“They were under the imagination of the film culture, in which they could do anything.” – Defense lawyer for gang-rapist/murderers in India, talking to the camera in India’s Daughter (2015)

In nearly nine decades of Academy Awards history, no Best Picture nominee had ever focused on systemic rape. That changed last month. Two of this year’s eight nominees for Best Picture center on this topic; repeated, routinized sexual abuse sets in motion the plots of Room and Spotlight and informs everything their characters do. With a degree of discretion lauded by many critics and commentators, neither of these films simulate rape even obliquely. Viewers do not see a single frame of performed rape, nary a closeup of rapist or victim being raped. It is the contention and hope of this article that these films’ near-universal critical praise – Room and Spotlight both earned 97% on rottentomatoes.com – and the Oscars’ unusual power of validation means that their sort of circumspect filmmaking will be the “gold standard” moving forward.

room poster

Film is a powerful medium, as the epigraph makes clear. On college campuses like the ones where I teach, it is now common (if not mandated) to issue “trigger warnings” if and because a given film contains a rape scene or uses rape as subject matter. Some students excuse themselves from class; other students roll their eyes at such warnings (I’ve seen this). With full awareness of the charged emotions attending such conversations, I want to suggest something like a middle course. Films should shine a light on the worst parts of society, as part of efforts to change society. Rape happens, and deserves cinematic investigation. I don’t feel that if a film inspires one person to rape someone, then that film should be banned. Nor do I feel that all pornography is rape, or that all rape scenes are exploitative. However, I believe the time has come for films to stop actively presenting rape scenes, even as indirectly as the one in The Revenant, a film that was nominated for Best Picture alongside Room and Spotlight. (During The Revenant, in a scene shot mostly in fragmented closeups of faces and clothing, a Native American girl is raped by a French trapper, leading Glass [Leonardo DiCaprio] to save her at risk to himself, a gesture that pays off for him at the film’s conclusion.) If Room and Spotlight, which situate systemic rape at the hearts of their narrative, were able to resist graphic presentation, what excuse do other films have for imposing such a scene as part of a subplot?

I am, of course, not advocating censorship. Quentin Tarantino has every right to make Pulp Fiction 2 featuring Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) as graphically raped as he was in (the Oscar-winning) Pulp Fiction. I’m saying that as a society that makes judgments regarding our values, we should no longer, if we ever did, consider scenes like the one in Pulp Fiction as part of artistic privilege, inherently justified so that we can root for the victim to rise up against her (sometimes his) oppressor afterward. We no longer need, if we ever did, David Fincher to show us Lizbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) being raped in (the Oscar-nominated) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo so that her revenge will somehow be sweeter for us; Room and Spotlight’s Oscar validations and rottentomatoes.com scores have proved that we can be entirely satisfied and artistically enriched without the sort of graphic imagery that some will receive as titillation, others as dark reminders of societal inequality, previous abuse, and potential abuse.

This is not a suggestion for stigmatization of rape as a plot device, as in Best Picture winners like Unforgiven, only the visual portrayal of it. We already stigmatize (but do not censor) certain other sorts of visual portrayals: child abuse, erect penises (outside of porn), feces leaving an anus, and just about all forms of torture except rape. Oscar-level filmmakers very rarely, perhaps never, show a prisoner being flayed for the same amount of time that we saw the rapes in Oscar-nominated films like Straw Dogs and Deliverance, because in our patriarchal world, rape isn’t “really” torture. Many Hollywood-financed movies have used child abuse as subject matter without being graphic about the act. Such films include Lolita (both versions), Sleepers, The Kite Runner, and Stir of Echoes. Child abuse and torture are taboo in a way that rape isn’t, but should be.

Obviously I refer not to graphic rape in the sense of pictured genitalia, but in the sense of an image that clearly signifies forced entry, even if viewers can’t see any unclothed part of the actors. Some might respond that rape is already stigmatized in the sense of being restricted to films with R ratings. My response is that it’s only exactly as stigmatized as consensual sex, maintaining a de facto blurry line between sex and rape. The visual iconography of rape should be considered far more of a transgression. Others will claim that rape can be and has been handled artistically, and that depictions of it can be tasteful and/or necessary, particularly when seen late in a film and/or as part of a “true story,” as in, for example, the Oscar-winning films The Accused (1988) and Boys Don’t Cry (1999). (I put scare quotes around “true story” because no film, not even a documentary, presents events without bias, adornment, and subjectivity.) While I’m sympathetic to such arguments, the greatness of (fictional) Room and (non-fictional) Spotlight has convinced me that filmmakers no longer need graphic portrayals for the sake of drama and pathos. Perhaps, as my younger students often claim, audiences infer narrative events more easily than they once did. Filmmakers hardly need to insert a title card that says “she was raped” and then move on; there are many other methods, from dialogue to editing, to make the transgression clear, just as we now do with child abuse and torture.

