Game of Thrones: Rape & Race

November 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

The TV version of Game of Thrones has been, by and large, faithful to the books. There have been a handful of scenes inserted that didn’t take place in the books but are true to the spirit of the characters, but rarely is something inserted, deleted or altered in such a way that it completely changes our interpretation of them. There is one glaring example, however, and that is Khal Drogo’s rape of Daenerys after the wedding scene.

In the books, this scene is clearly consensual. Dany is a little hesitant and perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of it, so Drogo waits for her to be ready, and the sex occurs only after Dany physically initiates the act herself. This is not particularly surprising, coming from Martin–throughout the books, he often plays with the conventions of the genre, setting up a suspenseful scene that the audience assumes will play out one way, only to give them the exact opposite. (See also, for example, the Mountain’s jousting in the Tourney of the Hand and the declaration of Ned Stark on the steps of the Sept of Baelor.) Throughout the wedding scene, Martin depicts the Dothraki as a “savage” people who love fighting, public fucking, and bizarre foods, thus forcing the audience to empathize with Dany as she’s introduced to a foreign culture. The suspense builds as we, like Dany, are set up to expect the worst of her wedding night. The fact that it doesn’t happen humanizes the Dothraki, complicates the idea of them as “primitive” in comparison to the people of Westeros, and establishes a solid foundation for Dany and Drogo’s loving marriage later on in the book–one of the most positive portrayals of a relationship in the entire series, one of the few where power struggles don’t occur in the bedroom.

HBO chose instead, for reasons I can’t understand, to present this scene as a rape. Instead of subverting expectations, it confirms them–and that has all kinds of problematic implications for the series’ treatment of race and gender. Instead of Dany and Drogo starting out their marriage on roughly equal footing, they force Dany to first be subjugated before she can come back and “tame” Khal Drogo with her magical vagina. Although their partnership later shifts into the respectful one of the book, I’m never fully sold on it. When sex is initially used as a weapon, as a means of jockeying for position, it seems unlikely that it can miraculously be transformed into an expression of love instead.

And the implications for race are even more troubling. Instead of using the wedding night scene as a way of underscoring the point that the Dothraki are not as barbaric as they initially appear–no more “barbaric” than those who currently sit on the Iron Throne, at least, or than Dany’s brother Viserys, who claims he’ll let every single one of the Dothraki rape his sister if it buys him the throne–the rape scene corroborates that exact misconception. We are supposed to buy the Dothraki as simple savages. Barbarians. Others. There’s no subversion here.

There is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind.

June 1, 2011 § 1 Comment

Gone with the Wind is something of a cinematic Rorschach test, and its ability to be all things to all people is a part of its long-lasting appeal. It’s racist, except when it’s not: the horrors of slavery are glossed over, the semi-complexity of the novel’s characters is reduced to stereotypes in the film, and the black actors were treated poorly at the premiere and, on some occasions, on the set–but the film was one of the only ones of its time to actually give black actors something to do besides stand in the background and smile ingratiatingly, and it led to Hattie McDaniel’s famous first Best Supporting Actress win. The film is pro-Southern, except when it’s anti-Southern: the antebellum South is romanticized (knights and ladies fair, a dream remembered, et cetera) but it also very blatantly spells out the fact that the South failed because they were cocky, ignorant bastards who were too wrapped up in their ladies fair and their code of chivalry to see the forest for the trees. It’s sexist, except when it’s not: Scarlett and Melanie are extremely strong female characters in different molds, with Scarlett breaking all the confining conventions to which her gender is held, and the focus on how war affects women was quite revolutionary for its time–but there’s a definite Taming of the Shrew vibe, and demure Melanie is clearly set up as the ideal of Southern womanhood, with even Margaret Mitchell herself expressing wonderment (a little disingenuously, in my opinion) at why Scarlett turned out to be so well-loved by so many. And then there’s the little matter of that rape scene . . .

There’s only one small problem with that: there is no rape scene in Gone with the Wind–and whenever anybody describes the staircase scene as such, I have to fight the urge to tear my hair out, weep, beat my chest, et cetera. To be fair to them, it’s easy to mistake the staircase scene for a rape scene when Rhett carries Scarlett kicking and screaming up the stairs–but to be fair to the movie’s directors, too, there’s not much more they could have done with the source material to make the scene clear, short of slapping a voice-over on it. It’s a scene that essentially requires you to be in the heroine’s head in order to parse what’s going on–and thus it’s one of the few scenes in the book that doesn’t translate well to the screen. Here’s Mitchell in that deliciously purple scene:

