Rape Culture At The Movies
Content Warning: This article discusses the topics and issues surrounding rape and sexual violence. In some instances providing graphic detailed depictions of acts of rape and sexual violence.
The accepted mainstream definition of rape culture is a culture in which rape/sexual violence is both pervasive and normalized. Typical behavioral examples of this include things like victim blaming, denial of widespread rape, the trivialization of rape, sexual objectification, diminishing the importance of consent or being dismissive of the harm caused by these things, or of sexual violence itself. It's also a huge, complex, heavily nuanced and contentious subject that seems to attract online trolls like Country Kitchen attracts retired people lusting after gravy smothered chicken fried steak. As our culture grows older and a bit wiser about these issues, so do I. But it can be easy to take this progress for granted (cultural and personal) and it can take things like Brock the rapist to remind some of us, that things like sexual consent, are still very much in need of a cultural overhaul. I'm a married dad in my late 30s, I have the extreme privilege to not be faced day-to-day with how little progress we've made on these things since I was a youngster. A privilege many women and some men do not have. But since I am raising a human and wish to be a good human myself, I try to seek out perspective on things which are outside of my little protective bubble.
There's a lot of debate over what rape culture is, how to address it, or even if it exists at all. While some people may say it doesn't exist, others say even acknowledging those people is itself enforcing rape culture. I'm not interested in debates as much as discussion, and for the purposes of this piece and my own moral compass, I'm firmly on the side of it existing and it being a pretty big problem that needs addressing. My mother is a lesbian feminist, so it's no surprise I grew up to be a feminist as well, but that doesn't mean I'm immune to the culture I live in. If I take a critical look back at beliefs I used to hold about sex and gender, it can be even more embarrassing and horrific than my yearbook photos are. How was that me? It's important to wallow in that horror a bit, because I need it to remember that I'll likely be feeling the same embarrassment about my current beliefs, twenty years from now. Taking a harsh look at your past and present self hurts, but it's constructive and needed. Look, I didn't compile this list of movie examples to blame them for rape or rape culture. Or to say you'd be wrong to continue enjoying these movies. Or that you're wrong if you don't react a specific way emotionally to them or agree with me. I simply want to highlight how films in general (as my favorite form of artistic expression), can often reflect very real problems in our culture. These movies aren't the cause of these attitudes about sexual violence, they are reflections of it and in some cases go on to help enforce the attitudes they reflected. Most of the movies on this list have many examples, but for the sake of concision, I'll just highlight the more obvious ones that epitomize a common trope in culture and film. I chose to tighten my focus to films targeted towards younger audiences, that tend to deal more with issues of consent, as well as objectification and dehumanization for the purpose of rationalizing sexual violence.
REVENGE OF THE NERDS
Speaking of movies with a lot of examples, this one has some doozies. It's been said there's enough rape culture in this movie to make rape yogurt. As a nerdy kid growing up in the 80s though, this was an obvious favorite of mine. Watching it recently however, was rather cringe inducing. We won't even get into the parade of tired black, gay and Asian stereotypes they lay on thickly. Early on in the movie, we have our titular vengeful nerds first enacting their revenge by installing hidden cameras into the antagonist sorority house. All for the purpose of seeing them naked whenever the nerds desired. I recall as a kid laughing and cheering to Booger's victorious battle cry of "We got bush!" or Takashi's "hair pie hair pie!". I recall feeling they were completely justified in everything they did while watching as a kid, and boy was it hilarious...then. Even when that extended into using that hidden access to snap a nude shot of Betty Childs, the girlfriend of the chief antagonist, Stan Gable. This snapshot would later be used to win a charity pie selling contest. Talk about a creepy-as-fuck callback. But nothing really comes close to the moon-room scene near the film's climax. Our main hero-nerd Louis puts on evil-frat-guy Stan's costume to assume his identity, all for the purpose of tricking Betty into a sexual encounter. Not only is he successful in tricking Betty, he is rewarded for his stellar sexual performance by having her fall madly in love with him. Not much subtle subtext here, this is putting not just a happy spin on sexual assault, but a heroic one in a movie where female characters are relegated to being prizes to be won or stolen. While it might be innocent enough to suggest a nerd can beat a jock in a sporting event, it sure as shit isn't to suggest the best way to a girls heart is by tricking her into having sex. Rape isn't ok as long as you're good at it.
