends on context and I’m not convinced that these aforementioned plots are always a poor craft choice but that mediocrity coupled with a supposed lack of reverence for the violation stirs up offense in a certain audience.
I wonder if the trend in how audiences engage with art and the neurosis around art’s infectious influence on reality, is also to blame. Wait, that’s a lie, I don’t wonder at all. For the general populace, across culture, the sexual is the sacred profane, the romantic. Its the animal, the generative. The anti-death, the art. There is so much impossibly dense shame around sex, a human expericene generally concieved of as good or at least neutral when done consensually funnily enough, that it doesn’t take much to see why sexual violence is rephrensible to them to experience in media, to say nothing of their feelings towards the artist that depicts it. If you want to read more on art, harm and our protective instincts of disgust, I’ve written about it more here.
The characters who experience this type of sexual violation in stories still greatly focus on the experience of women. One glaring absence that hasn’t been helped by the permeation of #metoo is men’s experiences with rape. A friend mentioned that this was one thing Game of Thrones did well, exploring several male characters as they undergo a variety of sexually violent experiences. Same goes for Coel’s I May Destroy You, where Paapa Essiedu’s character Kwame is raped by a man he met on Grindr, though his arc allows for far less complex exploration than is given Michaela Coel’s character Arabella. The fictional exploration of child sexual assault is even moreso intolerable to the audience in our creative climate, among other related taboos.
There is also a heavy expectation for sufficient attention and solemnity around anything sexual but especially sexual violence, and a demand for dignity for the fictional victim. In addition, anything that deviates from reverence, whether aesthetic or in its contextual narrative execution, is often looked upon as badly crafted. The raped body must be depicted within an aesthetic framework of violation. Gratuity and spectacle around sexual violence is egregeious to the typical viewer. What are the aesthetics of dignity? How are they at odds with spectacle and melodrama? Coming from a culture where pomp and death are intertwined, I don’t believe that shock and spectacle is at odds with diginity and meaningfulness and though it is always a matter of execution, I think generally there’s a flinching response to stylistic extravagance in service to sexual violence.
To push this question further, is it ever legitimate of a creative work to purposely depict a rape in a fetishistic or erotic manner? Why or when is that titillation wrong in a craft-sense? Some would argue that would push the creation into pornographic territory but then one must answer where the line is between porography and art. If art is an abstract, distilled expression of self, I don’t see why porngraphy doesn’t fall into that category. A strong aesthetic desire, to me, is the same function a fetish fills, with an added erotic element. To answer the questions at the start of this paragraph, for me personally, if the erotic execution serves the goals of the work, then it is a legitimate choice. When titillation isn’t the artistic goal but is nonetheless conveyed in a way that feels fetish-y, then that can promote a decoherence that I consider to be bad craft. One example of this would be the true crime genre across media which I find delivers details of attacks and a romanticization of violent offenders in a fetishistic, titillating way.
This anxiety around our moral responsibilities as viewers brings to mind Greenaway’s The Baby of Mâcon, a film established at the start as a movie of a masque or play. In it, the rape of the character known as ‘the daughter’ by an army of 208 men to the point of death becomes terrifying as the play blurs into reality. As the performance of rape is hidden by a curtani, one of the play’s actors playing a soldier states, “no need to act anymore, the audience can’t see.” The audience in question is the play’s spectators within the film but we, the spectators outside the film, are given full view of the actresses’ ‘true’ violation before we too are cordoned off by a curtain. It’s an excellent layered depiction of sexual violence, playing with ideas of complicity in the creation of art as well as the director and audience’s fetishization of aesthetics, voyerism and sexual violence.
