Sexual Violence in Fiction

Trigger warning
this article talks about instances of fictitious sexual violence which may be troubling for some readers.

Sexual violence is a serious problem.  A quick Google search can tell you the statistics, which are harrowing. In England and Wales alone, approximately 85,000 women and 12,000 men are raped every year (source: rapecrisis.org.uk). The risk of sexual violence increases dramatically for transgender and disabled individuals. If the media exists as mass communication, and sexual violence is a problem which affects the masses, then it only makes sense that the two meet. However, are the intentions of the film and TV creators who feature sexual violence in their content always honourable?

The media plays a crucial role in changing the way society
views things. Previously taboo, the exploration of sexual violence in popular
film and TV is a vital step in opening the discussion, and it reaps benefits. Only
by talking about sexual violence can we expect victims to come forward with
their experiences. Only by encouraging their bravery, and discouraging any
sense of shame, can we learn from these survivors. As a problem which affects a third of women worldwide, it is necessary that we question the attitudes installed in our varying cultures, and it is necessary that we do something to tackle the issue. The idea of a blockbuster movie, or a TV show with millions of viewers exploring the topic of sexual violence, should be something to be praised. But when featured to propel the plot with some sort of shock value, and nothing else, is extremely troubling.

In the latest season of American Horror Story, there was one
particular scene, in the season’s opening, which I found deeply disturbing. I’m
not sure what offended me most, as many elements of the scene left me with a
sour taste in my mouth, but one thing is sure – it existed for shock value, and
nothing else. Neither of the characters involved in the rape appeared ever again in the next nine episodes, and the loud, lengthy, graphic scene was
controversial, rightfully so. When I took to twitter to express my concern, I was
told by countless fans of the show to get over it. The show is rated TV MA (for
mature audiences), so the scene should have been expected on my part – and I had no right to complain about how audiences, younger ones particularly, would take to it. The passivity of some of the show’s audience, and the other characters within the scene, sickens me.

My opinion of the show – previously ever-changing – was made
concrete.

The use of gratuitous rape scenes in TV and film is
something I cannot get behind. Victims of sexual violence worldwide deserve
more respect from those in Hollywood, who seem to think it’s appropriate to
water down the severity of sexual violence. It is used to propel the horror
value, to be nauseating, squirm-inducing. To show how sinister an antagonist
is, but not to show the strength of the victim who survives the ordeal and its repercussions.
We often look to fiction to find ourselves – to find characters with similar
experiences to us, who are able to overcome their troubles. We look for
guidance, and comfort. Victims of sexual violence deserve such comfort. They deserve support, which unfortunately isn’t readily available – most victims in the UK do not have access to a Rape Crisis Centre. Of course, a well-executed,
factually correct storyline in a TV show won’t be as effective as the
counselling victims need and deserve – but it could surely offer some short term support.

To contrast with American Horror Story: Hotel, I recently
watched a film which explored sexual violence in a way I found profound and rational. Foxfire is a 1996 film starring Angelina Jolie. Jolie plays a rebellious
outsider who encourages a group of girls to enact revenge on a sexually abusive teacher. What later becomes is a girl gang you want nothing more than to join –
they’re strong, free-spirited, and they band together in a way that leaves you
with a feeling of warmth.

In a particular favourite scene of mine, the girls tattoo each
other, and female nudity is presented in a way many films would never consider. The girls grow closer to each other, their bond strengthening, their bodies not sexualised. The film offers realistic attitudes regarding the girls’ revelation about their teacher – they face lots of criticism, but it only makes them stronger, their bravery showcased as they laugh it off and challenge those who challenge them. Hyper masculinity is represented through the football team, and other characters provide the voices of rape culture. The film relies partially on stereotypes, and it is by no means perfect, but the female protagonists are presented in all the ways I like to see – flawed, but capable, enduring, and so very brave.

I’ve only touched on
two examples of media, one film and one TV show, and there are countless others out there which tackle sexual violence differently. This is a complex
discussion, and I am by no means finishing my input here. As something that
angers me, you can expect me to return to this conversation in the near future.
If you have anything to add, please share through our ask box or twitter – I’d
love to hear your views! For now, I’ve been Anni and this has been my first
thought piece on Girls Against.