So we should only feature rape as long as everyone is on the same page?

I realize that the title of this post is a rhetorical question. Do bear with me, though.

I thought the Gender Across Borders series on ‘The Theater’s Rape Culture‘ was very interesting, but this part on “Spring Awakening” in particular had me scratching my head. I agree with Kyle that rape is too often used in an extremely gratuitous fashion, but I had several points of disagreement.

First of all,

…I found an advert for a Kevin Spacey led play called A Moon for the Misbegotten. I don’t remember the exact text but it was actually along the lines of ‘featuring so and so in a disturbing rape scene’. It’s bad enough when rape is used almost without second thought when attributing characters but to use it as a means to excite the audience?

Well, it depends on how you read it, don’t you? Personally, I want to be warned well in advance if a certain play or movie or whatever is going to feature a disturbing rape scene. That way, I can decide if I’m up to seeing it in the first place. Yes, it can very well be argued that disclosing this has a double effect – some people will wind up going purely to gawk, sure. But why should they set the standard? Obviously, I’m not so naive as to suggest that lurid sexual violence doesn’t draw people in – it’s no different than pausing by the scene of a bloody accident (case in point: the dead body that my co-workers saw this morning at Park Kultury metro station) not to mention the “rape culture is yummy” stuff thrown in, but what exactly should the producers of a play do in that case? Add a little addendum? “This production features a disturbing rape scene – by the way, RAPE IS WRONG.” The people that can be reached by such a statement in the first place will just have their intelligence insulted.

…the entire play is about sex (it is called Spring Awakening after all) so nearly the entire cast, both male and female, have some sort of sexually related background attached to them. But, the females are the only ones that are made to be the victims of their own sex. Again, rape and sexual trauma are being used to provide supposed emotional depth to characters who otherwise would be seen as one-dimensional in comparison with the males who seem to have a much wider variety of issues to deal with.

That is a very interesting point. Do we normalize trauma by talking about it? I think that sometimes the answer is yes, we do. It all depends on how we talk about it, of course, but yes, this is possible.

For a show that prides itself on being contemporary, I just wish it was delivering a different message to audiences than ‘rape is a staple part of growing up for a young woman’.

This is also very difficult for me to address. Because, yes, once again, normalization of rape is not just an abstract concept. It happens daily. It’s even in the goddamn fashion ads. At the same time – yeah, sexual violence is visited upon women in greater numbers than it is on men. Violence, sexual and otherwise, was a part of my growing up. I hope it’s OK for me to talk about how much it sucked – without being prompted to, for example, set the right tone. I choose my own tone when I talk about what happened to me.

Finally, this issue is personal for me because I am not just someone who is familiar with the subject matter – I’m also a playwright, these days. And in my second play, the one that actually received some genuinely positive comments from people whose opinions I care about, there is the following scene:

A husband and wife who are arguing while stuck in their car in the middle of a traffic jam wind up yelling at each other over the miscarriage that the wife had earlier – and who’s to blame for it. In the course of their escalating argument, the husband tells her that he can “make her a baby.” She taunts him – claiming that he cannot. At this point, he drives off the road and lunges at her, trying to take off her clothes and kissing her. She spits in his face and struggles, and right after she stops struggling, their car is hit from behind by another car. The woman jumps out of the car first, and ends up defending her husband from the driver of the other car, who accuses them of parking illegally.

The play, which is in Russian, is about upper-middle-class Kievans, and its climax in particular was discussed after it was read at the latest meeting of the Laboratory of New Drama in Kiev (I took a train down to see it read over the weekend). People said a lot of different things about it. Some viewed what happened as an attempted rape, others took a very different position.

I don’t normally tell people how to interpret my writing, but in this case, I very much believe that what happens in the play is an attempted rape. I don’t think it’s particularly ambiguous. The wife’s defense of her husband, however, is also unambiguous.

I guess anyone can look at this play and decide that it condones rape. After all, if the wife defends the husband right after the incident occurs, then she was cool with it all along, right? Well, actually, I think human beings are more complicated than that. I don’t think there is anything complicated, on the other hand, about rape itself. Can the two viewpoints co-exist within one creation? I think so.

