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VIDEO ESSAY: White Knights and Bad People

by Arielle Bernstein and Serena Bramble
June 18, 2014 4:52 AM
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[The text of the video essay follows.]

When I watched Back to the Future with my parents as a child, I remember my shock at seeing Marty McFly’s mom sexually assaulted by the high school bully, Biff, in the backseat of a car. The assault was confusing. I remember my first viewing of this relatively tame movie as a garble of images--the backseat, the fluffy curls of the pink prom dress, the feet poking out, the muffled screams.

Of course, this entire scene is about Marty’s dad having the guts to punch the rapist in the face, to tell him to “leave her alone.” By the end Marty’s mother is all smiles, relief, and pride in having chosen a man who would defend and respect her.

My exposure to cartoon gender relations was similarly violent. The female cartoon characters in shows like Tiny Toon Adventures and Animaniacs liked to don skimpy outfits. The male characters’ eyes would pop out of their skulls, tongues hanging out lecherously. Of course, these shows played on old cartoon favorites. Betty Boop often had to avoid unwanted male attention, poor Olive Oyl was constantly placed in supposedly comic situations where she was being either kidnapped or harassed, and in Tex Avery’s Little Red Riding Hood, “Red” is a full grown woman who must be careful of the predatory wolf who stalks her nightclub. 

When I was a child, the images of a female cartoon character being catcalled, or a woman being assaulted, did not seem especially unusual. I assumed that warding off male attention was met by most adult women with a mixture of pride and mild annoyance. As I got older, I became more and more concerned about this phenomenon. When even strong, powerful women are victimized in films and television, a dashing hero saves the day.

Today, in the age of Steubenville, we still worry about the ways boys and men prey on girls and women. Social organizations often still rely on the white knight trope when they address this matter. Actors and musicians who regularly objectify women on screen and in music videos are shown looking sad as they pose with Real Men Don’t Buy Girls hashtag signs. In the White House PSA on sexual assault, Daniel Craig and Benicio Del Toro are among the male participants calling for heroic behavior.

Stepping in when someone is in trouble is certainly honorable, but the moral lesson in these PSAs provides men with the same options they had in Back to the Future. Are you a Marty, or a Bif? Will you defend womanhood, or assault it?

The threat of rape is often used as a device for male characters to become heroes, which contributes to the idea that sexual assault is a normal part of growing up female. Rape is still seen as unchecked lust rather than an expression of violence.  This myth has far reaching repercussions, as girls and women live in the very real shadow of sexual assault constantly. We get inured to sexual violence on shows like Game of Thrones, where rape is often presented in the background of a scene, something bad, brutal men do to helpless women.

It’s exhausting as a woman to constantly see the female body on the brink of violation. I’m tired of the voicelessness of those bodies, by the fact that we still need to spread awareness about how horrible sexual assault actually is. I know I’m supposed to be grateful when people express that they are aware, when men who seem poised to protect me when I go out, when someone develops an app designed to help get me home safe by checking in with my family and friends.

The way rape is portrayed today is not so different from how it was portrayed in 80s exploitation films, where rape is intended to shock and titillate in one fell swoop, like it often does in the current series Game of Thrones. A film like Extremities, for example, promises the sweetest of revenges for a female protagonist, but it is the image of Farrah Fawcett cowering and sobbing, forced to take off her clothes, while her rapist looks on and calls her beautiful that has become the ubiquitous Hollywood rape scene, where a gorgeous woman is exposed and shamed and, despite the fact that we are told to root for her, we are also given permission to ogle her, to see her through the rapist’s lens, before we see her own experience.

This is one of the reasons that Joan’s rape scene on Mad Men is so effective is that it portrays her quiet terror without fetishizing her body or her fear. We don’t see her ample curves illuminated, the way they normally are. Joan’s sexuality is a point of pride throughout the series, and the camera makes it clear that what we are witnessing is a power play and violation. There’s nothing sexual about it. The camera ends not on a close up of her body, but a close up of her staring at a point just ahead of her in an office that isn’t hers, as she waits for what is happening to stop.

Arielle Bernstein is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She has been listed four times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests. She is currently writing her first book.

Serena Bramble is a film editor whose montage skills are an end result of accumulated years of movie-watching and loving. Serena is a graduate from the Teledramatic Arts and Technology department at Cal State Monterey Bay. In addition to editing, she also writes on her blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind.

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  • Pat | June 18, 2014 2:10 PMReply

    "The threat of rape is often used as a device for male characters to become heroes, which contributes to the idea that sexual assault is a normal part of growing up female."

    What is that even supposed to mean?

    Film and television viewers tend to understand that what they're seeing doesn't represent the ordinary, it represents the extraordinary. Saying something happens a lot hardly makes viewers think it's a normal experience. The Hero's Journey is a far more common device than white knights saving women from rape, but we don't consider defeating a powerful evil monster as a "normal part of growing up male."

    So really, what's her point here? That rape is over-represented in film and television? Well, if we believe the 1 in 4 stats, it'd be more compelling to argue that it doesn't show up in film often enough, and that using it less would be sweeping the issue under the carpet and erasing victims.

    This isn't a video essay, it's a vlog with several disjointed thoughts on a single topic.

  • glooballoo | June 18, 2014 12:51 PMReply

    I wonder how the authors read less mainstream treatments of sexual violence. Let's take, for example, the infamous 7-minute sequence from Irreversible. At no time can we ogle or sexually objectify the lead actress. The emphasis is clearly put on her suffering, and the sequence's duration forces the viewer to treat it as something significant that happens, not as a bullshit element in a Hollywood plot.

    The question is, does such a take, while still being completely explicit, have a kind of value since it forces its viewer to acknowledge the reality and insanity of the act (even going further, by having a passerby stumble upon the scene.. and do nothing about it)? Need we treat this kind of material in a protestant, iconophobic manner?

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