Is There A "Right" Way To Portray Sexual Violence On Screen?

Photo: Courtesy of Kyle Kaplan/HBO.
Chances are, you can name at least one movie or show you've recently seen that featured a rape scene or a discussion of sexual assault and violence. And while some might argue that these scenes are essential to the story, shows like Game of Thrones and movies like Elle have come under criticism for their portrayals of violence against women.
The question of whether or not a rape scene is "okay" is a complicated one — and HBO's The Tale, which tells the harrowing story of a woman named Jennifer (Lauren Dern), who comes to terms with the fact that she was sexually abused as a child, will undoubtedly spark a lot of discussion on the way it shows rape.
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Director Jennifer Fox, whose life the story is based on, said that she chose to show explicit sexual abuse scenes in the movie (filmed with an adult body-double in place of the child actress) because she felt it was the only way to portray the truth.
"For me, intuitively I felt, look, this film is about the fact that we cannot look away from what child sexual abuse looks like, and the horror is only in those scenes, it’s only in the crossing the line," Fox told The Cut. "And it seemed to me that in most films, it’s at that point that you fade to black or the door closes, and we’re led to imagine. Well, I feel like, for me, we had to see the truth, and truth is horrific. It was not nice. It was not romantic. It was painful. I threw up after each event."
With that in mind, Refinery29 spoke to Carol Gilligan, a professor at New York University specialising in feminism and ethics, about what The Tale gets right in portraying rape, and whether or not there is a "right" way to show sexual violence.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Do you think there is an ethical and non-ethical way to portray sexual assault in film and TV?
"I mean [in the case of The Tale], do I think there’s an ethical problem in showing what happens to Jenny? No, I don’t think so. In fact, I agree with Jennifer [Fox], I think this is a very important move of the film on her part, and a very bold move. If we’re going to talk about child sexual abuse and we’re going to do a story about it, we need to look at it, and to see how horrific it is."
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What do you think distinguishes a respectful portrayal from a potentially problematic one?
"I think if the portrayal of sexual violence or rape is with the intention of titillation or excitement, I think that is problematic, so I do have a huge problem with that notion that it’s entertaining to see women be abused and violated.
"You have to ask a zillion questions, such as, Why is this entertaining? What stakes does the culture have in perpetuating this?"
What are some reasons it can be helpful to show sexual assault on screen?
"Child sexual abuse is three words, and you can say it, but I think this movie says, 'Look at it. This is [what it is].'
"The film makes no bones about what this is. The whole culture has looked away from this for so long, and this film says, 'Let’s look at it. This is what it is.'"
What are some questions that you think filmmakers should ask themselves when they’re including sexual violence in a film?
"I think the question for me is: What is the story they’re trying to tell? In the story that Jennifer Fox was trying to tell, as she said, there was no way to tell it without actually experiencing what’s at the core of it, that this girl is raped by an adult man.
"It’s important to have that scene in the film, because once you look at that, you can’t romanticise it."
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
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