The use of sexual violence in film has often been debated in its necessity and influence, especially as our entertainment has become less censored and more bold in its portrayal of taboo topics. However, the portrayal of sexual violence, both its victims and its perpetrators, can be harmful in much more insidious and indirect ways. The explicit portrayal of rape is not necessary to do damage; nuanced perspectives of consent, fetishization of violence against women, and the morality of rapists as well as the
victim can be equally harmful.
One aspect of the portrayal of rape in film that has been cause for alarm has been the inclusion of rapists as main characters, whom are often seen as redeemable for their actions. Game of Thrones has been a particularly relevant example of this in recent years, with character such as Jamie Lannister and Khal Drogo being shown committing rape in multiple scenes. As the show continues after such scenes however, the characters are portrayed in a positive light, intending to make them subjects of admiration from the audiences, so that their actions of rape may be viewed as mistakes from which they have moved on and emerged better from. This has been a cause for alarm for many, as it suggests that rape is a morally redeemable mistake.
Another example of this is protagonist Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, who rapes his wife Scarlett O’hara after she swears to refuse his advances for a long period of time. This scene is often portrayed as one of the most romantic in film history, despite the fact that O’hara explicitly denied her consent. The morning after the scene O’hara is suggested to have enjoyed the experience, suggesting another flaw in our entertainment’s portrayal of rape: the idea that forced sex can be justified and even romantic, because that the denial of the woman is not legitimate. This is a particularly insidious idea and is found with surprising frequency in other places. Every woman who denies a man initially is seen as
playing “hard to get” and their denial is seen as a romantic proposition, often serving as the basis of many popular on screen relationships, even ones thought to be more innocent. It is found yet again in Star Wars, in the relationship between princess Leia and Han Solo, again one of the most famous on-screen relationships in film history that has been viewed by generations of young people. In one scene, Leia tells Han Solo to leave her alone on numerous occasions and shows body language that suggests discomfort, yet he denies her refusal and kisses her. Though rape or sex is not explicitly addressed or portrayed in the
film, the gesture of denying Leia’s refusal has implications as dangerous as those in Gone with the Wind.
Sexual violence is similarly trivialized on screen through the fetishization of rape, when rape or general violence against women is used for the visual pleasure and fascination of the audience rather than to horrify it. This is most common in the horror genre, where the violent and revolting imagery is commonplace. The regularity of terrifying imagery often serves as a justification for the graphic portrayal of rape, even though these portrayals often deviate in this end and are often used to titillate rather than
horrify. Women are shown from the perspective of those who wish to harm them, their appearance and sexuality is coveted and focused on with abnormal frequency, such as in Alfred Hitchcock’s film “Vertigo.” The character Madeleine is stalked by John “Scottie” Ferguson, the audience seeing her only through his eyes. Her suffering at the hands of Ferguson is not portrayed from her own perspective, the audience is detached from and entertained by her pain as they watch her sexual objectification
simultaneously. Such a one sided perspective of female pain coupled with objectifying imagery of women in a sexual light creates a problematic view of sexual violence by by minimizing, and even glorifying its impact through fetihized, inaccurate, and insensitive portrayals.
Though we acknowledge that the entertainment we consume is merely fiction and like to think that it serves as only a distraction, the influence that it still manages to have is undeniable. It contributes to the vast world of our collective popular culture, and therefore our collective beliefs and practices. It is integral that we acknowledge this influence and monitor the portrayal of issues as impactful and sensitive as sexual violence, so its power does not become harmful in shaping our own perspectives.