CONTENT WARNING: rape and fictional depictions of rape, sometimes used in shows/movies as metaphors for other things, discussed. Everything is just my opinion as I try to explore why certain shows/movies/books bugged me so much when I think what they’re trying to do, maybe failing to do, maybe succeeding, isn’t necessarily harmful. It still bugs me.
I haven’t seen either of the two things I’m about to talk the most about, which is a GREAT way to start off having an opinion (</>sarcasm). One is the first episode of Black Mirror, which I heard described in detail by a group of people grasping at progressively shorter straws trying to explain to both us 0wlmachiners why the episode was good. The second is a movie I’m not even going to name, and it has multiple depictions of sexual violence used as a metaphor for a specific country’s government controlling and abusing its people from birth to death and afterwards (if you know, you know, and if you don’t, you likely don’t want to know but either way google it yourself if you must but SEVERE content warning if you do).
I will say right up front that I’m not making any moral judgements of the storytellers or the people who watched these things and got something out of them. All I’ll say is that I personally wouldn’t get anything out of it – and here’s my attempt at understanding why not.
I’m told that in the first episode of Black Mirror, a prime minister/president/politician of some sort is blackmailed into raping an animal on live television. I forget what would happen to him if he doesn’t. I don’t think anyone uses the word “rape,” it’s probably “fuck,” if Black Mirror allows that much swearing, or something less R-rated if they don’t. But animals can’t consent, and while rape of an animal or any kind of sexual violence to an animal is not the same and doesn’t have the same long-term consequences for the victim as rape and sexual violence of humans (though some animal victims undoubtedly experience trauma), it’s still repugnant.
I think you, the viewer, are supposed to feel worse for the coerced animal rapist, though. I don’t think they give the animal a name or a backstory or any other scenes (if they did, I underestimated them. Still not going to watch it).
In Unnamed Movie, the main character is a man who commits acts of sexual violence to others. I think he murders a woman he’s raping at one point (I think she is unnamed and has no backstory, and no other scenes). He rapes a child at another point (child does have a name and other scenes). He is being manipulated, blackmailed, and drugged, I’m pretty sure, by some sort of powerful group of shady operators who I guess represent the government.
Because the victims here, himself included, are all human, I do think you the viewer are supposed to feel bad for everyone, but your protagonist is the one doing all the rape.
Is he a victim of rape himself? Is the animal rapist politician in Black Mirror? Yes. There’s no consent in any of these situations. There is only coercion of various types.
In real life, there is a despairingly high amount of sexual violence. Enough to make you say (SPOILER
kind of for The Good Place which you should watch as a palate cleanser every time you need one, whether you’ve seen it already or not) “Oh, THIS is the Bad Place!” Regularly. I do think that sometimes, real life sexual violence is like these specific fictional depictions. Sometimes, people are coerced into hurting other people. But the majority of sexual violence is between two people. It’s one person who doesn’t want what’s happening to happen, and another person who decides that whatever the other person wants doesn’t matter, and continues on anyway. Or one party can’t legally consent because of a power imbalance and the one with more power goes ahead anyway.
If you’re going to use rape as a metaphor, why not tell the story from the point of view of someone who is raped, and not from the kind of weirdly specific and with added complexity point of view of someone coerced into raping someone else? Furthermore, why delve into the emotions and struggles of the coerced rapist but NOT anyone that is raped by said coerced rapist?
If you’re trying to use sexual violence to make your audience uneasy and create pathos for your main character, why not just have them be a victim of sexual violence rather than having them be someone forced into committing sexual violence on someone else?
Why the added layer?
On the other hand, maybe depicting this kind of sexual violence is a good thing on occasion. Coercion plays a role in a lot of real life sexual violence, so why not depict it like this? And to these sentences I wrote to myself, I can only say that I don’t think it’s a bad thing to depict coercion and its connection to sexual violence, even when done like this, necessarily, but I do question why the tendency seems to sometimes be to tell a sad story, in detail, of a poor guy who was forced to rape, and only use the individuals he rapes as narrative and thematic tools rather than characters in their own right.
