The Long, Problematic History Of Rape Scenes In Film

[SALANDER] comes to, on her stomach, sees her wrists cuffed to the headboard posts, her ankles secured to the foot posts with silk ties, and scissors slicing her jeans off.


[BJURMAN] crams a pillow under her stomach and climbs on top of [SALANDER]. She keeps fighting but there’s not much she can do handcuffed. Eventually, she retreats to another place inside herself. She’s had to go here before in her life; it’s the only place to go in such situations.

—Screenplay for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

In his 2011 rendition of Steven Zaillian’s award-winning adapted screenplay, David Fincher brought the gritty thriller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” to arresting, razor-edged life. The film garnered critical praise and five Oscar nominations. It also turned the above scripting into an excruciating, arguably gratuitous rape scene.

Instead of Lisbeth Salander coming to in a state of undress, we see Bjurman violently rip her clothes off of her body. Instead of focusing on Salander and her perspective, as the screenplay suggests, shots of Bjurman and wide shots of the bed dominate the scene. An unscripted shot of Salander’s ass is added. Salander is not so much a character here as she is a pawn in her own narrative, directed to do little more than struggle and scream while her attacker takes center stage. The scene is a landmark in an intentionally brutal film — according to Fincher, Sony and Scott Rudin approached him to direct because “they wanted to be in the adult-film-franchise business,” and wanted him “to kick the A in adult.”

This scene contributes to the loaded history of films predominantly written and directed by men which depict rape as a spectacle. These sensational scenes reduce one of our society’s most horrifying realities to shock fodder. In “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” Fincher prioritizes Bjurman’s abhorrent ecstasy over Lisbeth’s survival. Her terrified screams become background noise as shots of Bjurman dictate the scene’s action — action which arguably needn’t be shown, and could have easily played out through off-screen sound and close-ups on Lisbeth’s face. The experience is no longer hers, it belongs to the attacker and the audience. To be clear, I adore Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and have no desire to needlessly nitpick at its construction. Such formal minutiae may seem inconsequential, but it equates to a scene that exemplifies the troubled nature of cinematic rape.

Thanks to “Game of Thrones,” recent debate surrounding visual depictions of rape have concentrated on the small screen, while little attention has been given to rape’s consistent presence in cinema for the past century. As April Wolfe points out in her illuminating article for LA Weekly, rape scenes have been haunting cinema — and its workers — for quite some time. Though once a low-budget subgenre that drew sneers from critics, the rape-revenge film has evolved into a critical darling. Isabelle Huppert garnered an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of survivor-turned-avenger Elle in the eponymous 2016 film. Rooney Mara burst onto the acting scene when she earned a Best Actress nomination for portraying Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” The role included the aforementioned rape scene, as well as Lisbeth’s calculated vengeance on her attacker. Half of 2016’s eight Best Picture nominees depicted, alluded to, or dealt heavily with rape: Best Picture winner “Spotlight” focused on survivors of childhood sexual assault, “The Revenant” featured a brief rape scene, “Mad Max: Fury Road” centered on five women escaping their rapist/jailer, and “Room” told the harrowing tale of a woman’s escape from her rapist/kidnapper. Brie Larson won well-deserved mainstream critical acclaim and the Best Actress statuette for playing troubled rape survivor Ma in “Room.” Rape is ever-present in contemporary cinema, but should it be? Any answer to this question must first be informed by some social and historical context.

Rape is a complex, hotly debated topic — rightly so, as it is an issue that permeates and damages the lives of half the human population. One in five women will be raped at some point in her life, per the CDC’s 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. If you are a male reader, and not one of the 1.4% of male rape survivors in America, you are acquainted with at least one female rape survivor. If you know any women at all, you know someone whose life has been affected by rape. Even those women who are not survivors live every day with the knowledge that that may change at any moment. All women are raised in a society in which the threat of rape dictates their style of dress, nighttime recreation, and freedom to walk alone. If you are a woman, you implicitly know that, regardless of your age, there are social rules you must follow to avoid being kidnapped, murdered, harassed, assaulted, or raped. If you parent a daughter, you have necessarily imparted one of these messages to her for her own protection. We all know that, whether or not she dresses “appropriately” or watches every single one of her drinks, any girl or woman can still face sexual violence. Saying that this is a troubling reality for women would be akin to saying that boulders must have troubled Sisyphus.

I don’t assert these facts into my analysis of cinema for the sake of melodrama, or to distract from this article’s filmic focus. If you have Facebook, Twitter, or a pulse, #MeToo has likely already brought these realities to your attention. I instead aim to remind any naive readers that rape, whether fictionalized or real, is a deeply resonant — and intentionally gendered — human issue. Rapists are disproportionately men, while rape victims are disproportionately women. That can be a hard pill to swallow if you are a man or, like me, a woman with beloved and trusted men in your life. It is, however, a fact, one which impacts all sorts of seemingly unrelated aspects of our culture — including film.

Rape has been a part of cinema since its inception, from the horrifyingly racist threats against white virginity in “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) to Rhett Butler’s rape of Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone with the Wind” (1939). In fact, cross-referencing AFI’s Top 100 with this handy list of movies featuring sexual assault/rape by Letterboxd user QueenCockatiel produces a disheartening amount of matches. One can begin to account for the sheer volume of “classic” films with rape/assault scenes by tracking the cultural conversation at the time — marital rape such as the one depicted in “Gone with the Wind,” for instance, would not be fully illegal until 1993.

The issues with rape in the film canon cannot merely be written off as byproducts of another time, however, when gratuitous and voyeuristic rape scenes still exist in film today. The aforementioned sequence from “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” stretches for a seemingly unending two minutes, rife with questionable shots of Rooney Mara’s writhing, naked body and bare butt. Taylor Sheridan’s likely Oscar contender “Wind River” features a hotly debated gang rape scene. Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!” includes a rape that turns “consensual,” as well as a public sexual assault — the director (admittedly one of my favorites) also included sexual assault scenes in “Black Swan” and a rape scene in “Requiem for a Dream.” The amount of critically acclaimed films or female performances that center around rape is staggering, and that history stretches back to the early 20th century.

That’s not to say that depictions of rape on screen haven’t evolved in the past 100 years. Sexual assault was either implied off-screen or gratuitously depicted without critical follow-up in films before the mid-1970s (“Rashomon,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Peeping Tom,” “El Topo”). The slasher genre blew the doors off of this tight-lipped practice, when the rape-revenge subgenre emerged. Though rape-revenge encompasses any film where a survivor gets justice for her rape(s) (including legal justice), its most notorious titles fall under the horror umbrella. Meir Zarchi’s 1978 “I Spit on Your Grave,” where a young journalist tracks down and brutally murders the four men who gang-raped her, is widely regarded as a consummate rape-revenge film. “I Spit on Your Grave” (and spiritual successors like “Ms. 45,” “Sudden Impact,” and “The Ladies Club”) launched a trend in film that lasts today, in which women react violently to the violence perpetuated against them. This is a deliberately ambivalent group of films, whose graphic and extensive depictions of rape come at too high a cost for some who crave stories of female action. However, these films were some of the first to frankly acknowledge the trauma of rape. “Shutter,” “American Mary,” “Teeth,” and the “Kill Bill” franchise are all direct byproducts of this cinematic shift.