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Psychological Reports, 1988, 63, 607-610.

O Psychological Reports 1988

RAPE AS ENTERTAINMENT
WAYNE WILSON'
Stephen E Austin Stute Uniuersrty'

Summary.-Theatrical movies and television features distort aggravated rape and


neglect simple rape, thereby compromising the integriry of real sexual assaults. A col-
lection of 26 movies indicated three categories of rape as entertainment: the chsics
which subordinate rape to a significant drama, docrtdramas/mefodranms which mingle
fact with fiction and require substantiation, and exploifation films which use rape gra-
tuitously. Movie rape remains difficult to judge given a film's subjectivity and its po-
tential to dramatize sexual myths about rape deceptively.

How far w d Hollywood go in explo~tingthe act of rape? Well, con-


sider this scenario from a 1983 film, Cur~uzns the masked "rapist" positions
himself outside an apartment window, eyeing his beautiful "victim" as she
does all the lazily erotic things that a victim goes through before retiring.
Finally, with the movie audience presumably taut in anticipation, our
stealthy predator pounces upon his glamorous prey-and both erupt into
laughter. Foreplay between lovers, it appears, has become more and more
bizarre.
'

Characterizing the female as an entertaining victim seems a small liabil-


ity against the prospects of commercial success. And it is rape's commercial
success that has made this tragedy a staple of cinematic fare since the era of
silent films (see Alfred Hitchcoclc's 1929 movie, Blackmail). Leslie I-Ialliwell
(1985, p. 852), in his Filmgoev's Companion, lists a number of movies that
use rape as entertainment, beginning with ]ohnny Belinda in 1947. But by
the 1970s Halliwell gives up and admits that the act "became too cornmon-
place to be worth mentioning."
Commonplace as entertainment perhaps, but bitingly real and tragic
outside the movies. Sexual assault denotes a complicated offense. This com-
plication involves legal ambiguities surrounding the rapist-victim
relationship, the rape occurrence, and the lawful redress available to both
parties. For instance, one determination concerns whether the victim volun-
tarily consents to sexual intercourse. The notion of "voluntary consent"
seems redundant, but the phrasing is designed to cover instances in which a
female may give her "consent" under duress. Blue Velvet (1986) and When
She Says No (1984) are two movies that dramatize this problem, with the
latter film the more instructive.
Another complication addresses the legal bias associated with sexual
assault. Estrich (1987, p. 4 ) describes this bias as a differentiation between

'I thank Renea Martin for her assistance in analyzing the videotapes.
'Department of Psychology, Nacogdoches, Texas 75962.
608 W. WILSON

aggravated rape and simple rape. Aggravated rape concerns the legal ideal of
establishing sexual assault by a stranger or strangers that includes severe vio-
lence and threat with a weapon. Simple rape represents the more muted
experience of rape by a known party that does not involve severe physical
abuse or a weapon threat. Estrich's point is that any hint of a victim's famil-
iarity with the rapist or any incriminating behavior on her part (alcohol, for
example), and she can kiss her legal chances goodbye.
Movies opt for aggravated rape because of its greater dramatic value
through violence. We know then that rape as entertainment services an illu-
sion and that this illusion misses the mark of reality. But how damaging is
this miss to the integrity of a real rape? Integrity refers to aptness and hon-
esty in judging a person or event. I n movies, aptness depicts a dramatic
response, event, or change in character that seems more appropriate than
any other interpretation. Honesty denotes an expression that sounds true,
looks true, feels true. Aptness and honesty usually share close quarters,
although sometimes the most apt expression can be a dishonest response.
A movie rape possesses integrity when it conveys a natural and logical
action, perfectly suitable and credible in the scheme of things. The course of
a movie rape, from the rapist's motivation to the victim's aftermath of suf-
fering, should receive believable treatment. Regrettably, movies that use
rape for entertainment do not respond well to this standard of integrity.
The movies' treatment of rape indicates a possibility of three film cate-
gories, drawn from an availabihty sample of 26 titles. These categories
reflect an assumption of heuristic value but still await documentation as to
their reliability. The author presents this material, acknowledging those limi-
tations that accompany a single viewpoint based on an analysis of videotapes
that were conveniently accessible. I t was not practical at this exploratory
stage to find subjects who could view and analyze all 26 titles or to deter-
mine a representative sample of rape films. The movies span almost 60 years
and include Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Blackmail (1929), Blind Justice
(1986), Blood and Orchids (1985), Blue Velvet (1986), Born Innocent (1974),
The Boston Strangler (1968), A Case of Rape (1974), Curtains (1983),
Convicted (1986), Death Wish (1974), The Deliberate Stranger (1986), The
Entity (1983), Frances (1982), Frenzy (1972), I Spit on Your Grave (1980),
Johnny Belinda (1947), Lipstick (1976), A Passage to India (1984), Rage
(1980), Rape and Marriage: the Rideout Case (1980), Rosernaty's Baby (1968),
Straw Dogs (1971), A Streetcar Named Desire (19511, To Kill a Mockingbird
(1962), and When She Says No (1984).
The most positive category, the clanics, includes those films of artistic
merit that use rape to make a significant statement about life. These films
possess integrity in characterization and story, a rare achievement for the
movies. Notably, the classics offer a deft treatment of sexual assault by sub-
RnPE AS ENTERTAINMENT 609

