Screenwriting and the Great Plot Device: Rape?

In the Top 10 of best TV Movies Ever Made: FREE FRANCINE!

In the Top 10 of best TV Movies Ever Made: FREE FRANCINE!

I read scripts for a living. I write reports about which characters sucked or ruled, how they can be better, why the story is flat, where the setting disappears and leaves a few talking heads, all of it. I love story. I love dissecting story and finding ways to reinvent plot or subvert expectation, and more than anything, I want to be free to do my job without having to think about “rape culture,” and yet that is completely not possible.

The reason? I’ve read 30 A-level scripts so far this year, and here are my breakdowns:

• 13 successful or attempted rape scenes

• 18 scripts featured a female character whose only purpose was to have sex with the protagonist

• 1 sex scene with the words “love,” “care,” “meaning,” etc., and this was between 2 gay men

• 1:12 ratio of female to male characters

• 1 script with healthy, but tumultuous female-male romantic relationships, but all 4 female characters saved by male counterparts

I’ll stop there for stats, but there’s a whole lot more I could include. For now, just look at that first stat. In 30 A-level scripts (these will get made), there are 13 successful or attempted rape scenes. Keep in mind that some of these scripts have multiple rape scenes in one story, but I don’t know if that makes it better or worse. What I definitely noticed about these scenes, though, is A) the rapist was always a fat, greasy guy (villain) who took his belt off VERY slowly, while the woman screamed/cried/begged/was held down by his friends, B) the rape was used as a plot device to advance the male protagonist’s storyline, and C) these scenes were all written by men. I’ll cover these in order of appearance.

To my male screenwriter friends, this is not what most rape looks like. One of the biggest problems we have within rape culture is our inability to see that most rapists are regular dudes who’ve never been called out for their behavior and who’ve grown up thinking that rape is only rape if you’re a big ugly villain holding a girl down while she screams. So I’ll clear this up and remind everyone that rape most often occurs when a woman or man is unable to consent, because of intoxication, mental illness, physical incapacity, or because they are underage and not yet mature enough to make such decisions. No consent. That’s it. It’s broad and encompassing, but that’s where the bulk of sexual assaults lie, not with a greasy pig-like Southern man who takes his belt off very slowly (please stop writing the belt thing into scenes, guys).

Second up is “Rape as Plot Device,” which is the title of this post and one of the most disconcerting things I’ve seen, because it trivializes two things I love greatly: WOMEN & STORY. I can live with a hundred offensive things if the story is good enough. I hate saying that, but I do love story that much. The very last script I read had our “heroine” in the position to be raped no less than 7 times (I only included 2 of these in my count). And every time someone tried to rape her, the rape itself was motivation for the male protagonist to act and do something heroic. I’ll repeat that: There were no other catalysts for the man to act outside of the motivation of his woman being raped.

I’m one of those weird women who actually has a sick fascination with “rape revenge” movies, but there’s a distinct difference between a rape-revenge film and a rape-as-plot-device film. Rape revenge traditionally features a female protagonist who is brutally or carelessly raped within the first 10 minutes of the script. Initially, her will is broken, but by the 25th page in the script, she’s already up kickboxing and figuring out knife tricks like a master, because she will avenge herself. A rape-as-plot-device film, on the other hand, features a male protagonist who bears witness to the woman’s suffering and goes after the bad guys, though his is not a mission to reclaim the woman’s strength. No, his is a mission to punish the rapist, and then we never hear about the raped woman again. I should mention that I’m not condoning rape-revenge films for everyone, but as a genre, something about them still feels empowering in a time when only like 8% of rapists are ever punished at all. As a side note, I wonder what a rape-revenge film written and directed by a woman would look like. I may make a feminist version of one some day.

