I try to reckon with the alarming prevalence of rape against women in film and television. There is nothing more personal or more thorough a violation than this crime, but it recurs so frequently as a plot point that one begins to question just why it is so commonly used. Violence and mayhem by men against women is a fact of life—a brutal one—so it lends itself to be a catalyst for drama; it’s no great mystery that it serves as a considerable motivator for both the victims and their loved ones. In a show like Game of Thrones, rape provides female characters with the impetus towards transformation and seismic action. It is a propelling agent towards the catharsis of revenge. In pulp horror films like I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, its commission provides justification for the grand slaughter of the original perpetrators.
Recently, we’ve received examples of its use in the films, Wind River and Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Taylor Sheridan and Martin McDonagh, respectively. Both filmmakers are white men, and their stories are set in distinct, underrepresented parts of the United States that are populated significantly by multiple, diverse groups of people. Both films follow the actions, or inaction, of the police in response to a teenaged girl being raped and murdered, focus on a character who is affected by the tragedy for deeply personal reasons.
Where the films diverge is in their tone and genre. Wind River is a sober police procedural that makes few concessions towards comedy or uplift, whereas Three Billboards is, somehow, a black comedy in the same vein as the director’s previous work, albeit less wacky. My main question in discussing these movies is whether the same themes can be investigated by their creators without having to resort to including rape, specifically. If you were to strip rape out of the equation, do the protagonist’s motivations become less solid, given that the deaths of the young people involved were not quite so shockingly gruesome, considering that they were at least not raped before being killed? My gut tells me that this is not the case.
I believe in avoiding triggering people whenever possible in daily life. However, the artist’s responsibility is to engage with the often harsh realities of the world, depicting them if it is necessary to conduct their inquiry. With these films, however, sexual violence is not the target of their discourse, but rather the effects of grief and people’s varying responses to dealing with it. (Perhaps, also, the futility of revenge and the difficulty of moving on.) So, no, the young, female victims of the film did not have to be raped in order for their stories to have a lasting effect on either the other characters or the audience.
I will be discussing some spoilers here, so please be forewarned. Natalie the victim whose death sparks the action in Wind River, is found frozen to death, evidently having been sexually assaulted beforehand. We later on learn that she was visiting her older boyfriend in his barracks when his co-workers arrived, drunk, and gang raped her before killing the boyfriend and allowing her to escape barefoot and underdressed to the frozen tundra outside, where she died. Logic dictates that all these circumstances being the same, it is highly likely that were such a thing to happen in real life, the victim will likely have been assaulted before dying. Film ought to reflect the truth of the real world, but only insofar as it serves the story and its themes. Thus, to illustrate the pain of the death of a child, Natalie did not have to be assaulted before dying. While it is not Sheridan’s job to sanitize his material in order to avoid offending people, it is incumbent upon him to tell his story the most effective way possible, and introducing rape into the equation will only muddy those waters.
The same can be said for Three Billboards. The young woman in that film, Angela, was not only raped and murdered, but she was also raped while burning to death. While this creates for some seriously vivid imagery, this is such an extravagantly absurd premise as to invite questions of whether the director is truly serious about this subject. The extremely dry humor—and occasional dick jokes—in the film serve to distract from the abject horror of the premise, but once again, there is no real reason why Angela had to be raped before dying, let alone as she suffered an unimaginably excruciating end. The brutality with which her character dies adds nothing to the gravity of her mother’s grief but merely raises some flags around McDonagh’s own motivations in including such a plot point to the story.
It is easy for someone like me to advocate for the representation of all things in film, regardless of their difficulty or challenging nature. I am in the lucky position of having a life that doesn’t cause triggers within me, to say nothing of the inherent privilege of my skin color, sexual orientation, and gender. Considering my privilege does cause me to consider that of the directors in question, both of whom share my demographical characteristics. Do these filmmakers include rape as a plot point because it has never occurred to them why it may be pointless and in bad taste? Or were they cajoled into raising the stakes by a producer or some other decision-maker, under the assumption that rape contributes anything but horror in these scenarios. I believe that these films certainly could have existed without suffering for it had rape been removed as a plot point. Screenwriters may just have to find another way to increase tragedy in their work beyond dropping sexual assault into the picture. Women have been screenwriters since the inception of Hollywood, and you don’t hear about them often suggesting that a film feature more situations like the ones described above. Filmmakers should not be let off the hook for their laziness in writing their stories, good as the work may otherwise be.
No one gets a pass for using rape as a plot point without a very good reason. And at this juncture, I am hard-pressed to come up with one myself.