ordinating this issue to the drama's basic intent. Such films are likely to
show how rape causes turmoil for the victim and for the victim's social and
sexual relationships. The classics, in other words, more admirably depict the
complications of rape mentioned earlier in defining sexual assault. The bitter
repercussions of rape's aftermath, for instance, are best illustrated in Johnny
Belinda, A Passage to India, A Streetcar Named Desire, and To Kill a
Mockingbird. A false charge of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird brings forth a
due process that can only lead to one verdict. A white woman makes the
charge against a black man in a small, Southern community during the
Depression. The tragedy that ensues becomes a lesson in morality for chil-
dren and adults alike.
By contrast, rhe category of docudramas/meIodramar musters a potpourri
of mixed blessings. These dramas focus on sexual assault, presenting the
issue of rape as real or with the appearance of reality. Viewers, however,
may not recognize the mingling of facts and falsehoods unless they have
access to factual sources elsewhere. A few movies, with varying legitimacy,
highlight rape issues, such as the rape victim's plight after her attack ( A
Case of Rape), the rapist's rehabilitation (Rage), the legal ambiguity sur-
rounding marital rape (Rape and Marriage: the Rideout Case), and the
confusion as to whether an alleged victim gives her consent under stress
(When She Says No). True cases are easier to judge than pretend cases that
assume reality, although viewers still need independent information to sub-
stantiate either version. The Boston Strangler, to cite one problem, offers an
inaccurate portrayal of the sex Idler, Albert DeSalvo. Unfortunately, if
viewers do not know of Gerold Frank's (1966) biography, or of other
sources on DeSalvo's behavior, they cannot fully appreciate the movie's dis-
torted profile.
A third category, exploitation films, dwarfs the first two classifications.
These overstated dramas range from sleazy, low-budget vehicles (I Spit on
Your Grave) to slick productions that deceptively use rape for gratuitous
effect (Lipstick). The two films, for example, involve a raped heroine who
wreaks personal revenge by killing her attacker. 1 Spit on Your Grave is the
cruder movie, but Lipstick the more dangerous. Why? Because Lipstick
boasts higher production values and better performances, making the use of
sexual assault appear more credible. No doubt many rape victims desire per-
sonal retribution, but the consequences remain too risky and too likely to
end in a noncinematic fashion.
Two problems make movie rape difficult to evaluate using integrity as a
standard: the movies' subjectivity and the movies' potential to dramatize
sexual myths about rape deceptively. First, each film harbors a measure of
subjectivity, so disagreements can arise regarding the film's integrity and its
proper classification. This possibility of disagreement allows for more than
610 W. WILSON

one suitable interpretation, as film critics constantly remind us. Second,


rape as entertainment encourages at least four sexual myths about the vic-
tim: (1) an overemphasis on false reports of rape (7 of 26 films use this
topic), (2) the futility of resisting the rapist (only Blackmail shows a success-
ful defense), (3) the desirabihty of attempting personal revenge (6 movies
promote this theme), and (4) the assumption that rape produces no pro-
longed aftereffects of suffering (9 films neglect this issue whereas Johnny
Belinda, A Streecar Named Desire, and A Case of Rape are most effective at
countering the belief).
Evidence exists to challenge these sexual myths (Bart & O'Brien, 1985;
Katz & Mazur, 1979). Moreover, it is assumed that each category of movie
rape bears a testable relationship with the viewers' susceptibility to sexual
myths. Confirmation of these relationships will help to establish the validity
of the film classifications described. Other specifics of movie rape also
deserve study, such as the rapist's motivation and punishment, and whether
this punishment reflects a realistic expression of justice. But unless moviego-
ers are enlightened concerning the use of sexual myths for dramatic effect,
the exploitation of rape as entertainment wdl continue to foster misconcep-
tions about sexual relationships.
REFERENCES
BART,P, & O'BRKN,l? (1985) Stopping rape. New York: Pergarnon.
Es~ructr,S. (19871 Real rape. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univer. Press.
FRANK,G. (1966) The Boston strangler. New York: New American Library.
HALI~NVELL, L:(1985) Halliwell'sfilmgoer's companion. (8th ed.) New York: Scribner's.
KATZ, S., & MAZUR,M. (1979) Understanding the rape victim. New York: Wiley.

Accepted Airgrist 10, 1988