Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Violence against Women at the Movies

Last night I went to see Sweeney Todd with some of my lovely friends who are in town for the holidays. I had never seen the musical but I knew the basic plot thanks to wikipedia. I was disappointed by the movie. Certain aspects were amazing: the cinematography was beautiful, the costuming was gorgeous, Helena Bonham-Carter's and Johnny Depp's performances were stellar (same for the little boy who played Toby). But the movie was ruined for me when Mrs. Lovett tells the story of Sweeney Todd's wife Lucy. In the tradition of musicals, some evil Judge wants Todd's wife Lucy. So the Judge tries Todd under false pretenses and ships him away to Australia so that he is free to woo Lucy. Lucy (golden-haired and blue-eyed) is faithful to Todd (of course) and so the Judge invites her to a party, gets her drunk, and rapes her. Whereupon Lucy takes arsenic in an attempt to kill herself. When Todd arrives in London he finds out that his daughter, Johanna, is now the ward of the Judge and, furthermore, that the Judge is planning on marrying her. When Lucy refuses him, the Judge "gives" Lucy to his cohort the Beadle in a scene that invokes the rape of her mother.

This is an incredibly familiar trope. The rape is not actually necessary to advance the plot, yet it is included and, in the movie, shown. Sweeney Todd is a rather classic 19th Century story. The musical comes from decades of storytelling about this historical/fictional character (depends on whom you read if Todd existed or not) and clearly in that time period, as in this one, women are viewed as property. And for a desirable beauty her worth is completely related to her genitals, so the rape of Lucy (and later Johanna) is tied to a historical reality. The sexual assault of women by men is a way of reinforcing a patriarchy, a reminder of who is in charge and the physicality that defines womanhood as opposed to the intelligence that defines manhood. Rape involves other things as well, and I shouldn't boil it down to these simple points, but I am. That, should this story be true, Johanna and Lucy were raped as a way of bringing-them-down, declaring ownership, punishing them for independence, I have no doubt. But I object to the relaxed way in which their abuse reaches the screen. Why aren't they allowed to have a solo where they sing their defiance? Why aren't they allowed to speak to other women and discuss their own sexual freedom? These meetings may not have any basis in recorded history but then women are neglected from history anyway so their absence doesn't mean that women didn't organize or speak up in 19th Century London. Besides, we're being asked to believe in a man who bakes his victims into pies, surely women organizing is not that discreditable.

This anger I feel goes much wider than this film, Sweeney Todd just ignited the flame that's been smouldering away for a while. As I said earlier, many films have this as a trope. Multiple novels and songs do as well but there's something about the visualization of the rape that bothers me more. Many people were involved in this. Director, producer, actors, lighting assistants, etc...what conversations did they have about the rape? How did they discuss the costuming, the cinematography, the lights of that exact scene? Did they argue about her expression or her screams? And why is rape or sexual violence never included in the reason for a movie rating? Why just "scenes of sexuality"? Surely violent non-consensual sexuality should receive a worse rating, but I never see it mentioned. The sexual assault of Keira Knightley's character is hinted at throughout the entirety of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy yet I have yet to read a major review that found these jokes, insinuations, or threats degrading and unnecessary. The film is not realistic so we don't need to include the realistic violence against women within the film.

I realize that I'm on the edge of suggesting censorship. But I don't think that censoring is the answer to my anger. I think discussion is one of many answers. When film producers - male, transgender, and female - understand the incredible pervasive reality of sexual harassment against women (and against men and gender-bending peoples but here I'm focusing on women) then scenes like these will be more explored. Sexual harassment can be jokes and touching, it can be assault and aggression, it can be rape, it takes many many forms and it dominates the lives of many women. Seeing it suggested at and glibly brushed aside is insulting to survivors, and it allows the continuation of a rape culture. When this is more generally understood I believe we will have better films. Films where the women will have more of a voice even if it is in a private monologue or among a group of survivors. There will be a response to this violence. If we can veer away from the plot to make a joke about rape then we can veer away again to show a woman retaliating.


WordK said...

I haven't seen Sweeney Todd yet, but I throughly agree with you about Pirates of the Caribbean. Particularly in the last film with the cracks about possible places to be hiding weapons, and the two pirates peaking under Elizabeth's shirt from beneath the floorboards. This didn't even pretend to be a part of the plot. It was just a ridiculous inclusion. And then Elizabeth's response was just resignation. And while I saw criticism of the films dark themes -- no one seemed to notice the problems of this aspect.

Anyway, no need for me to add anything else, you've said it all. I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for writing it.

Mik Danger said...

Wow, thanks for reading and commenting! I often wonder who reads my blog. I'm glad you found my comments useful. I was discussing this entry with some adult female friends of mine and none of them seemed to believe this was a serious subject. I'm glad you found it so!

Anonymous said...

Thanks ! Supper Post !

Amelia said...

You're absolutely right about the movie rating system - I can't believe that rape/sexual violence isn't included in the "description" of a movie rating.

When I'm at the video shop the DVD's all have explanations about their ratings (eg. "sexual themes"). However, the explanations never tell my what TYPE of "sexual themes". I am left with almost no information about what I might be exposed to if I watch any particular DVD - it could be consensual sex, or it could be sexual violence.

Anonymous said...

Johanna isn't raped in the movie you prude bitch. And you don't see the rape of Lucy either. It's actually very subtly implied. Get a life.