“Up the stairs, he went in utter darkness, up, up, and she was wild with fear. He was a mad stranger and this was a black darkness she did not know, darker than death. He was like death, carrying her away in arms that hurt. She screamed, stifled against him and he stopped suddenly on the landing and, turning her swiftly in his arms, bent over her and kissed her with a savagery and a completeness that wiped out everything from her mind but the dark into which she was sinking and the lips on hers. . . . She was darkness and he was darkness and there had never been anything before this time, only darkness and his lips upon her. She tried to speak and his mouth was over hers again. Suddenly she had a wild thrill such as she had never known; joy, fear, madness, excitement, surrender to arms that were too strong, lips too bruising, fate that moved too fast. For the first time in her life she had met someone, something stronger than she, someone she could neither bully nor break, someone who was bullying and breaking her. Somehow, her arms were around his neck and her lips trembling beneath his and they were going up, up into the darkness again, a darkness that was soft and swirling and all enveloping.”

And then, of course, the infamous morning after:

“Oh, she should be ashamed, should shrink from the very memory of the hot swirling darkness! A lady, a real lady, could never hold up her head after such a night. But, stronger than shame, was the memory of rapture, of the ecstasy of surrender. For the first time in her life she had felt alive, felt passion as sweeping and primitive as the fear she had known the night she fled Atlanta, as dizzy sweet as the cold hate when she had shot the Yankee. . . . When she thought of meeting him again, face to face in the sober light of day, a nervous tingling embarrassment that carried with it an exciting pleasure enveloped her.

‘I’m nervous as a bride,’ she thought. ‘And about Rhett!’ And, at the idea she fell to giggling foolishly.”

That’s not a rape. In fact, that this scene is not a rape illustrates the entire point of the 700-page story: that Rhett is Scarlett’s perfect match specifically because he’s the only one that can meet her on her level, beat her at her own game, turn her darkness into light. Does the scene start ugly? Definitely–and the altercation leading up to it, where (in the film), Rhett tells Scarlett to “observe my hands, my dear. I could tear you to pieces with them, and I’d do it if it’d take Ashley out of your mind forever. But it wouldn’t. So I’ll remove him from your mind forever this way. I’ll put my hands so–one on each side of your head–and I’ll smash¬† your skull between them like a walnut, and that’ll block him out” . . . is, in my opinion, even uglier. But an ugly, nasty scene though it is, it’s not a rape scene. Is Rhett a bastard and a half here? Yes–a drunk, emotionally abusive bastard, but not a rapist. Nobody has sex against their will in this scene. Scarlett is carried up the stairs against her will, but carrying someone up the stairs against their will isn’t rape, and she’s happily succumbed to the idea of sex long before they get to the top step.

While we’re on the subject of forgotten tropes, here’s another one: the forced seduction. While most common in romance novels, it enjoyed its heyday in movies, too, and Gone with the Wind is its prime example. Forced seduction stemmed from the pre-sexual revolution days when Good Girls Didn’t, which, for writers, raised the question of how to get a good girl (or, in Scarlett’s case, a wildly independent one) into bed with the leading man when she had no logical reason to be there. The admittedly imperfect solution they came up with? Have the leading man force himself on her. Of course, he can’t actually force her to have sex, as a real hero, no matter how unchivalrous, would never have to resort to forcing women to have sex with him–so a forced seduction is something that starts as a rape but transforms into consensual sex at some point before penetration. This was intended to take just enough culpability off the woman that her reputation remained undamaged, while still allowing the man to cling to the shards of his respectability–and whatever plot point needed to be fulfilled by the two characters coming together could still play out. This trope became mostly unnecessary after the sexual revolution and basically died off in the film world after that, although–oddly–it lasted well into the 1980s in the realm of romance novels.

I’m certainly not arguing that the story doesn’t showcase sexism in other ways, or even that the staircase scene isn’t plenty sexist in its own right–but it’s not rape. Blindly worshiping Gone with the Wind displays a lack of brain power, but roundly condemning it is just as easy, and often, just as wrong. Margaret Mitchell’s magnum opus, and the movie based on it, are two of the most morally ambiguous pieces of pop culture the 20th century produced. A little deeper digging is in order here.

Last Summer

February 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

For girls, there is this weird phase in your teenage years where, after emerging from a long, awkward spell of glasses, braces and terrible skin, you emerge into a world where you are suddenly considered a sex object. All of a sudden, men catcall you from across the street and honk at you from their cars. All of a sudden, all your guy friends want to date you. All of a sudden, men twice your age start to ogle you when you’re out running in shorts and a sports bra. This can be especially jarring since, in a lot of cases, it’s only been a year or two since you were wearing a training bra and your parents wouldn’t let you stay home by yourself at night. Girls respond to this developmental whiplash in different ways: being (understandably) grossed out, being flattered, or scared–but there is a certain type of girl who loves the power that this new-found attention so much that she purposely puts herself in situations where she can use her body to manipulate and coerce others into doing whatever she wants, oblivious to how much it hurts other people.

