How Does The First Purge Deal With Sexual Assault?

Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures..
About halfway into The First Purge, the fourth film in the franchise that hit theaters July 4, one of our protagonists, Nya (Lex Scott Davis) ventures out into the dark Staten Island night in search of her brother. Isaiah (Joivan Wade) — angry about an altercation earlier that day — has lied about going to Brooklyn to sit out the bloodbath of Purge night, and instead decided to actively participate in the experiment that would eventually lead to an annual state-sanctioned night of mayhem. When he finds himself in a tight spot, he calls Nya for help. She answers, because she's nice like that.
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On her way to retrieve him, however, Nya falls prey to a group of men hiding under a sewer grate. It's a premeditated set-up: all you need is a loosely knotted cable and a woman off her guard to step in it. One hard tug, and down she goes. Fortunately for Nya, she emerges relatively unscathed, but not without multiple hands clawing at her, groping her as she struggles to escape.
It's the kind of sexual assault that you'd expect from a society where all rules of law have been suspended. And yet, in this case, it's framed as a political statement rather than a violation. Nya addresses the men who have tried to rape her as "pussy grabbers," in one of the film's many not-so-subtle digs at the Trump administration. It's a moment that's played for laughs, rather than a serious potential threat that is faced by countless women on a daily basis.
The rules of the Purge are simple: for 12 hours, all crime in the United States of America is legal, even murder. It's no coincidence that "murder" is singled out like that. It seems to be the primary drive of the franchise, and other than mild looting, hardly any other kind of crime is portrayed — where are the embezzlers? The high-stakes bank robbers? The arsonists? The gerrymanderers?
Where are the rapists?
Listen, it's not like we need to see more sexual assault onscreen. But the fact that The First Purge fails to address it as a serious concern for women walking the streets on a night where there are no consequences for criminal acts is laughable. This, from a movie with the the tag line "Stay alert, survive the night" — basically the mantra of any woman going out past 5 pm.
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According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 321,500 people on average are survivors of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States. Ninety percent of adult survivors are female. (Just as a reminder, the Purge isn't actually a thing IRL, and so these numbers refer to our every day existence when there are judicial consequences.) You're telling me that women in the Purge universe — even those who are actively participating in all this craziness — aren't thinking about the risks?
To add insult to injury, the architect of the Purge is revealed to be a woman, played by Marisa Tomei. Still, at no point is there a real discussion about the threat of sexual assault. Just as the The Handmaid's Tale was criticized for glossing over any real discussion of race in its dystopian world, the plausibility of the Purge's premise is completely undermined by this omission. Have the New Founding Fathers of America solved the problem of sexual assault? Are we supposed to believe that everything is terrible and scary — except this one thing?
Ultimately, this all fits it with the deeper problem of the Purge franchise: it promises big things and doesn't quite deliver. For a franchise that's meant to highlight humanity's darker nature and the things we'd like to do if no one was watching, it consistently disappoints in its execution.
But more importantly, this kind of plot hole glaringly underscores the need for more women at every level of the film industry. A lawless universe where the only real threat is murder was clearly written by a man.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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