Rape and sexual violence have had a place in cinema since it began. Women have predominately been the victims of this violence. Women have been victimized and men have been victimizers as early as 1903’s “What Happened in the Tunnel,” a comedy.
From the unbearable horror of Gasper Noe’s revenge flick “Irreversible” to the subtle implication of the 1918 comedy “The Talk of the Town,” sexual violence has driven numerous movies’ narratives.
According to University of Utah professor Sarah Projansky, rape narratives generally come in two forms: women’s vulnerability leads them to be raped, and an independent women is made vulnerable by being raped. At the same time, sexual violence against men in movies is comparatively subtle.
Sure, there are exceptions like the infamous rape scenes in “Deliverance” and “Pulp Fiction.” But male rape is more often played off as a joke, like “Wedding Crashers” and an extended scene in the TV show “Desperate Housewives.”
So the question remains: Why use rape as a narrative device?
In Noe’s “Irreversible,” the soul-rending rape of the main character, Alex, is the climax, but it isn’t the focus. The whole movie takes place in reverse so the viewer sees the revenge that Alex’s boyfriend reaps on her behalf, forcing the viewer to think, “Was the revenge any different from the rape?”
On the other hand, the jealous husband, Major French, in “The Talk of the Town” pays a man to rape his wife, Genevra, in order to “cure” her flirtatious nature, and the whole thing is played off as a joke.
Alex is an independent woman whose assault makes her vulnerable, while Genevra’s vulnerability leads to her rape. In essence, victimized women in movies are told either that independent behavior can lead to rape or that rape is the product of independent behavior, according to Projansky.
Men have also been victims on-screen, though less often than women. Films like “Deliverance” and “Pulp Fiction” view male rape as an emasculating incident. The infamous “squeal like a pig!” scene in the former strips the victim, Bobby, of his manhood, the remnants of which his friends Lewis, Ed and Drew have to pick up for him.
In the latter, “Pulp Fiction,” Marsellus Wallace is sodomized before Butch Coolidge injures the rapists, allowing Marsellus the time to “go medieval” on his attackers. The men get their revenge where women usually don’t.
While there’s a whole subgenre of rape revenge films like “I Spit on Your Grave” and “Lady Vengeance,” women in film less often get to reap their own revenge than men do. Like in “Irreversible,” “The Virgin Spring,” “Straw Dogs” and “Last House on the Left,” the men seek revenge.
In any case, women are more often disempowered through sexual violence on-screen than men. This promotes the idea that women are naturally victims while men are naturally perpetrators. It’s blatantly untrue, and, given enough time, it leaves fingerprints all over society. If the money keeps flowing in to movies that make a mockery of sexual violence, more movies like that will pop up. It is our job to encourage movies that deal with the subject in a serious, and realistic, light