That girl is Sandy in Last Summer.

Last Summer was adapted from a novel of the same title, wherein (allegedly) Sandy is essentially Lady Hitler, and designed to stand in as a symbol of the evils of fascism. The two boys, her followers, are the Nazis that blindly do her bidding and thus are equally as guilty. (I haven’t read the novel so I don’t know if this was the author’s actual intention. I just read it on IMDB, so . . . take this interpretation with a grain of salt.) The movie makes two of the characters–Sandy, the beautiful leader, and Peter, the kinder of her two followers–less brutal and thus more nuanced than they are in the book, and I think this does a favor to the plot. Sandy, rather than evil personified, becomes a girl who is just beginning to grasp the power that her looks and body have over men. As a control freak who demands to hold sway over everyone in her immediate circle, she’s willing to take that control to sadistic–yet realistic–ends. She establishes her power over the boys early in the film, when she seduces them into getting drunk and telling her their secrets. Her desire to mold the world around her to her exact specifications is foretold in the opening scene, where she nurses an injured seagull back to health–and later on, despite spending hours making it a harness and training it to fly, smashes its head open against a rock after it rebels and bites her. This process will be mirrored in the trio’s adoption and subsequent rape of Rhoda, a conscientious but socially awkward young girl whose loneliness pushes her to seek out their friendship. The three of them teach her to swim, dress her up in bikinis, and in Peter’s case, even woo her–only for Sandy to order her destruction and humiliation when Rhoda refuses to worship Sandy’s beauty in the way the boys do. (The line Rhoda utters that finally sets Sandy off: “Sandy, put your top back on.”)

Peter, on the other hand, is made out to be the film’s moral center (which he is certainly not in the book), and the viewer certainly can identify, to a point, with his vacillations between the charismatic but vicious Sandy and the thoughtful but gawky Rhoda. But our identification with him only makes the film’s final scenes all the more chilling. While the movie supposedly portrays him as slightly less cold than the novel, it’s only slightly: he still takes place in the final rape, although in the film it’s “merely” to hold her down rather than to actually take his turn with her the way he does in the book. While the trio hikes out of the woods after the assault, he has a hard time keeping up with Sandy and Dan, and pauses atop a sand dune. While the camera pans over his distressed face before it pulls away to take in the dunes, the beach, the entire island and eventually the sunset gleaming on the water, we can tell that he’s extremely disturbed by what he’s not only allowed to happen but enabled. But strikingly, we don’t get the impression that he’s so appalled that he’d never allow himself to fall under Sandy’s spell or commit random acts of violence at her bequest ever again. He’ll toss and turn that night, but tomorrow Sandy will take her bikini top off again and bring him another beer, and so it’ll go, until the summer ends.

Where the Boys Are (1960)

December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mild spoilers.

Few movies manage to visually capture a Midwest winter quite like the opening moments of Where the Boys Are. Our heroines converge outside of their college lecture hall, sneezing and sniffling, slipping on the ice. Snow piles up around them; snowflakes the size of quarters whip around their hooded heads. Merritt isn’t sure that she’ll be able to go on their spring break trip–she has too much schoolwork and is on the verge of failing out of school, despite an IQ of 138–but finally takes a look around her and declares, “If I see one more inch of snow, just one more flake, I’m going to absolutely barf!” And thus our group is on the road to Fort Lauderdale.

Storytelling wisdom holds that if you have a quartet of girls or women as your main characters, they must fall into the following stereotypes:

  • the naive sweetheart (or, taking this to its extreme, the bimbo/goofball)
  • the sexpot/the flirt
  • the ball-buster/the tomboy
  • the smart, normal one that we’re supposed to relate to

See: Little Women, Sex and the City, Golden Girls, the original Baby-Sitters Club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Living Single, Now and Then. Where the Boys Are is no exception to this four-woman pack of stereotypes, and here we get:

  • Paula Prentiss as the goofy Tuggle, who wants nothing more than to become “a walking, talking baby factory”
  • Yvette Mimieux as beautiful Melanie, who’s desperate to hook up with an Ivy Leaguer
  • Connie Francis as “captain of the girls’ hockey team” Angie, who has no luck with men
  • Dorores Hart as Merritt, our practical narrator, who’s trying to find a balance between love and sex

The four of them descend upon Florida with one collective goal: to be where the boys are. Tuggle immediately meets a goofy Michigan State student who introduces himself as T.V., and the two of them spend most of the film tug-of-warring over their conflicting desires: sex (his) versus marriage (hers). Angie struggles to attract any boys whatsoever, eventually settling for a bespectacled jazz musician who’s the only one to express interest. Melanie finds the Ivy Leaguer of her heart, but quickly gets in over her head with him. And Merritt, least interested in sex of them all, stumbles upon her dream date without even trying.

