Sunday, April 12, 2009

Observe & Report: On Real Rape

I don't talk about rape very often. Granted, if you read this blog - or if you specifically started reading this blog in the last few weeks, which I get the sense that a lot of people have - you might get the sense that I talk about it all the time, like I am pretty much constantly inviting people out for dinner and then being all like, "rape! What are your thoughts on this? Because I have some to share!" This is, sadly, untrue.

Nevertheless, a few months ago, over dinner with an acquaintance, I talked about rape.

"I mean, I don't know, I think feminists have to be careful about using the word 'rape' too much," she said. "Like, if you maybe wanted to have sex with the guy, but you get drunk and pass out first and he does it anyway, is that really rape? Because you did want to have sex with him."

I said the obvious: yes, it's rape, because wanting to have sex with a guy at some point, or having had sex with a guy at some point, does not mean that he has the right to just stick it in without your explicit consent whenever he pleases, because consent means "yes," not the absence of "no," and because when a guy does that to your unconscious body what he is saying is that your consent fundamentally does not matter, that he is fine with fucking you when you are incapable of consenting or enjoying yourself, that maybe your lack of consent or enjoyment is what he prefers.

"Oh," she said. "Because a guy did that to me last weekend."

At a certain point, you have to ask yourself: how many stories like this am I going to hear? Girls who wake up naked and they don't know why, girls who wake up with their boyfriends' dicks in them, girls who said "no" but he just kept going, girls who didn't fight back or run away because they knew they would get hurt if they fought back or ran away, girls who don't use the word "rape," girls who just think of it as that one time they had sex when they really didn't want to have sex - or maybe he just touched them, maybe he just showed them his dick, that's not "rape," right, that's just a guy being a little too aggressive - and why are they so angry? Why are they so scared? Why can't they get up in the morning any more, why don't they trust anyone, why do certain sights or sounds or words or scenes in movies trigger these huge panic attacks, emotions beyond their capacity to understand or withstand or just plain stand, this sudden 100% certainty that they are powerless and they are going to be hurt, humiliated, made subject to a cruelty that is beyond human comprehension, or maybe it's not that this is about to happen, maybe it's that it has happened already?

I mean, it would make sense, if you'd been raped. But what happened to you wasn't really rape: it was just that time when a guy fucked you and you didn't want him to. Rape only happens between strangers; rape only happens when you say no; rape only happens when you say no enough; rape is what happens when you physically fight back, and give him a chance to physically beat the shit out of you or kill you in addition to raping you. Rape only ever happens these ways, we tell ourselves, because that's how we are able to tell ourselves that rape hardly ever happens.

So, then, Observe & Report: a movie with a scene of rape in which the joke is that it's not really rape, in which the joke is that you can fuck a heavily drugged, unconscious woman and the only problem will happen when you stop - she will urge you to keep going, in the one second that she is verbal or capable of response, before she slips back into unconsciousness - and in which the joke, the hilarious gutsy edgy laugh line that sets audiences roaring, is that you should have just raped her without hesitation, because look how upset she is when you stop the rape!

And all the girls who've been there go: huh.

Because you weren't really raped, you see? He just fucked you without your consent, you probably would have given your consent anyway, maybe you did give your consent and you just didn't know it, maybe your consent was all of those drinks you had or all of those drugs you did or the fact that you agreed to go home with him or the fact that you kissed him or your outfit or just the fact that you're a woman and he got a hard-on in your presence, maybe that is consent, maybe that's all it takes, so really: you weren't raped, it was just some guy fucking you when you didn't want him to, so why are you so upset about it, why is this the thing that's killing you?