I have, at least, seen and read Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. Tyrion at a very young age is forced to rape a girl he had married the day before because his dad was really mad at him about it. This sad story tells us a lot about Tyrion, his dad, and their relationship. We know very little about Tysha. I can’t remember whether the show even had her name stated out loud. I feel like if we knew Tysha, it would be an even sadder story, but then I guess GRRM couldn’t do that frustrating “she wasn’t a secret sex worker!!!! :O:O” reveal and that’s what was most important. Of course.
Kind of similarly, while being assured that the animal-rape episode of Black Mirror was worth watching, I think I might have asked, “So what if they’d forced him to rape a human?” And there’s really no good answer for that. Again, sexual violence and animals is a different animal (…) than sexual violence and humans but frankly I shouldn’t have to keep repeating that I understand that. The problem in all sexual violence is the human perpetrator abusing someone with less power, temporarily or permanently, then them. That problem doesn’t change no matter who the victim is. If you can’t tell this stupid story with a human victim, you shouldn’t tell it with an animal victim. (Did I say I wasn’t going to moralize? Oh well.)
Regarding Unnamed, I think the story of how the government “rapes people their whole lives” or whatever would be better told, if it must be told, by having the protagonist not be a coerced rapist. In this metaphor that makes him a weapon the government wields against his fellow people. Could he not just be a victim and not also a coerced perpetrator? There are two issues here: first, you oddly align your protagonist to your antagonist since “rape” is the bad thing that the government does and even though the protagonist is being raped himself, he is also raping others with much less power than him. I think that dilutes the message thoroughly. Second, by focusing on coerced guy, you explore in detail coercion and sexual violence, but you don’t really ever explore what rape… just… is. I haven’t actually seen the movie beginning to end and I can’t be sure, but I don’t think that buddy ever curls up somewhere and contemplates his own body, and the absolute horror of not being the one controlling what was happening to it. They could have done this, it would have added to their message, but I think that requires a deeper understanding of rape than what seems to exist here. (If I’m wrong and they do have even one moment where he deals with or tries to deal with his trauma, then, I underestimated Unnamed Movie but I’m still not going to watch it.)
I think what we have here (now this is really just me thinking in blog form without really having any expertise) is maybe an attempt, and definitely a failure, to empathize.
A rape victim is BROADLY, GENERALLY, understood and assumed to be physically weaker than the rapist, probably female, and probably something has been inserted into their bodies that they didn’t want to be there. This obviously isn’t always the case and we need to get better about understanding that. In general, male victims of rape and sexual violence aren’t being coerced into raping someone else as well. They are being physically overpowered or they are being manipulated. Because of this, most male victims have more in common with the fictional people/animal that these male protagonists are being coerced into raping than they have in common with the coerced protagonists. Coercion is hugely prevalent in real life sexual violence, but no matter who the victim is, it’s much more often coercion into being raped, not into raping someone else.
In writing about how uneasy sexual violence makes us and about how horrifying it is, in trying to explore the concept of rape as a metaphor for fascism and such, are these writers not able to actually imagine what it’s like to be that animal, or those victims of the drugged, blackmailed guy, or Tysha? Are they refusing to do so? Is imagining instead what it would be like to be forced to rape someone else the closest they can get to empathizing with rape victims, even though men, like them, do get raped, and when they do it’s not usually like what they’ve had their male characters on page and on screen doing?
(I think so.)
Probably the most “realistic” one of these three depictions of being “forced to rape” would be what happens to Tyrion, which is bleak for various reasons. Mainly because things like this sometimes do happen to kids, but also because it’s not very good, and yet it’s probably better by far as a story “thoughtfully” engaging with rape, with rape of men and boys as well, and the ramifications therein, than those other two.
I will allow one more moralizing statement: it is bad that Tysha, the animal, and the various more powerless victims are not given their own stories, and often not even named. It is bad that they (generally) fulfill one story role, that they occupy so little space, that their lives, deaths, traumas, horrors, are so inconsequential to these stories in their own right. Every time this happens, it’s a deliberate choice by the storytellers and it should stop. If we’re going to tell stories of men being forced to rape, then the stories of the other victims of that coercion need to be told and told properly, dammit.