The husband’s character in the play is sympathetic. I sympathize with him myself, on one level. Because I actually know a lot of men like him – men who have been taught, either by family or society or both, that there is something nobly masculine about trying to tear off their wife’s clothes when she’s saying “get your hands away from me” and think that this is exactly what she wants, despite her protestations. Especially if they have just been taunted – they see it as some sort of twisted version of “consent.” From a dramatic point of view, it’s a kind of dead end, I think. It’s not a dead end from the point of view of ethics, though – rape is rape. Even the people who love us can cross that line – and that’s the other thing about this play – I fully believe that the husband loves his wife, and that she loves him right back, but that they wind up with having no actual means of expressing this love, and that’s a tragedy to me.

Did it disturb me when a member of the audience, a playwright and actor himself, described the husband’s actions as “the actions of a real man – the first time he was able to act like a real man, actually”? Yes, it did. It disturbed me especially when I considered how I had attempted to get inside the character of the wife – was she really attempting to provoke her husband? I wanted to leave that question open-ended, without attempting to minimize the husband’s actions. Because I don’t believe that anyone is “asking for it” – not ever. “Asking for it” is a false concept to me. The responsibility is always with the person who decides to go ahead and do what the husband in this instance does.

Still, the wife’s harsh words to her husband were used to justify his behaviour. People took what happened in my play – and some of them wound up rationalizing it very neatly.

Have I contributed to rape culture? I think the answer to that question is probably “yes and no.” I think it depends on the individual audience member. I think it also depends on what we mean by the word “contributed” in this context. With my second play, I wanted to make people think. I wanted them to consider the full ugliness of the situation, and decide for themselves whether or not it’s completely hopeless. Maybe it’s because I believe that some people can change their minds – the husband character, maybe he can change his mind, maybe he can see that what he did was wrong. I certainly suggest the possibility at the very end – among other things, such as the possibility that the wife is actually leaving him for good.

But it’s just that, a suggestion. After all, I can only lead that horse to water – following that, everything is up to the horse.

Am I responsible for my work? I am, absolutely. That’s why I put it out there, to be open to criticism, as opposed to locking it all in a desk somewhere (I don’t even own a desk, ha). And I welcome comments – good, bad and ugly. I just don’t know if there is an explicitly “right” way to mention or portray sexual violence on stage. As always, though, I’m open to other people’s philosophy on the subject. After all, I’m the person who claimed that the way that Tom Wolfe portrayed undergraduate life in “I Am Charlotte Simmons” was wrong wrong wrong – if I can dish it out, I can take it.

10 thoughts on “So we should only feature rape as long as everyone is on the same page?

  1. I don’t think there’s a ‘right’ way to portray sexual assault. (what does that mean, exactly? If you want an accurate portrayal, that’s one thing, and the best you could manage is ‘accurate to some probably-very-small fraction of traumatic experiences’). There may be a ‘safe’ way – a clear-cut, charicatured, unambiguous story where monsters assault and victims survive and reclaim their power (or, even better, their purity, I’m sure. And I have nothing nice to say about purity, so I won’t say anything.)

    I think safety is an illusion in art as much as in life, and I can’t help getting creeped out by this possible parallel. It’s classic rape justification to pretend that anyone can keep him/herself safe (and so victims are at fault for breaking the rules). It’s hard not to see criticism of artists (playwright, musician, whoever) for not ‘getting it right’ as silencing, or blame-shifting.

    I don’t even know what to think about the idea of normalising traumatic experiences by holding them up to the light and, well, admitting that they happen. No, they shouldn’t be ‘normal’, but they are pretty d*mn common, and ignoring that creates its own problem. As a general rule, I’d rather people talked about sexual assault experiences (and violence, and anything we humans consider ugly but have to deal with) – ambiguities, self-justifications and all. Maybe there’s some nuance I’m not grasping and I need to do some research, but I’d rather see things normalised than mythologised.