So the critics parse and debate whether it was rape, and for the most part, they say that it's not: she did tell him not to stop, after all! Maybe she just got drugged so that he could fuck her while she was unconscious, maybe that's her thing! You've got the miraculously and no-doubt-coincidentally all-dude panel over at the AV Club talking about how "edgy" the scene is, that it's a "new kind of comedy," that classifying that scene as a rape is a little... and they don't want the conversation to, um, get out of hand, you know... and these men are so clearly so very uncomfortable with defending the scene that you can literally hear them squirming in their seats, talking about the "irony" of this "new kind of comedy" and how they certainly hope the irony is there because otherwise it would be kind of... but the point is, as Sensitive and Non-Sexist and uncomfortable as they are, they are not uncomfortable enough to stop defending the scene, not uncomfortable enough to point out that, even if Anna Faris, in complete contra-representation to all of the thousands of scenes like this that happen everywhere and every day, tells her rapist not to stop, the scene would certainly seem to indicate that she didn't tell him to start, making it, de facto, a "real" rape in progress.

Which, Jody Hill would have been fine with removing that line, he would have been fine with removing even a little bit of ambiguity, he thinks that rape is its own punchline:

I would have been happy without any dialogue in that scene. I wanted to show them just having sex and her passed out, and I thought that would have been funnier. But I think I have a darker sense of humor than most people. So at the end, [Faris’ character] is okay with it. [Laughs.] And that was like, “I’ll shoot it both ways.” So I actually shot it both ways. I just kept the camera rolling.. I think if you’re really pushing the envelope, you have to not include everybody, if that makes sense. Or else it’s not really pushing the envelope.

Multiple-choice question: the "everybody" that he is fine with not including is (a) women, (b) rape survivors, (c) people who get that "having sex" while one partner is unconscious is not, in fact, "sex," but rape, and that this is inexcusable, or (d) all of the above, and Jody Hill can go fuck himself.

I believe that women like to fuck. I believe that people like to fuck, and that this holds true even when the people in question are women. I believe that women can pursue, initiate, and enjoy sex. I know this to be true because - shocker! - I've done it. However, in a society that does not truly or deeply believe these things, that believes sexual desire is essentially male, that condemns women for the pursuit, initiation, or enjoyment of sex, this is the end result: a belief that women's pursuit, initiation, enjoyment, or basic consent to sex is irrelevant, that sex can be a thing a man does to a woman whether or not she actively takes part in it or wants it, and that this is, somehow, not rape.

I mean, I get the "joke" of the scene in Observe and Report. The joke is that it's not rape because she wants to be fucked while drugged and unconscious and unable to move or to take bodily pleasure in the act. (Or, in Jody Hill's Very Special Edgy-Pushing-the-Envelope Director's Cut, the joke is that it is rape, which is hilarious in and of itself.) The problem is that this is a joke you can't make unless you fundamentally misunderstand the nature of sexual consent, or the nature of rape. Anyone who does understand it knows that a single phrase blurted out by a semi-conscious, incoherent, out-of-her-mind high character who can't really even know what's going on, let alone respond to it in a way that is "full and informed," does not mitigate the fact that the male character in the scene is raping her. Anyone who doesn't understand that is capable of getting rape and consent confused - and, for that reason, may be entirely capable of committing rape. This joke doesn't just rely on our misunderstandings of rape; it actively promulgates them. That's the problem. That's why I'm not laughing.

This will be my last post on Observe & Report. The conversation has been taken up elsewhere. I believe it is making a difference, and that it's a conversation worth having, because I think that when filmmakers and critics gloss over these things, and try to find reasons to call the rape less than "real" or somehow excusable, one of the things they are doing is participating in the conversation that keeps us from openly addressing these attitudes, and the fact that they are held by many, many people who may be considered - and who almost certainly consider themselves - normal and harmless. A commenter pointed out that the conversations around Observe & Report are a microcosm of our society's attitudes about rape in general, which is true. We need to change the rules of that conversation. When we talk about the rape in Observe & Report, and the misunderstandings upon which it relies, and the people who act upon these misunderstandings, we need to call those people what they are.

They are our rapists.