I was a little too old for this movie when it came out, but it has one of most tried and true teen movie/coming of age plot tropes, "WE HAVE TO GET LAID BEFORE COLLEGE YOU GUIZE!". This trope is troubling enough in its own right, since it enforces the notion that it's natural and ordinary to have a get-laid-at-all-costs mentality. Of course in the realm of teenage cinema, we are most often meant to go on a morality journey to watch the protagonists eventually discover that there's more to sex than just sex. Learning this lesson is of course rewarded with...sex. Suffice to say, I doubt many teens watching these films walks away thinking "Golly, I should wait to have sex with someone that matters and wants to have sex with me!" No, the cultural takeaway from this movie was more about popularizing the term MILF. But besides adding that glorious term to the meathead lexicon, it also had another area of concern, the webcam scenes. The culturally naive foreign exchange student Nadia, invited over with the pretext to study, but with the overall hidden goal of videotaping her naked as she changes. At first the main character recoils at this suggestion from the token meathead of his friend group, but even the hyper intellectual sensitive member of the group concurs it's a great idea and so they all agree to do it. Of course it's not enough for him to peep, but he has to let his friends as well, which of course accidentally gets shared with the entire school, Blink182, as well as watched by meathead's child brother - hardy har? The only negative repercussions here is that the main character is seen as a sexual failure by all of his peers. The movie even ends with the girl in question doing long distance sexy video chats with him. I mean, why would she be angry, it's all in good fun eh? The trope here is not too dissimilar from the featured set piece of the film Porky's, where the teen boys figure out a way to spy on girls as they shower, it also happens to be the subject of the film's theatrical poster. At least in that movie one them gets a dick injury.
John Hughes is the crowned king of the coming-of-age film genre. His films are a great representation of the chicken vs. egg quandary of culture and art, when it comes to film and youth. His films were so popular because they seemed to resonate a universal truth about the experience of youth. Not just to adults, but to the youth at that time. So much so, it's hard to know where it's reflecting of culture stops and cultures reflecting of it, begins (for that era). There are two major themes that are a bit problematic in this classic. First is the most obvious. Two teen boys, Wyatt & Gary, who are desperate for female companionship, create their own female, Lisa with with random science-sounding bullshit (and a killer soundtrack). While it's somewhat redeeming (and crucial to the fun of the movie) that they make her with god-like intelligence and super-powers, she is still relegated to a genie-ish slave status. She can seemingly choose to do what she wants, but makes a point to keep reminding other characters and the audience she belongs to the protagonists and will happily do whatever they want. Her freedom seems to be in how she interprets what they want and how best to give it to them, which isn't always as linear a path as the boys presume. This is the ideal woman as the movie defines it. The second less obvious trope at play is the arc between the boys and girls who are the subject of their original adoration and rejection. These girls they want so badly, are also dating the chief antagonists who bully them at school. The girls even witness and express a measure of dismay over the bullying but fret over the possibility of missed social opportunities and status if they dump them, so they remain with "the jerks". Which parlays into Lisa's main mission, getting the boys hooked up with the girls they originally wanted to the chagrin of the jerks. This is ultimately accomplished by first making them to seem affluent even though they're not, and more confident/charming/popular than they are. Then lastly by ultimately humiliating the the jerks, while the protagonists are made to appear brave and chivalrous in contrast. So fake who you are, long enough for the girl you want to fall in love with the real you, and then dump her jerk boyfriend who she doesn't truly like. Because being a nice guy is all that matters in winning your vagina trophy right? The entire "Why do hot girls date jerks and ignore nice guys" trope is big enough for it's own article. For the interest of brevity I'll just remind the reader that women are not machines you put kindness coins into and sex comes out. If you think you're owed sex, or attraction, because of how nice you are, it's a giant red flag you're not actually very nice at all. Some of you reading this might feel I'm reaching or being too hard on this trope, but it's a trope with a body count. Do good people date assholes sometimes? Of course, but it's not because of some cosmic tragedy that punishes well meaning young men and rewards the jerks. Women are not rewards, they're people.
