Godless' Rape Scenes Prove It's Not Really A Show About Women

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
There are two rape scenes in Godless, the new Netflix western whose trailers and advertisements beckon viewers to enter "No Man's Land." Otherwise known as La Belle, New Mexico, it's a town where the vast majority of men died in a terrible mining accident, leaving women to pick up the pieces.
If you're wondering how a land in which there are purportedly no men yields two sexual assaults in the span of seven episodes, consider this: Godless is not really about the ladies of La Belle at all. Rather, it's a show about the brutality of men, with a cast of fierce – but underused — women as spectators.
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(In fact, when a Twitter user counted the lines spoken by men and women in the first episode, they found that men held 73% of the dialogue, leaving women with a mere 27%.)
Nothing makes that more clear than the two seemingly extraneous rape scenes, the only purpose of which are to establish the savior reputation of two male characters, Roy Goode (Jack O'Connell) and Sheriff Bill McNue (Scoot McNairy).
The first sexual assault takes place in the first episode, when we see the events leading up to the destruction of the town of Creed. Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels) and his posse hold up a train carrying the payroll for the Quicksilver Limited Mining Company. As the gang proceeds to shoot and murder the passengers, the Devlin twins (Russell Dennis Lewis and Matthew Dennis Lewis), two particularly unwashed humans, come across a young woman in a private carriage. They start tearing at her dress, slam her on a table, and sexually assault her. This proves the perfect opportunity for Roy Goode, Griffin's former son-like protégé, to ride in and save the day. The woman, who remains nameless, is never seen again.
The second rape — also embedded in a flashback — comes later, in episode 4. Alice Fletcher (Michelle Dockery), the hardened widow whose ranch an injured Roy Goode has stumbled upon for shelter, is dreaming of the flood that killed her first husband shortly after their wedding. As she lies on the ground, barely alive, she is surprised by a group of Native American warriors who promptly rip her yellow dress (sense a pattern?), slicing her chest open in the process, and rape her as other captive women and children stare sullenly. Only the sudden arrival of Bill McNue (Scoot McNair), who shoots the men dead, prevents this from turning into a gang rape. As the men start to flee, Alice grabs a knife and stabs her attacker repeatedly, until McNue takes the knife and soothes her. She's safe now. He leaves her in the care of the Paiute tribe —  which we know she eventually marries into — and gives her his jacket, which she still has to this day.
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Some will argue that this assault is a necessary component in Alice's past, which serves to both explain her tough attitude, and establish the tender relationship she has will Bill McNue. But was a rape really necessary for any that? Wouldn't watching your first husband and all your earthly possessions carried off in a flash flood, and your second husband lying dead on the road as a result of a petty grudge, be enough to justify some bitterness towards the world? Couldn't Bill McNue have come across a barely breathing Alice lying on the ground after surviving the flood and handed her his jacket to keep warm? And for that matter, couldn't Roy Goode just have intervened in Frank Griffin's murdering spree just because he thought killing a dozen men in a robbery was morally wrong? Is rape really the only way a female character can gain narrative complexity?
This isn't to say that there was no sexual assault in the Old West. Historically speaking, this is probably somewhat accurate. But for a show claiming to put a female spin on a traditionally male genre, it does very little to advance the conversation about sexual assault on TV. It never really puts us into the survivors' heads, or shows us their perspective, other than to glorify its "good" men. There are ways to shoot sexual assault scenes — even violent ones — from the female gaze. But, aside from focusing on the women's faces, Godless doesn't really seek to reckon with the issue at all.
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Ultimately, Godless is epic in scope, beautifully shot, and features some truly amazing performances. But it is disappointing in that it promises something it never delivers on: a world where men aren't the main event.
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