30 comments:

  1. I just wanted to let you know I found your post through Women & Hollywood, and the part they quoted about how it feels to be unexpectedly triggered is one of the best descriptions I have ever seen. I have PTSD and no matter how hard I try to explain to people that when I think I'm watching something funny and mindless so I don't have to think about being a survivor, or "Abnormal", "Traumatized" etc... they just don't understand that feeling of being blindsided. Thank you for writing about this. Because of you and some other people, you've spared me the humiliation and trapped feeling of being triggered in public.

    I don't even understand why there are so many gray areas and loopholes. Legally if someone is intoxicated, they can't consent. You definitely can't consent if you are unconscious.

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  2. Thanks so much for this post. I've read a lot about this shit-pile of a move, and many feminists speaking out on it, but this post really said exactly what needs to be said. I felt it.

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  3. Incredible post. This was one the best articulated things I've read regarding Observe & Report. Being "edgy" shouldn't be at the expense of marginalized groups and rape survivors.

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  4. emylie_bo_bemylieApril 12, 2009 at 8:32 PM

    Thank you. This post is spot-on.

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  5. I really appreciate this, because the discussion I've read elsewhere gets so exhausting. You sum up my the issues strongly and succinctly, and I'm very grateful for this breath of fresh air.

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  6. Brilliant post, the best I've read on this topic. Well done.

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  7. Thank you for this absolutely brilliant post. I plan to quote you on this, frequently.

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  8. ...a belief that women's pursuit, initiation, enjoyment, or basic consent to sex is irrelevant, that sex can be a thing a man does to a woman whether or not she actively takes part in it or wants it, and that this is, somehow, not rape.

    The problem in a nutshell. Excellent.

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  9. Thank you for this, you've explained everything that I've ever wanted to say about this movie.

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  10. Thank you for this (very well-written, I might add) post. Thank you for validating not only how skewed the "humor" is, but also the behaviors and thoughts that let it continue. Too many women are rationalizing being taken advantage of, not realizing things could (and should!) be different. Thank you for shining a bright light on this.

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  11. The funny thing is (okay---nothing about this is particularly funny), Jody Hill's Very Special Edgy-Pushing-the-Envelope Director's Cut would actually be less offensive than the scene as it stands now! At least he would just rape her, everyone would recognize it as rape, and the victim wouldn't be responsible for providing the punchline. Yet another example of how very deeply these people do not get it.

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  12. Thank you so much for this. It should be required reading. Like, before someone can buy a ticket, the guy at the box office should be required by law to hand this over first, like the warning on cigarettes or something, because apparently, people are too damn stupid to understand why rape isn't fucking funny.

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  13. I just came here via Shakesville, and want to add my Thank You to the chorus. This is an excellent post, and you basically take all the angry jumbled-up thoughts in my head and lay them out in clear and direct statements. Thank you so much.

    The quote from Jody Hill makes me so unbelievably disgusted and angry, and the fact that many many people will read or hear that quote and nod their heads and say "Yeah, that's right!" makes me want to crawl in a hole and not come out. I don't know much else about Hill, but I have to say, what an awful, awful person. What a disgrace.

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  14. this post is incredible. if only there were a hope of hill ever reading it; even his manager, or the studio that produced the movie. someone ought to hear the other side of the story, ought to remind them that there are some things that simply aren't funny, ever, no matter what.

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  15. What an articulate post. Usually when I'm this mad I just froth at the mouth and throw things. Thank goodness there are people like you out there who can actually put words to the outrage!

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  16. This is a great post.

    I have had many conversations over a scene in Gossip Girl in which Chuck Bass has sex with Blair while pretending to be her boyfriend during a blackout. Later Blair says she knew it was Chuck all along.

    I said this was a rape scene. Practically everyone I know disagreed.

    The thing is, having sex with someone by means of deceit, or in a situation where you know they can't (too drunk/passed out) or won't (literally pretending to be someone else) is rape. No matter what the victim later says, the rapist has engineered a scenario where "consent" is meaningless.