To modern eyes, Where the Boys Are can’t seem to make up its mind: it comes in as a sex comedy, flounders in the middle, and goes out like a sexual morality tale. This film was actually a forerunner to the entire genre of teen sex comedies–the parallels to later films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie are obvious in the way the girls joke about sex in jaded tones. But as Merritt points out later, it’s “all talk.” All of the girls are virgins going in, and the only one who no longer is at the film’s close ends up regretting it. For all its debate about sex in its opening scenes, where Merritt argues with her professor that telling girls to stay virgins until marriage is unrealistic, Where the Boys Are serves up a moral that’s ultimately sexually conservative. Melanie is severely punished for losing her virginity: a rumor goes around that she’s easy, and she is subsequently raped, the trauma from which leaves her mentally disturbed, wandering through traffic in a daze. After not sleeping with the men they’re dating, the other girls are rewarded with boyfriends (albeit some of questionable merit), and Merritt, in particular, wins out: her man, Ryder, turns out to be an unbelievably wealthy, intelligent Ivy Leaguer who wants to continue dating her after they leave Florida.

Although it reflects the values of the early ’60s–its depiction of the Fort Lauderdale spring break culture of that era is practically an anthropological study–the film has aged remarkably well. Its debates about “hook-up culture,” when to sleep together, and whether abstinence-only education is realistic seem surprisingly modern, and help to raise it above the average ’60s beach party flick. Still, a more nuanced ending might have helped. Instead, we get this takeaway: put out and you will get raped and go insane, stay pure and you’ll be rewarded with all your wildest dreams come true.

The Letter (1940)

August 29, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Letter begins with a literal bang–or rather, six of them. The opening shot, panning over the dreamy, moonlit grounds of a Malayan rubber plantation, is interrupted by Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis) emptying a revolver into Geoffrey Hammond. The plantation workers rush over. Someone runs off to find Davis’s husband and the police. Once they arrive, she reluctantly recounts the whole sordid story for them: Hammond attempted to rape her; she shot only in self-defense. Though her account is pitch-perfect, punctuated by the appropriate stagy sobs and adoring glances at her husband, we know right off the bat that something’s just a little bit . . . off. Her lawyer, Howard Joyce (James Stephenson) isn’t fully convinced, either. When the officer notes that the corpse was “just riddled with bullets,” you can see the gears beginning to shift in Joyce’s brain. All of this occurs in the film’s first fifteen minutes–and then we’re off and running alongside Joyce as he starts to unravel the web Leslie weaves.

The British colonies, be they Asian, American or African, are some of my favorite film settings. Any story with a colonial setting will work, but especially the Brits–I love the palpable danger you sense as they pull this paper-thin veneer of white linen and garden parties across a culture that’s about to bubble over with heat and oppression. Even the otherwise most run-of-the-mill pictures, the ones that were ignored when they were released, offer plenty for the modern viewer to dissect if they’re placed within a colonial frame. The racial tension and stereotyping of “the natives” are a given. But with a richly drawn movie like The Letter, the white characters give us plenty to analyze, too. Far from home, they’re allowed to act in ways that would never have been allowed in the panopticon of British society. This is especially true for the ladies, any one of whom may be the only white woman for miles, surrounded by plenty of intelligent, ambitious white men making their fortunes on the plantations . . .

And so it plays out in The Letter. Interestingly enough, the two characters who hold the most power are the women: Leslie Crosbie, and Mr. Hammond’s Anglo-Asian widow (played by the very white Gale Sondergaard, naturally). The movie’s men are all pawns, go-betweens, and dupes. The only time men hold even a parody of power is when the all-male jury is allowed to vote on Leslie’s innocence or guilt–but even then, it’s she who manipulated their decision. Not only are women the ones with the power, but in a further twist, it’s Mrs. Hammond–the “Eurasian,” the outsider, the supposed inferior–who holds the upper hand over Leslie. Throughout the movie, all the things that Leslie wants belong to her, and both of them know it. But the audience doesn’t . . . until Leslie goes to see her in the Chinese section of Singapore to acquire the titular letter. The camera lingers on the “exotic” decor, emphasizing that we’ve passed beyond the borders of Leslie’s territory.¬† It’s Mrs. Hammond and her associates who give the orders here–and in a scene that provides both Joyce and the audience with a visceral aha! moment, Mrs. Hammond drops the letter to the floor and forces Leslie to kneel before her in order to pick it up. Leslie slowly stoops to retrieve it, without comment. Now we see–like the women–who’s been pulling the strings all along.

Of course, none of this is real power: the white men still run the companies, the police headquarters, the law offices. But for a movie that’s so blatantly racist on the surface–Gale Sondergaard in yellowface, Wily Oriental and Dragon Lady stereotypes galore–it’s a fascinating turn.

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