I need to preface this by saying I love this movie and it's by far my favorite movie on this list. I also want to give it credit for handling it's specific trope, better than most, but still not great. So in its way, maybe it's better at reflecting culture than it is addressing it. One of the most common aspects of male-centric teen/coming-of-age films is getting alcohol, to get girls drunk, to make it easier to have sex with them. It's so common in these films, because in reality for most teen boys, it is a huge aspect of the coming of age experience. Teen boys want to have sex with girls, but only pervy weirdos who pull social kamikazes just flat out ask for sex, so it's a game. As young men we operate under the presumption that girls by default do not want to have sex with us, so we have to trick them somehow into wanting it. We're dramatically gender separated from infancy, so by the time we're in high school, no wonder it's rare for truly coed groups of friends to discuss these things openly like equal peers. Women want sex too actually. Even into adulthood we're reminded that guys are generally friends with girls, simply to have sex with them, so is it any wonder this is how we end up acting so often? In this movie we have our typical small group of virgin teen boys Evan/Seth/Fogell, approaching graduation, desperate to not be virgins, because as we all know graduating as a virgin leads to our fairy godfathers making our dicks turn back into pumpkins or something. I give this movie credit because at least the girls that are the subject of intended conquest Becca/Jules/Nicola, are eager to procure said alcohol as well, even letting the boys know which brands to bring. The end results are mixed. Fogell has sex with Nicola for a few seconds before being interrupted. Evan actually gets too drunk and has the power tables changed a bit when Becca tries to pressure him into sex, which they fail at having. Seth attempts to make a move on Jules, but she refuses because he is drunk and he reveals he was hoping she would be drunk, because that's the only way she would ever consider kissing him. I enjoyed the gender twist with Evan on the trope, but in the end it's the same problem with basic consent. I even more enjoyed that they made a point to show Jules say she doesn't kiss drunk people, or need to be drunk at a party. She seems to successfully convey a bit, that it was a shady plan he had, but still doesn't come out and say much more than "You don't have to get me drunk for me to like you, because I kinda like you anyways". In the end they all end up with the girls they wanted. Which you want, because all of those guys are so damn likable. But this "Let's get girls drunk so we can trick them into fucking us" teenage rite of passage has to come to an end. It's probably responsible for more rape in this country than anything else. If you need to get someone drunk to have consent, you're not really getting consent. Getting someone drunk in the hopes they'll be more inclined to have sex with you, is the essence of rape culture. It doesn't stop in high-school either, go to any college town on a Friday night and you can see group after group of young men roving bar to bar with this very battle plan. That's not to say there's anything wrong with meeting people and deciding to have sex with them that very night, or that women aren't looking to get laid themselves ever. The point is the predatory mentality of going out like a hunter and using booze as a tool to capture prey. Lines of consent become blurry very fast when drugs and alcohol become involved, and those lines are crossed with shocking frequency.
This list wouldn't be complete without picking on poor John Hughes again, so here we are. Most teen movies are male-centric, but this classic bucks that trend with breakout performances and characters that defined a generation and made careers for many of the kids involved. It also has some pretty messed up crap stuffed into it. Samantha is your typical wallflower type that feels overlooked by the world, even her family has forgotten it's her sixteenth birthday. She's annoyed but humble, for all she really wants right now is the picture-perfect-dreamboat-hunk Jake Ryan. Jake is sexy, well mannered, wealthy, clearly the most popular guy on the planet, who is also dating the seemingly most popular girl on the planet, the equally hot but bitchy and superficial Caroline. I'm about as hetero as one gets, but even I want Jake Ryan, damn you John Hughes! Little does Samantha know, Jake is bored just dating a girl for her looks and is developing a crush of his own on her. The bulk of the movie is spent on them narrowly avoiding discovering their mutual attraction. A subplot emerges with a freshman character only known as Geek, who leads a group of lower geeks that follows every 80's nerdy cliche'. Geek wants badly to both get laid and impress everyone with how studly he is. (We'll save Long Duk Dong for an article on racist tropes in beloved movies.) The movie culminates with a giant party at Jake's, where everyone seems to get trashed but Jake and Geek. Jake is exhausted with how drunk and annoying Caroline is, breaks up with her and she passes out in another room. After the party is over it's only Jake and Geek talking about love and life. This is where the mostly typical teenage romp takes a pretty dark turn. Geek lets Jake know that Samantha likes him, but warns him if he just wants her for a "piece of ass", he'll find someone to kick Jake's ass. The picture perfect hunk Jake replies, "I could get a piece of ass anytime I want, shit, I got Caroline up in the bedroom right now passed out cold. I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to." Geek replies "What are you waiting for?!" As if it was both a common practice for Jake or a natural expectation for Geek if in Jake's position. Jake then gives him Caroline, literally, with his fathers Rolls Royce, along with the understanding they both make it home safe eventually and not "left in a parking lot somewhere". She wakes up enough to express confusion at what was going on as they put her in the car. She asks what's going on, and the gag here is that Jake says he's Geek, and the Geek is him, thus clearing the way for Geek to have free reign in her confused state to "violate her ten different ways". The first thing Geek does is drive her passed out body to his friends house to take suggestive pictures of them together to bolster his posterity. Again played for yuks, but it's not very funny after reading report after report of women being photographed while they were raped in an unconscious state by their rapist. As did Brock the rapist, apparently. People often wonder why the hell a rapist would do that, but then we all laugh at this scene don't we? Well, hopefully not anymore. We don't see them have sex, but they do wake up in a parking lot, despite the one gentlemanly request from Jake to take her home after he raped her. Geek feigns a hangover and no memory, even though he was clearly not drunk in the previous scenes, the girl only remembers having sex and enjoying it. She also suddenly has a personality change and is magically no longer a mean person, having been humanized by the experience, and now in love with Geek. I could write a few more paragraphs on everything wrong here, but I think you get the picture. There is a reoccurring theme though, that consent is less of an issue when you can dehumanize the person as a villain first. Very sick stuff.