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  17. I don't share this experience very often, but when I was in love for the first time, my now ex-boyfriend probed his hands into my vagina. I was dead asleep and had no idea--until the following night, when he confessed in a huge fit of guilt.

    I forgave him then, because I was in love. (Insert retching sounds here.) But now, years later, I can see the huge scope of damage he has done in essentially telling me that he had a right to my body, and that--as you so brilliantly say--that my consent meant nothing to him.

    I had to explain this to a few guy friends who were wondering why I was so upset over this film. I'm pleased to say that they shut the hell up after that!

    And I feel so sorry for your friend--I hope she'll get some counselling from a sympathetic, understanding person. (Quite frankly, it's the asshole who assaulted her that truly needs it, but I know how lonely this situation can be--you need all the support you can get!)

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  18. Great post. I don't think there's much else I can add that others haven't already stated in the comments. But I haven't seen the film yet (And probably won't now), but had heard about this scene and frankly, it's distubing to me that people are arguing over whether or not it's rape. In this day and age, it's upsetting and shocking really.

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  19. I fail to see what's "edgy" about humor based on resurrecting an attitude prevalent in hundreds of cultures over thousands of years, that women's bodies are the property of the men who want them. Not really new, not exactly cutting-edge. The addition of the idea that women's very desire is also subject to the whim of men who want them, that a daughter or sister or friend or wife who desires a man deserves one perjorative term while an object of lust who won't return desire deserves another, the "joke" that a woman wants whatever sex she's having regardless of consent or capacity to enjoy it, is the oldest justification on record for ignoring the wrong in the first idea. Even the desire to justify or gloss the egregious dehumanization of both concepts by dressing them up as humor is as ancient as humanity itself.

    Just not finding anything groundbreaking there. Until reading that quote, I was willing to believe the whole fiasco was the result of creation by committee, everyone who could have stopped it taking the easy road, not wanting to stick out by standing up. Stupidity sells, and that's the only excuse I could imagine. But I didn't believe anyone would be moronic enough to try to justify it with the blanket-sanctity of "Art".

    Seth Rogan is a moron beyond imagination.

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  20. @The Sexist: I know, right? I mean, I think "Observe & Report" would still probably have been highly fucked up - this awesome reviewer whose blog I am now reading indicates that, just as in "Eastbound & Down," Hill suffers from a loss of nutsack as the movie progresses and sets about "redeeming" or making people root for this essentially repugnant character, which requires him to make the narrative and the other characters' actions unbelievable. And of course, as in "Eastbound & Down," he has to shame the openly sexual woman and set the character up with some virgin who likes him for no reason. So, I'm betting I would still have problems with it. But presenting the character as a flat-out-no-question-about-it rapist (and GIVING THAT FACT NARRATIVE WEIGHT, not just tossing the scene out there without having any narrative consequences, Jesus) might have helped me to buy the whole "but we're not SUPPOSED to root for Ronnie" thing I keep hearing, whereas taking it to the "but she really LIKES being raped! Because she's DRUNK, and a SLUT" place just took it to a level where there's no way Hill can redeem himself.

    @acorn hat: The thing is, the backlash is big enough and loud enough now that I'm pretty sure Hill HAS heard these arguments. If he's anything like most of the douches out there, he'll passive-aggressively ramp up the sexism in his future work just to piss people off because THEY DON'T UNDERSTAND HIM, rather than actually working on himself. But he's heard them. Yet, again (le sigh) he's probably sequestered in some Pissy-Pants Rage Cave right now brooding on how people - particularly lady people - just never adore him sufficiently, if my prior experience with men like this is any guide, because the people who revel in their capacity to offend others always get UNBELIEVABLY FUCKING CHILDISH AND SOUR-PUSSED when someone offends them. Yet again, The Onion sums it all up. But, whatever, smart folks are having good conversations and we all know enough to avoid him now.

