io9 has a great interview with Brit Marling, the writer and star of low-budget sci-fi movie Sound of My Voice, which, as I told y’all on Friday, I liked very much. I wanted to pull out part of the interview where she talks about how frustrating it is to come up against the same obstacles and challenges for female characters — particularly the tendency to use sexual assault as a default major obstacle for a dramatic heroine:
When Zal and I write [the two wrote Sound of My Voice together] sometimes you find yourself in a passive position. And you have stop yourself: “I set out to write a story about a strong woman acting with agency. And now here I am having her be sexually assaulted by somebody so she can achieve something else.” You have to tell yourself to stop.
And you realize that so much of this stuff is the same narrative being recycled over and over again, because a lot of it is happening unconsciously. We consume, we watch, we take it in, we create, it’s this negative feedback cycle. When I see things like Bridesmaids I get really excited. That film was really subversive and widely consumed and entertaining, but also saying really interesting things on female friendships and weddings. It was making fun of it all, that was refreshing, I hope we see more of that…
As an actor, that’s why I started writing. I came out to LA and I would read these things, you are hard pressed to find a script where the girl is not sexually assaulted or raped or manipulated or a sex toy — an object of affection. It’s always about the way men are looking at her. And cinema, traditionally has been about how men are looking at women. I do think we’re breaking that up now with more female directors, I think we’re starting to see the female gaze.
I think this is right. I should say that I have no problem with works that deal with women getting raped that are explicitly about examining the consequences of sexism. One of the reasons that the arc of Sons of Anarchy where Gemma is raped is so powerful is that it’s about the way she and everyone else around her deal with their internalized sexism: the men who rape her think she is a weak spot for the motorcycle gang she’s affiliated with, Gemma thinks her husband will put her off because men need to “own their pussy,” and her husband seduces her back to disprove that assumption. Similarly, as I argue in this book chapter I have coming out about A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, I really believe a lot of that series is about tying together sexual assault and monstrosity.
But rape doesn’t only happen to women, and it’s not the only thing that happens to women. You can lose your job, your house, your car, your kid, your best friend, your business, your family, your faith, your following, your office. If men are reaching for the worst thing that can happen to women and choosing rape out of a deficit of imagination, then that’s having a character be sexually assaulted for shock value. If you want to tell a story that’s about the worst thing that happened to a specific woman character, you should be thinking very specifically about her and less about your and the audience’s default answer to a question.