  2. I think sweeping statements about sexual assault are very damaging, because they can bleed over into this whole “hey, it happens to so many people, and they survive one way or another, so why are you making a big deal” mentality. But I also seriously cringe at the idea that, for example, that people need to scream and cry when discussing this sort of thing, that they can’t talk about it casually, when they can’t mention the various ambiguities that can crop up.

    It’s like this – I don’t want to have to justify why the wife in my play ended up sticking up for her husband, you know? Because it’s actually a fairly common thing, I feel – it happens, and it happens for various reasons. I didn’t set out to create a caricature, or to comfort the audience. When I started working on the character, I had no idea where she would end up, but then I realized that for her, this is what is meant to happen – because she loves her husband. And he loves her. And yes, how they end up is extremely fucked-up. It is what it is. It wouldn’t be a play otherwise – it would just be a series of platitudes: “Don’t drink and drive!” “Don’t emotionally torture each other, folks!” “Don’t assault one another!” Etc.

  3. There’s a fairly well-known dynamic that I’ve read about sometimes occurring when a third party intervenes in domestic violence situations, where the victim then turns on the would-be rescuer. I wonder if this is related to the emotional dynamic between the couple in your play.

    Also, do you expect to translate some of your plays into English at some point? I understand that your primary audience and collaborators are Russian-speaking, but it sounds like you are addressing themes that have significant cross-cultural appeal. Certainly your description of that play and that scene left me wanting to know more about it.

  4. OH, crap – no damage intended there, and I’m sorry I screwed up. I see what you mean about normalising turning to trivialising; I always think of silence as enemy #1, which is probably more a matter of cultural background than careful analysis on my part.

    More importantly, no, you shouldn’t have to justify writing a play about humans instead of a morality play (or an after-school special). It’s definitely common for people to stick up for those we love despite, or during, their imperfections. Their crimes,even. That’s why it’s so hard to navigate human life – we’re all confused together.

    So much of drama depends on trusting the audience to take a play for what it is. More specifically, what would be the use of portraying sexual assault as simple? Theatre isn’t about programming the audience (even when it’s intended to persuade or propagandise, the success rate is probably not very high); and the idea that showing people a complicated story will ruin their poor little brains and compromise their function in reality is frankly offensive.

    (Um, sorry to rant on your page like this. This managed to hit on a nice little intersection of berserk buttons, but what I should have said first was ‘thank you for yet another insightful and honest post.’ Thanks for triggering the thinky, and I hope it hasn’t been too bothersome.)

  5. Dave, yeah, this dynamic is fairly common, I believe. In the play – she doesn’t defend the husband against anyone who accuses him of inappropriate behaviour, though. She is defending him because the guy who hits their car is upset that they parked illegally. It’s a similar dynamic, I think – but she doesn’t discuss the abuse.

    Shan, rant away.

  6. When I see discussions of “normalising” stuff like sexual assault trauma I … kind of want the trauma part to be normal, at least in the sense that it isn’t impossible to talk about it.

    I don’t want it happening to be normal, but I want the fact that people are traumatised to be normal enough that it doesn’t have to be locked away in a little box so people don’t point and treat (people like) me as a freak.

    I don’t know how to say this right. 😦

  7. I think that authorship is important in depicting this, but I completely agree. We have this idea that rapists are boogeymen, unqualfied evil, when often they’re folks that we care about and like and love, people who have been tragically implicated in rape culture. It doesn’t excuse it, but instead puts it in a familiar context which is unfortunately where most rapes take place.

  8. I find sexual assault to be gratuitous in two circumstances: when it’s shown as harmless (and often it can be shown to be harmful with a short reaction – it doesn’t need a big drama followup), or when it’s added to the plot unnecessarily. There are times that people add it in to the plot to increase the amount of challenge a character faces just because challenge is good, right? And women writers do this, too. And I just get so tired of so many female characters being assaulted. But then there are times it works organically with the rest of the story.

    For me, though, the big issue is adding any kind of sexualized content to an actor’s job description – my experiences as an acting student and on auditions were horrible. And an actual assault tends to be more horrifying off-screen or off-stage, so why act it out in view?

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