And speaking of punishment, there was one scene where I actually had to put my head down on the table for a second, because it featured a villainous woman being raped and was very clearly written in a way that the audience was supposed to cheer this on…We were supposed to cheer on a rape. Wow. The weird part of this was that the woman in question was already made to be a sex addict who frequently had sex with her twin sister in front of the other villainous men, so…I guess it’s at least saying that even if you’re cartoonishly promiscuous, it doesn’t constitute consent…I don’t know, though. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intention. The intention was to punish this woman. The worst possible punishment? Rape. Yet, when men are punished in movies, none of them have to give a blow job to someone before their brains are blown out. But then we get to the third part of this discussion, where all of these rape scenes are written by men. Hell, I’ve only read 1 script written by a woman this year, and she was the co-writer, because it was based on her novel.

Anyway, this signals to me something problematic, because it seems through the use of rape as a plot device of evil that we have all agreed that rape is one of the biggest evils you could ever inflict upon another human being, yet–as stated above–we have people who have no idea what it’s like for a woman to be raped constantly perpetuating the “ideal” rape. And I mean constantly perpetuating. Why are so many men writing rape into their screenplays? Why are so many men writing what I’ll call The Slow Southern Belt Removal? What might be even more strange is that these men are often writing these scenes for films that play for a mostly female audience as well. You know how we always make fun of Lifetime Network movies victimizing women? MOST OF THEM ARE WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY MEN. Take that in. Men are writing the deeply personal films women consume, and they are terrible. It’s no wonder that the projects they make that are written by women (THE BURNING BED) become the classics.

While I do have an appreciation for a man who’s willing to tackle a tough subject like rape, I think it’s time that we start looking deeply into why those scenes exist in our films. Representation of women in film and TV is a far larger problem than just this, but for this prong of the argument, I think we should demand realism and identify how these false perceptions are sensationalizing a very real and very wrong act of evil committed on a daily basis. If we’re talking about rape culture and why the problem is so interwoven into everything we consume, here’s one facet that clearly needs more analysis.


11 responses to “Screenwriting and the Great Plot Device: Rape?

  1. Pingback: I Love this Movie: Seven Psychopaths | Repressd·

  2. Love this column. Astute, thought-provoking, and very funny. My knee-jerk assumptions were that the author was arguing against rape being depicted in movies at all or characterizing its use in movies as inherently misogynistic; but her analysis is much more sophisticated and cool-headed than that. That is all…

    • Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment. I’m curious if you have any films in your memory that you think have done a good job of portraying rape or have not relied too heavily on the act to booster the plot. I think about this stuff all the time, so if you can think of any, please do let me know so I can keep a lookout for them!

  3. So what would the author think of a classical tragedy where the main character (Mary Magdalene) is beaten and robbed at one point and raped at another, but no man fixes it and she never seeks revenge. The assailants just get away with it as she suffers but finds the path of light.

    • Classical tragedy is a difficult one. I think Lars Von Trier attempted to do it with DOGVILLE, which ultimately proved almost too difficult for me to watch. With the story of Mary Magdalene that you brought up, my first instinct is to ask: do we ever see this kind of story with a male protagonist who finds the path of light through repeated victimization and turning the other cheek? AND why do we accept that this story works for a female protagonist and not a male protagonist? In the biblical stories, Jesus would be the male counterpart to Mary Magdalene. In contemporary stories, we don’t have a lot of male Jesus characters who endure brutality with no recourse, and I wonder why. The only film I can think of with the male protagonist is Steve McQueen’s HUNGER. I’m sorry, this probably doesn’t even answer what you brought up, but I think about biblical stories and their application to female culture a lot, because I went to a Catholic school for most of my life, so a lot of this is really scarred into my brain, the idea of femininity being an acceptance of pain and emotional torture for the greater good of acquiring grace, thereby earning our Mother Mary status. Perhaps you have thoughts on this?

  4. Even though rape was used as a plot point and even though the over merits of the film are pretty questionable, I thought GRAN TORINO did a very good job depicting rape. We only saw the aftermath and we had A LOT of respect for the victim before she was attacked and were able to see her as a person, likable and complex, outside of this context. At the same time, we felt the whole weight of her experience. I think that film would go a long way in helping perpetrators develop empathy in that we identified with the victim throughout the movie. She was our hero, the clear-headed foil to the Clint Eastwood character. In a weird way, I was impressed by SPRING BREAKERS, in that it seems to encourage objectification of the female characters up until one of them is implicitly threatened with rape at which point we realize that we were identifying with them all this time. (Though you could accurately say that all the film proves is that my inherent racism trumped my inherent sexism).

