When Is On-Screen Assault OK?

Some directors are pushing against rape as a plot device. But movies like “Elle” handle the sensitive topic with care.

Warning: this post contains spoilers for the movie “Elle.”

When sexual assault is depicted on-screen, the horror of the situation is too often misdirected. Yes, a woman was violated. But the real atrocity? Some dude’s stuff was tarnished. Now, the story’s real hero ― the gunslinging guardian ― has motivation to fight.

It’s a narrative strategy that may make for a fast-paced, domino effect of a story arc, but which also undermines the perspectives of those who have suffered from assault. And it’s been exploited in a slew of popular movies and shows, including, recently, “Game of Thrones.”

This issue was addressed in a reported piece by Variety TV critic Maureen Ryan, who spoke with the executive producers of “The Exorcist,” “Lost Girl,” “American Gods,” and others who cared to weigh in on how rape is depicted on-screen.

The consensus: sexual violence is easily reduced to a flashy plot point, but an array of writers and showrunners ― most of them women ― have found a way to make the topic powerful, even altruistic. Among the shows getting it right, Ryan cites “Jessica Jones,” “Queen Sugar” and “Orange Is the New Black.” Being woman-led or woman-wrought seems to be part of the solution, and indeed, the lack of gender parity among showrunners and directors is among the many equity issues production companies must face.

But when it comes to how rape is handled in fictional stories, the gender of the writer shouldn’t be the only factor that allows for, or disallows for, an honest depiction. What’s needed, regardless of who’s at the helm, is empathy for the survivor, rather than a denial of the survivor’s personhood. When rape serves as a catalyst for action on the part of the (usually male) protagonist ― the hero ― it serves the same function for a story that murder might. The victim is robbed of her agency, and her loss must be avenged for, by someone else.

One should not have to be a survivor to understand that this is reductive, and belittling. And one should not have to be a woman to imagine the pervasive fear that might result from surviving such a crime. One virtue of storytelling is that it allows us to feel how we may never otherwise feel, due to privilege or luck. So, stories about rape can help generate empathy, so long as they grant their subjects agency, and treat their subjects with respect.

There’s a movie out this year that does just that, and it comes from an unexpected place. Paul Verhoeven ― director of “RoboCop,” “Total Recall,” and “Starship Troopers” ― adapted the novel Oh... into what is essentially a rape comedy, starring Isabelle Huppert.

“Elle” begins with an uncomfortably vivid rape scene; the movie, then, is about what the victim, Michelle, does afterward to cope. The head of a company that develops violent video games, and the daughter of a convicted murderer who implicated her in his crime when she was only 1, Michelle isn’t a stranger to physical threats. Her response to the attack is unemotional, pragmatic. She changes the locks, visits a doctor for an STD check. Immediately after the attack, she puts a fallen vase back in its place. She treats the men in her life ― her ex-husband, her employees, her son, her neighbor ― with apprehension. As the viewer, we’re forced to question their motives, just as Michelle is. Her fear is palpable. But, she’s not helpless. She continues to assert herself at work, continues to pursue romantic relationships.

From Verhoeven, audiences are primed for satirized violence, and “Elle” fits with the rest of his filmography in that regard. Beyond that, though, the director manages to also tell a fresh, earnest story, one where the victim is not immediately relegated to the role of damsel. She’s real, and flawed. Her existence is bigger than what happened to her.

“Elle” is not a perfect movie, and certainly not a tribune of morality. In some ways, it raises more questions than it answers. Is Michelle really doing herself a service by taking matters into her own hands? By opening a window for the violence that encroaches on her world, is she diluting it or simply giving up on fighting back?

But, the fact that the movie even considers the complexities of sex and violence makes it more worthy of attention than most others than grapple with the same themes. At the very least, Verhoeven, along with Huppert, succeed in creating an almost surreal environment that mirrors the real fears felt by women who are regularly faced with the possibility of assault. In the world of “Elle,” trust in men is scarce. The fact that directors like Verhoeven get that is a good thing, and a step towards regaining it.

You can be highbrow. You can be lowbrow. But can you ever just be brow? Welcome to Middlebrow, a weekly examination of pop culture. Sign up to receive it in your inbox weekly.

Follow Maddie Crum on Twitter: @maddiecrum



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