    @Jordan Baker: Yeah, I processed that as an attempted rape too, for the same reasons: uninformed consent isn't consent. Chuck also tried to rape Jenny in the first episode, so the fact that he's a raper is a pretty established part of his character. I can still watch "Gossip Girl" as camp for some reason - none of the characters are believable, none of the plots are believable, everything is as hugely ridiculous and over-the-top as possible - but the fact that some folks actually take the show seriously and are able to get all swoony over Chuck with that fact in play is really pretty disturbing.

    @Chai Latte: Wow, lady. Thank you for being brave enough to share that. I'm so sorry he did that to you, though. I really hope you're getting the support and love you need right now. It sucks that you had to lay it out for your friends who couldn't get why that scene is so problematic. Yet I really do believe that survivors need to speak out, because one thing that happens when we do that is that people start to realize HOW FUCKING MANY THERE ARE, and how little they fit the stereotypes put forth by rape apologists - I would wager that every person in America knows at least one survivor, if not more, even if they don't know it yet - and (hopefully) what that says about the state of the world.

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  21. DerelictDaughter11April 14, 2009 at 9:43 AM

    here via Shakesville...

    very well said. thank you, and brava.

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  22. thank you thank you thank you for this.

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  23. Thank you so, so much for this. I posted the link to my blog and also sent it to my boyfriend, who in spite of living with a survivor (i.e., me) plans to see this movie.

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  24. Here from The Pursuit of Harpyness. Agreed, agreed, agreed. This makes me so angry.

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  25. The joke is that it's not rape because she wants to be fucked while drugged and unconscious and unable to move or to take bodily pleasure in the act.But... that's not a joke! *headdesk*

    Great post. I think I may have to stick you on my blogrollythingy.

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  26. Best post I've read on this. I couldn't believe the scene was even in a "comedy' - what could be less funny??? I don't even have words for how disgusted I am with that whole idea. I'm glad you had the words. I especially liked "(d)" on your list. Couldn't have said it better.

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  27. thank you so much for this

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  28. Many years ago I went on a first date with a guy who got me drunk, then took me back to his place and we played strip poker. I was not quite unconscious, although drifting in and out of awareness, so definitely not fully cognizant of what was happening, such that about 2 seconds before "sex" commenced, I realized, "oh hey, how did we get to *this* point? Do I *want* to be doing this? Oops, too late, I am doing it."

    It was almost 20 years later that I realized that had been sexual assault. He never asked about having sex, so there was no consent. (I did date the guy afterwards, because I thought having sex on the first date made me a slut, and I couldn't bear that thought.) When I had my realization, I told my husband the story, and he claims it *wasn't* sexual assault or rape. I'm very disturbed by that. I would never have guessed he would defend that type of behavior, esp since he detests my cousin who raped me.

    ~Laiima

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  29. You left out another class of rape: when it's your husband...

    ... and he's drunk and you daren't say "no" because he'll hit you (again).

    ... and you've just spent the past 2 hours tossing your cookies with "morning sickness" even though it's 11:00pm.

    ... and it's only a week since you had a c-section and you've still got the staples in.

    ... and he *ooops* misses the target and fucks you in the ass, even though you've asked him before not to do that.

    I could go on. But we all know that a husband can't rape his wife.

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  30. Friend of mine linked me to this post- Very well-written, and definitely something to chew on, mentally.
    One thing really stood out to me here: in talking about the all-guys panel @ Onion's AV club discussing the movie, you wrote:
    the point is, as Sensitive and Non-Sexist and uncomfortable as they are, they are not uncomfortable enough to stop defending the scene.
    What may have been going on here- I've seen it with white liberals and racism- is that they might have enjoyed the movie on other counts, and the simple fact that yes- this scene was unequivocably rape, and a woman was telling them so, was interpreted at a base level as telling them that they are Bad People by having enjoyed the movie. So naturally- fumfawing and 'yes but really it's ironic' and so on, rather than '...oh wow. Wow, I see your point. Thank you.' This looks very similar to the thought process described.
    Huh. Aversive anti-feminism. Who'da thunk it.

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