    One of the most offensive depictions of rape I have seen was actually in a film directed by a woman– HOUNDDOG with Dakota Fanning where the rape is used as a punishment for her growing sexual curiosity.

    • You know, these are three films I’ve had on my list to watch and never did. And now I’m even more curious. SPRING BREAKERS especially, because I’d heard the visual style and overt objectification was a ruse of sorts, which I wouldn’t doubt, coming from Harmony Korine. It’s interesting, but I do think women feel more ownership over rape and objectification in film and are quite comfortable crossing into an almost parody territory, which when viewed from the lens of the artist tends to make more of a statement of portraying the honesty of how absolutely shitty we can be with judging women. BUT this intention doesn’t always translate. Take for instance the Miley Cyrus videos directed by Diane Martel, who said her “intention” was to go so over-the-top that people would have to recognize it was a parody, yet when Robin Thicke commented on the video, he had no idea that’s what they were doing; he thought they were just making something cool and sexy. And when the questionable Terry Richardson directed Miley’s subsequent video, it actually looked a whole lot like Diane Martel’s, though Richardson’s only “intention” was seriously just to showcase some T&A and make it pretty. OH, intentions…

  5. Hand over my heart, when I first saw Richardson’s WRECKING BALL video I was convinced that it was a parody. It was crazy over-the-top and crazy stupid, in much the same way the sex in SPRING BREAKERS was as a matter of fact. I told people that Cyrus was passively aggressively acting out against her inevitable sexualization and the most common response I got was that she isn’t smart enough to do something like that. And most of the people who said this to me where women who were complaining about her sexualization.

    • Yeah, we’re kind of in a clusterfuck of female representation in media. I think I’m more likely to criticize Terry Richardson, though, but I might be in a minority for women…I just know that Richardson is a sleazy perv on set, so it’s not surprising. Every woman is at a different stage of “freedom,” and that causes a problem. If you’re a lady living a life where blatant sexism hounds you everyday, you might not feel that ladies have the freedom to poke fun at it, because it fucking hurts your life. Sometimes to get the joke is to be privileged enough to laugh. Jesus, I really have to see SPRING BREAKERS, don’t I…

  6. I came across this whilst searching about the issues of writing rape in screenplays and I can’t tell you how much of an impact this has been. As a male A-level student I decided to write for a short film with a female protagonist who unfortunately is put lower and lower by the world and eventually during an attempted rape by a man who throughout the story taunts her and intimidates her but during the penultimate scene our protagonist lashes out and ends up killing the guy. I confess it’s difficult trying to get this right and I’m working like crazy to do so. I really want the audience to really connect with the protagonist and feel the drama which she contends with by the end so there would be a melancholic mixture of the profound emotions with protagonist goes through while at the same time feeling that elation when she finally feels liberated.
    I’m really enjoy writing it but the last thing I’d want to do as a male writer is ever feel that I’m demeaning a female character for the sake of it, I care a great deal for my protagonist and I hope so do the audience.

    • Stefan, that is a difficult task. The one piece of advice I would offer you is not to sink into the DOGVILLE trap. What you don’t want to do is alienate the women by preceding the revenge with too much “torture porn.” The mistake von Trier makes in DOGVILLE is that he takes for granted how on the top of our heads violence is for women, so we barely need a nudge in that direction for all of it to register very clearly. Also, really good rape-revenge movies give their female characters multi-dimensional personalities. They aren’t singularly minded and react in a variety of ways to avenge themselves. Anyway, it’s always useful to ask yourself why you would want to tell this story in particular. There are far more men I know who want to write rape than there are women, and while I don’t know what that means, it should mean something personal to you. Maybe ask yourself why you would want to tell the story of this woman and why it should involve rape, thinking in terms of what you could add to the conversation.

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