There has already been an extended online conversation about rape scenes on TV, for example about shows like Downton Abbey, Scandal, Mad Men, Orange is the New Black, and most notoriously, Game of Thrones. I’d like to agree with Jada Yuan when she surveyed the many shows and articles and concluded in Vulture on July 6, 2015:

My hope is that going forward we can have a Pennsatucky Test for rape scenes much like the Bechdel Test. Is the victim’s point-of-view shown? Does the scene have a purpose for existing for character, rather than plot, advancement? Is the emotional aftermath explored? As long as sexual assault continues to be a scourge of our society, TV shows ought to mine the subject; it’s important we keep the conversation going. Just take care of your characters. Don’t rape ’em and leave ’em. They deserve to have their trauma acknowledged. They deserve to have their stories told.

What’s changed since July, at least for me, is that Room and Spotlight have proved we can have the trauma acknowledged and the stories told without the inherent sensationalism of the depicted act.

I am sympathetic to Devin McKinney’s distinction between “weak” and “strong” representations of violence, where “weak” is of the well-known Schwarzenegger-Stallone-Willis variety, and “strong” is that of films where the violence is not presented cheaply, where its influence on characters is deeply detailed. If McKinney is right, then the rapes in films like The Accused and Boys Don’t Cry may count as what he calls “nightmares worth having.” However, I believe it’s telling that his often-cited study does not discuss onscreen rape, just as it does not discuss onscreen child abuse. Rape is violence, of course, but rape is also beyond the pale for many studies of onscreen violence. I believe Room and Spotlight prove that we don’t actually need to see the act to see its influence on characters. And frankly, I’m not sure there’s any way for a film to show the effect of rape on someone decades later, or often, the very next day. Again to quote Jada Yuan:

The reason — the only reason — to film a rape scene is to make the audience dig into that feeling of discomfort, to force us to be witnesses to the torture we are capable of inflicting on one another and come away with a deeper understanding of who we hurt and the depth of their pain…and when it comes to showing violence against women, flinching, or putting it out there and moving on immediately, is tantamount to sensationalism: Sally got raped and then you won’t believe this other crazy thing that happened!

But I would argue that by their very nature, every TV show and movie moves on too fast. Rape is inherently a statement of power of a man to humiliate a victim, and a rape depiction is inherently a statement of the filmmaker’s power to humiliate viewers. The direct representation is a nightmare that’s no longer worth having.

If I’m so opposed to rape scenes, why haven’t I also come out against onscreen murder? Well, like any parent of young children, I’m very careful about such scenes. And I would listen with great interest to any person who suggested that depictions of murder deserve the same obloquy as scenes of child abuse. I see three differences that prevent me from making that leap today. First, murder has a very long history in classical drama; we see killing throughout Greek and Shakespearean plays, while we almost never see rape. The second reason relates to the first: killing in narrative fiction tends to be “weak” in McKinney’s terms, as quick as each of the thirty-plus murders in Taken, exemplified in the recent scene on Netflix’s Marvel’s Jessica Jones when the titular character said “smile” to her nemesis Kilgrave. Most rape scenes are really prolonged torture scenes, and torture already has a cultural obloquy when it’s not rape.

That leads me directly to my third reason not to stigmatize onscreen murder in the same manner as onscreen rape, which is that murder is at least in theory gender-neutral, while rape is usually an expression of men dominating women in the most vile, dehumanizing way possible. Rape reduces the victim to object, to a person whose body is simultaneously defiled and not in her (sometimes his) own control. Rape is the worst sort of torture. Video game makers intuitively understand this. In many of the most popular video games, murders are plentiful, in fact the game’s raison d’etre; rapes are unheard of.

Movies present a more aestheticized violence than a video game, and perhaps certain artists – for example, Ang Lee making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – can aestheticize martial-arts-level violence in a manner that can enrich our humanity and understanding of each other. It’s hard to think of when this has been done with direct visualization of rape. Artists have had their chances, beginning with Ingmar Bergman with The Virgin Spring (1960), continuing with Roman Polanski in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Stanley Kubrick with A Clockwork Orange (1971) (no doubt, the message of that film is contrary to this article, which Kubrick would probably see as neo-Puritan tut-tutting), John Waters with Pink Flamingos (1972), David Lynch with Blue Velvet (1986), Eli Udel with Last Exit to Brooklyn (1988), Ridley Scott with Thelma and Louise (1991), Kathryn Bigelow with Strange Days (1995), Larry Clark with Kids (1995), Catherine Breillat with Romance (1999), Gaspar Noe with Irreversible (2002), Lars von Trier with at least two of his films, Sean Durkin with Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), as well as many, many other examples (including the aforementioned films by Peckinpah, Boorman, Tarantino, and Fincher). I realize no one can really ask this question of art, but I’m going to ask it anyway: were the graphic rapes in those films necessary? Did it elevate them beyond other films that had similar subject matter but were more discreet?

For some time, scholars and researchers have been divided over onscreen violence: does it provide a catharsis that might reduce impulses toward real-world brutality, or does it desensitize us to that same brutality? Sadly, the evidence seems to be heading toward the latter conclusion, at least for men who are predisposed toward violence. Again, this is not a call for censorship, merely greater stigmatization than filmmakers have been feeling (as evidenced by The Revenant, if evidence were needed). And really, is there some creative way to present rape that we haven’t already seen?

Enough is enough. Room and Spotlight have proved you don’t need graphic rape to explore consequences of rape. Without calling for censorship, let’s consider rape scenes the moral equivalent of graphic scenes of torture and child abuse. Because they are.