Coming up in the Feminist Frequency era of media critiscm, when people were using the Bechdel Test literally, I still see its planar vestiges in critical analysis today where the audience expects to see models of morality within the narrative. Why didn’t the rapist go to jail? Why didn’t the victim report to the police? Why didn’t the victim get to overcome their assault within the story? Why didn’t they get to confront their attacker? And so on. There is a distinct discomfort which boils into offense when an artist refuses the audience’s comfort over their own personal truth. How does a concept like the passive protagonist or story structures that go against Western narrative tradition factor into a rape narrative? These elements seem impossible to weave for an audience who privileges a fictional character’s agency, surface representation and a clear moral arc over what the work actually wants to be.
In my graphic novel, A Map to the Sun, a 16 year old native girl has a sexual relationship with her older white male teacher and the final resoltuion is that she makes plans to stop seeing him. There is no confrontation or consequence for him; I couldn’t tell you how many reviews and emails I got telling me how morally wrong this was of me to write despite this being based on lived experience, that an older white man in a institutional position of power would get the benefit of the doubt over a delinquent student of color, that the cops would do nothing, that the shame of admitting the situation would be more harmful to the girl than the man. It’s an ugly truth but a truth nonetheless.
When morality is not an issue, tidy narrative endings are another element western audiences have a particular insistent need for. When sexual trauma is not resolved in story or, worse, when resolution is not even gestured at, audiences find it unsatisfying to a degree they assume is morally bad. There is something about sexual violence in media, especially within the US, that is particularly abhorrent, a reaction at odds with non-sexual violence which most USians find entertaining mainstays in media. There’s also a common sentiment from the audience who find rape reprehensible to depict that feeds into the idea that rape is the worse thing that can happen to you. I almost prefer a blase depiction of rape rather than the “you’ll never recover from this and you are broken forever” depiction that is the usual go-to.
There’s also a coherence around the ‘tone’ of the body that is generally expected from an audience and any decoherence is distasteful. A raped body being anything other than a static site of violation, acting out anything that isn’t the performance expected of a victim, becomes uncomfortable and transgressive. One of my favorite examples of this is Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, where Laura’s ongoing rape by her father fuels her own masochistic, drug-fueled sexual life. Horror and titillation, revulsion and love are braided together throughout, exuding from Laura and also flowing into her. Another good example is rape-revenge and exploitation films, where the body as a site of pleasure and a site of transgression, pain and violence is juxtaposed, causing discomfort. Ito’s Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion is a good example, giving us a wholly tense but surprisingly restrained rape scene placed in sequence to playful and sensational pinku imagery. Noe’s Irreversible lingers equally long on the rape of Belucci’s character Alex as it does her being intimate with her lover Marcus, played by Vincent Cassel.
Another one of my favorite depictions of rape and the subsequent metabolization of the experience resides in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, in which the titular Elle played by the stunning Isabelle Huppert, a successful businesswoman, is raped in her own home by a man in a ski mask. There’s more to this film that I have time to describe but much of the subsequent story isn’t just a whodunnit but a deep exploration of a single woman’s frighteningly unique desire for domination and a dangerous game of power dynamics, one she continues to play with the man she knows to be her rapist.
Another part of Elle’s experience that resonates is her lack of concern with the rape; she doesn’t have the typical shower breakdown but neatly bathes off the blood after her rape. She doesn’t call the cops even at the urging of her friends and ex, nor takes any precautions to barricade herself inside her home. She also doesn’t become timid or paranoid, still maintaining her assertiveness by berating her immature male employees at her company. There is nothing in Elle’s script that is typical and yet it feels truer for it, especially for me. Elle feels like a more mature echo of her equally complex role in The Piano Teacher, her performance excavating a character that can only exist in this time and place, with specific desires and fears and perversions. Elle’s story as a whole doesn’t care about perceived morality or providing tidy resolutions, its loyalty lies only with the truth of this character and the director’s vision.
Good art isn’t concerned with tropes and reinforcing or subverting ideologies; that’s PR. That’s optics. Not art. Sometimes the stereotype, the ugly, unflattering and insulting cliche, is true. As Rodin told us, “There is nothing ugly in art except that which is without character, that is to say that which offers no outer or inner truth.” What more can you ask from art than truth?