Saturday, May 3, 2014

Thoughts on Rape and Racial Violence in Cinema

It's gradepocalypse 2014 here in (finally, again, after a week of gray drizzle) sunny South Dakota.  Or as my students think of it, FINALS!  While they -- you -- are feverishly reading, writing, studying, we are frantically grading your work.  Keep the coffee, water, vitamins, and whole grains flowing, folks, and we'll make it through to the summer!

I probably won't get back to substantive posting until the grading frenzy abates.  In the mean time here is some food for thought from NYT critic David Itskoff -- for all you Game of Thrones fans in my classes.  We've talked about GoT periodically over the semester, particularly around the question of nudity and violence in TV, and more recently, Jaime Lannister's rape of his sister Cersei.  (For those of you who don't know the score, the article will give you the background on the characters and the controversy.)  As Itskoff explains, critics and viewers are increasingly concerned that rape has become "almost background noise: a routine and unshocking occurrence" on the show, and increasingly, the predominant signal of the violence and brutality of George R. R. Martin's fantasy world:

As for the books, readers say that Mr. Martin’s presentation of rape underscores the harshness of his world, but some question what they say is his overreliance on it and an often lurid tone when writing about sexual matters.
“The ‘no means yes’ thing is there in the books,” said Sady Doyle, an essayist who often writes about “Game of Thrones.” “The sexualized punishments are there. It’s in the text and it’s vital to the text. It’s something that comes up, over and over again.”

But, she added, “At a certain point, you get the feeling that you can’t walk through a chapter without expecting something horrible — almost always to a female character — just to prove that this is indeed a very scary and dark piece of literature.

And for critics and viewers alike, this is when the portrayal of rape starts to feel very problematic, no longer an exploration of the truly horrible things that people do to each other and the impact those actions have upon characters.  Then again, did rape ever did appear in the show in such a complex way?  Perhaps not, but it's really a problem of scale.  The more prominent rape becomes in the show, the more we find ourselves asking whether rape is doing anything other than providing the sensationalistic and titillating.  And if it is primarily serving as sensation and titillation, critics increasingly agree, we have a problem.

These are questions that are very relevant to the cinematic representation of slavery, as we discovered in our class discussions of Roots, Beloved, and 12 Years a Slave.  Where do the efforts by a filmmaker to capture the "truth" of a particular world, whether historical or fantastical, in a complex and accurate way shift and enter the realm of gratuitous, misogynistic, or racist sensationalism?  In our class discussion on Tuesday we grappled with Armond White's scathing (and perhaps also sensationalistic) indictment of 12 Years a Slave as belonging to the "torture porn genre."  While my students and I agreed that this critique went a bit far, the critique raises valid questions that recur across many genres: How do we find and define the line between what is sensationalistic and exploitative and what is "accurate" and constructive?  What should our goals be when portraying violence, especially racial violence, and rape?

We can start by identifying those portrayals that seem particularly effective but do something different -- narratively, visually, etc.

My students and I agreed that the most chilling scene in 12 Years a Slave was probably the interrupted hanging.  We see "Platt" (as Solomon Northrup is called while laboring as a slave in the Louisiana Bayou) with a noose around his neck, the rope just slack enough to allow him to reach his toes down to the mud.  We see him over the course of the day, his feet sliding, half choking, while the rest of slaves on the plantation go about their daily business.  Children play, mothers shell peas.  The slave Patsy, who shares a deep emotional bond of sympathy with Platt, sneaks up to him to touch his lips with water.  It is a daring and dangerous moment--for both.  The scenes of whipping are heart-wrenching, but the scene of a man half-dangling, half-strangled while the business of a plantation goes on around him distills the terrible power of slavocracy and chills us in ways the orgiastic scenes of whipping do not. 

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