One area of rape culture that gets largely overlooked is attitudes about male rape, in particular prison rape. When one male says of another male, "I'm going to make you my bitch", it's of course misogynist in several ways, but it's also saying something about our collective attitudes about male rape. Be it as a tool of dominance, of punishment or a source of humor. Prison rape as a punchline is so common in our culture, it's easy to forget just how horrific the implications of this as a collective attitude is. That doesn't mean Half Baked isn't hilarious, or that I don't still to this day laugh at it. But that's sort of the problem when it comes to the Kenny vs. Nasty Nate prison subplot, it shouldn't be funny. Why is it funny to us to have a man narrowly escaping rape through most of the movie? Why is rape itself the punchline and what does that say about how we view rape differently between genders? The other common prison rape movie trope is that it's an appropriate or funny punishment for bad guys. Both of these attitudes carry over into the real world when we talk about men in prison and male rape. It's rather common for prison rape to be shrugged off as just a part of prison life at best, and at worst a needed karmic justice baked into our judicial system. However you dice it though, it means once we dehumanize someone, it's ok to rape them. Granted there are some very bad people that go to prison, who put a lot of their own effort into helping society dehumanize them without any help. Yet we still are the ones making the call that rape is justifiable when the context is right. This also makes coming out as a male victim of rape extremely difficult, whether you're in prison or not. Rape is something that everyone across the entire gender spectrum experiences, even if it appears to predominantly impact women. Rape humor is it's own long and contentious subject. I'm a huge fan of dark comedy/gallows humor and no topic should be off limits to comedy. In fact, the more serious the topic, the more comedy can be used as a tool to help us communicate and process it. But the more controversial the topic, the greater the responsibility of the artist to stick the landing and make sure the topic isn't itself the punchline. Assuming people are being overly sensitive, isn't an excuse for sloppy or lazy comedy.
I spent most of the last few weeks re-watching a lot of movies, trying to research this piece, but the real labor was figuring out how I think about all of it. I'm still unsure. This is far from a complete list and I am far from the best person to be writing about this topic, but I couldn't remain quiet about it. I hope you do the same, even if you don't come to the same conclusions or interpretations. Let's challenge each other, our culture, our artists, ourselves, past/present/future, to figure out why we have the problems with rape and sexual violence that we do. Rape prevention isn't telling people how to become harder targets for the rapists. Rape prevention is about preventing people from raping in the first place. I feel that begins with addressing the environment that fails to discourage these types of ideas and behaviors from forming in young people of all genders. The definition of consent should not be ambiguous. The connection between objectification, dehumanization and rationales for sexual violence are not just movie tropes. It might be emotionally satisfying to think of rape as something that is only committed by evil people, but these ideas and behaviors are exhibited by otherwise "normal" or "good" people, in films and in reality. That's what's so scary and daunting about trying to stop it. These ideas and behaviors exist in many of us because none of us are immune from our culture and none of us likes to think of ourselves as part of the problem. I'm not sure what all of the solutions are, but if more of us are at least talking about it, and not being shy about being critical of each other and ourselves, we can surely be closer to some of those solutions.