Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays
Nº7 2021 (1)
The Representation of Rape On Screen: How the Gaze Influences our (Mis)Conceptions of Sexual Assaults
Lucie Emch (SOAS, University of London)
This audiovisual essay seeks to question the way in which rape has been represented on our screens. Since its beginnings, western cinema has represented scenes of non-consensual sexual violence (Projansky, 2001). For Iris Brey (2020), this has had an impact on our society and our way of conceiving these acts. Indeed, if we look at the history of the representation of the female body on the screen, we can see that women are mostly represented by what Laura Mulvey (1975) defines as the male gaze: the sexualization of women through framing, staging and narrative codes. In an era influenced by the #MeToo movement (Zeilinger, 2018), the context of the reception and production of visual content leads us to question the impact, the biases and the implicit messages of the images we watch. The aim of this audiovisual essay is to highlight two examples of audiovisual content that attempt to tackle the representation of this kind of violence by focusing on female gaze, that is to say, by presenting the point of view of the victim, allowing the spectator to access her feelings.
It compares Rapin*, a music video by Swedish singer Jenny Wilson, which depicts the sexual assault she was a victim of, with Ida Lupino’s film Outrage (1950), released during the Code Hays era, a censorship set of rules that forbade any representation of the act itself. These two works, produced in very different contexts, manage in their own way to present rape through a female gaze by underlining the feeling and the impact of the rape on the victim. They are careful not to eroticize or aesthetize the act: Outrage cannot show it but brilliantly films the victim’s desperate flight from the attacker in the deserted streets, focusing on the impact this act has on the victim. Rapin* is more graphic; furthermore, it makes the artistic choice of using animation, creating a surreal, frightening and disturbing setting, and allowing the filmmakers to show how the act literally tears the body apart. Iris Brey notes that whereas rape seen through the male gaze is a show, rape seen from the point of view of the female gaze is a flesh-marking experience (2020: 103).
Both the film and the music video underline the pivotal role of the cityscape, an unsafe place for women at night when it is deserted. The parallel montage also questions the notion of responsibility that is often called into question i.e., asking “what was the victim wearing?” perversely questions the responsibility of the aggressor and positions the victim as a temptress. Both works focus on the fear of the female character, the flight into the city and then, they go inside herself to seek refuge, but the aggression goes deep inside, marking the flesh and the spirit. Thus, they underline the double difficulty of experiencing such an act and then having to tell doctors, the police or relatives about it and then subsequently having to rebuild intimate relationships. In Rapin*, the aggressor slowly leaves the building; in Outrage, the man slowly closes the window. Both scenes offer a strong message about our society, which often allows aggressors to disappear unpunished and leaves the victim with shame and trauma.
Moreover, it is interesting to note that Academia has not analyzed Outrage as extensively as the works of other popular filmmakers from the same era: Ida Lupino was considered by Haskell as a better “actress than director” and her films were considered “conventional” (quoted in Brey, 2020: 130). According to Vanity Fair (Raja, 2020), it has taken several tributes in film festivals (Festival Lumière, 2014 or the Toronto Festival, 2017) and the #MeToo movement to bring Ida Lupino back “from the limbo of Hollywood memory”. Jenny Wilson’s music video has been awarded several prizes i.e. best music video at the Grammys (Swedish Grammy, 2018) and at the Geneva International Film Festival (GIFF, 2018). However, Rapin* has not been studied in depth by academia either. Comparing these two feminist audiovisual works brings to the fore the difficulty for women to achieve critical and academic recognition. The fact that academia has snubbed Outrage and Rapin*, both made by women, and also many other films that question patriarchy, is not a coincidence. This audiovisual essay sets out to honor these women who are fighting to change our existing misconceptions, anchored in how the male gaze conceptualizes non consensual acts.
It is time to consider that the spectator is not solely a white male but, conversely, a plurality of gender positions. It is time to propose films that are less stereotypical and more aware of the messages they stage or express.
The author would like to thank Estrella Sendra Fernandez (SOAS, University of London) and Madeline Bourgeois.
- Bossavie, B. and Chapus, J.-V. (2018) «La nouvelle ère du clip français: cinéaste de notre temps», Sofilm, 64, pp. 42-49.
- Brey, I. (2020). Le regard féminin, une révolution à l’écran. Paris: Editions de l’Olivier.
- Mulvey, L. (1999). “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Eds. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, pp. 833-844.
- Murat, L. (2017). “Blow Up, revu et inacceptable” in libération.fr [online]
- Projansky, S. (2001). “The Elusive/Ubiquitous Representation of Rape: A Historical Survey of Rape in U.S. Film, 1903-1972”, Cinema Journal, 41 (1), pp. 63-90.
- Raja, N. (2020). «Cinéma: Outrage d’Ida Lupino, le film qui a brisé le tabou du viol à l’écran’», vanityfair.fr [online].
How to cite this article: Emch, L. (2021) The Representation of Rape On Screen: How the Gaze Influences our (Mis)Conceptions of Sexual Assaults. Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays, 7(1). ISSN: 2659-4269