[The text of the video essay follows.]
When I watched Back to
the Future with my parents as a child, I remember my shock at seeing Marty
McFly’s mom sexually assaulted by the high school bully, Biff, in the backseat
of a car. The assault was confusing. I remember my first viewing of this
relatively tame movie as a garble of images–the backseat, the fluffy curls of
the pink prom dress, the feet poking out, the muffled screams.
Of course, this entire scene is about Marty’s dad having the
guts to punch the rapist in the face, to tell him to “leave her alone.” By the
end Marty’s mother is all smiles, relief, and pride in having chosen a man who
would defend and respect her.
My exposure to cartoon gender relations was similarly
violent. The female cartoon characters in shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs
liked to don skimpy outfits. The male characters’ eyes would pop out of their
skulls, tongues hanging out lecherously. Of course, these shows played on old
cartoon favorites. Betty Boop often had to avoid unwanted male attention, poor
Olive Oyl was constantly placed in supposedly comic situations where she was
being either kidnapped or harassed, and in Tex Avery’s Little Red Riding Hood,
“Red” is a full grown woman who must be careful of the predatory wolf who
stalks her nightclub.
When I was a child, the images of a female cartoon character
being catcalled, or a woman being assaulted, did not seem especially unusual. I
assumed that warding off male attention was met by most adult women with a
mixture of pride and mild annoyance. As I got older, I became more and more
concerned about this phenomenon. When even strong, powerful women are victimized
in films and television, a dashing hero saves the day.
Today, in the age of Steubenville, we still worry about the
ways boys and men prey on girls and women. Social organizations often still
rely on the white knight trope when they address this matter. Actors and
musicians who regularly objectify women on screen and in music videos are shown
looking sad as they pose with Real Men Don’t Buy Girls hashtag signs. In the
White House PSA on sexual assault, Daniel Craig and Benicio Del Toro are among the male
participants calling for heroic behavior.
Stepping in when someone is in trouble is certainly
honorable, but the moral lesson in these PSAs provides men with the same
options they had in Back to the Future.
Are you a Marty, or a Bif? Will you defend womanhood, or assault it?
The threat of rape is often used as a device for male
characters to become heroes, which contributes to the idea that sexual assault
is a normal part of growing up female. Rape is still seen as unchecked lust
rather than an expression of violence.
This myth has far reaching repercussions, as girls and women live in the
very real shadow of sexual assault constantly. We get inured to sexual violence
on shows like Game of Thrones, where
rape is often presented in the background of a scene, something bad, brutal men
do to helpless women.
It’s exhausting as a woman to constantly see the female body
on the brink of violation. I’m tired of the voicelessness of those bodies, by
the fact that we still need to spread awareness about how horrible sexual
assault actually is. I know I’m supposed to be grateful when people express
that they are aware, when men who seem poised to protect me when I go out, when
someone develops an app designed to help get me home safe by checking in with my
family and friends.
The way rape is portrayed today is not so different from how
it was portrayed in 80s exploitation films, where rape is intended to shock and
titillate in one fell swoop, like it often does in the current series Game of Thrones. A film like Extremities, for example, promises the
sweetest of revenges for a female protagonist, but it is the image of Farrah Fawcett
cowering and sobbing, forced to take off her clothes, while her rapist looks on
and calls her beautiful that has become the ubiquitous Hollywood rape scene,
where a gorgeous woman is exposed and shamed and, despite the fact that we are
told to root for her, we are also given permission to ogle her, to see her
through the rapist’s lens, before we see her own experience.
This is one of the reasons that Joan’s rape scene on Mad Men is so effective is that it
portrays her quiet terror without fetishizing her body or her fear. We don’t
see her ample curves illuminated, the way they normally are. Joan’s sexuality
is a point of pride throughout the series, and the camera makes it clear that
what we are witnessing is a power play and violation. There’s nothing sexual
about it. The camera ends not on a close up of her body, but a close up of her
staring at a point just ahead of her in an office that isn’t hers, as she waits
for what is happening to stop.
Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story
contests. She is currently writing her first book.
Serena Bramble is a film editor whose
montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching
and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and
Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing,
she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.