You may not have heard of Teeth, the 2007 B-movie directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of pop-artist Roy Lichtenstein). It is a film that focuses on a virgin teenage girl who preaches Christian chastity to her peers, before discovering that she is in possession of the mythical vagina dentata: a toothed vagina, that enables her to maim any man who sexually violates her.
It was billed as a black comedy horror, and, upon the recommendations of film critics I have great respect for (Mark Kermode and The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, who called it ‘good, clean fun’), I made the mistake of watching this film the other night. I got through less than half of it.
I thought the film was going to be a witty (albeit silly) schlock horror movie exploring male anxieties about female sexual power. The idea of the vagina dentata is a fascinating symbol: what if a woman’s body had the internal power to fight her rapist? And what does the existence of the myth tell us about the male anxiety of entering the dark female space that they withdraw from diminished?
Writer and director Lichtenstein clearly had no interest in these ideas. From the moment we see Dawn talking to an audience of school pupils about the value of ‘saving yourself’, I realised the film was (at least in part) a piss-take of the absurdity of the Christian right’s abstinence movement in the US and their scare-mongering tactics used to discourage impressionable teens from taking parting in sinful sexual activities. Lichtenstein chooses to use Dawn’s terrifying biological abnormality as a symbol for this anxiety: WHAT IF YOUR DICK ACTUALLY GOT BIT OFF? Therefore all power is taken from the female protagonist and we are just watching a film in which a director has used the sexual assault of a young women as an entertainment device in his shitty movie.
I watched a man rape a woman and get his penis chomped off by Dawn’s angry vagina.This scene was unequivocally constructed for entertainment purposes: to shock the audience, and make every man watching it cross their legs. All I saw was rape. All I felt was empathy for this thinly written character. When it was time for the scene in which a male gynaecologist rams his hand into Dawn’s vagina, as her cute Bambi eyes bulge and she pleads ‘no! that hurts!’, I reached for the remote and turned the fucking thing off.
What a despicable thing for a man to do: use rape and sexual abuse in a black horror context, for fun and entertainment: the ‘good, clean fun’ that Peter Bradshaw describes. Men are obviously meant to identify with the dudes getting their wangs munched off. The depiction of a rape is merely the set-up: yes, the men are punished for their crime but, in the end, the rape that has occurred is forgotten as it is superseded by the visual violence of male castration- presented unashamedly as the greater horror of the two crimes. Not morally, but certainly in terms of terror, pain and injustice.
My immediate and instinctual distress at witnessing the rape of a woman on screen to serve entertainment purposes led me to consider the depiction of rape in cinema in general. Is it ever OK to show rape on screen? And if so, when is it OK to depict it and where do we draw the line as to how it is portrayed? (Apologies: that sounds like a question Carrie Bradshaw might pose in an SATC episode that focuses on real issues and, you know, not shoes).
The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) has very clear guidelines on sexual violence in films. Their judgement of the portrayal of rape in a film determines what rating a film is given, whether it requires cuts to be rated, or whether it can be rated at all (if not, it is banned as unwatchable, like the infamous experiment in depravity ‘A Serbian Film’).
One of the key issues that the BBFC addresses is whether the portrayal of sexual violence eroticises or endorses sexual assault: if so, the film will be required to make cuts in order to remove this possibility. While the BBFC rightly concedes that ‘proving direct causal links between the viewing of any media item and subsequent specific undesirable actions is almost impossible,’ it does maintain that ‘sexual violence and media research suggests a number of different types of harmful effect from certain depictions of sexual violence including: the stimulation of aggressive sexual thoughts and fantasies; the cultivation of anti-female attitudes; and effects on subsequent behaviour.’
This is exactly my problem with depictions of rape on screen, and is one I also apply to my views on violent pornography. It is easy to dismiss someone who finds depictions of women being violently raped on cinema/television/computer screens as being someone who is against freedom of speech, or even a killjoy and a prude. But closing down all discussion is as fascistic as right wing activists like Mary Whitehouse who condemned so-called ‘video nasties’ in the 70s without even having seen the films she was so incensed by.
I suspect that by using rape in cinema for entertainment purposes, by the acceptance of showing the sexual abuse of women in mainstream films, and by the constant drip, drip, drip of such imagery and ideas, an undercurrent of misogyny pervades in society. It is insidious. If you regularly view women being victims of sexual abuse in mainstream cinema- a medium which is intended for entertainment- surely that is going to have some impact on your views of rape and of women?
When I searched ‘rape in cinema’, the first result was ‘Movies Rape Scenes – A Video PlayList on Dailymotion’. This is a collation of clips of rape scenes from movies on a mainstream video sharing website clearly intended as masturbation aids for highly disturbed individuals. The infamous, harrowing 9 minute anal rape scene from Gaspar Noe’s gruelling Irreversible is titled ‘Monica Belucci gets fucked hard from behind’.
To further my point: take The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a cultural phenomenon of recent years. The original trilogy by Steig Larsson were a huge success, devoured by a wide spectrum of society. The books were made into a series of successful Danish films directed by Niels Arden Oplev, which are now being remade by The Social Network director David Fincher.
Apart from the fact that it is deeply troubling that graphic rape scenes seem to be accepted in cinema as long as the woman gets revenge on her rapist, I am disturbed by the fact that the graphic, violent anal rape of the female protagonist in the first movie (both Oplev and Fincher’s versions) did not seem to be an issue for the audiences who went to see it in droves. Many reviews barely mentioned it, or mentioned it fleetingly, or jokingly. Fincher himself joked that the movie wouldn’t win awards because ‘there is too much anal rape in it’. If that isn’t a sign that director has used a rape scene in his movie for entertainment rather than to truly show the horror of this terrible crime, I don’t know what is. The rape scene in Fincher’s film is gratuitous, and invites the audience to enjoy it in a masochistic way, in the same way that people seem to enjoy viewing the aftermath of car crashes on the motorway. It is a desire within us all: but why are so many filmmakers keen indulge their audiences’s darkest desires?
Some have argued that if you didn’t show rape on screen in a visceral way (especially when it is integral to the plot), it wouldn’t be as potent. Is it not enough to suggest the rape, to show the aftermath, the trauma of the victim, or to just say ‘this woman was raped’? Do people need to hear the screams, to see her struggling in desperation, to see a man force himself inside her, to see the blood? If that’s a case, then that is deeply, deeply troubling and says a hell of a lot about our generation’s de-sensitisation to violence and horror.
In any case- I think that’s an excuse. I don’t think graphically depicting rape in cinema is the result of anything more noble than a pornographer’s mentality: ‘give the people what they want’. It doesn’t matter how depraved it is- if it sells cinema tickets and DVDs, then it’s worth including in a movie. I also think there is a connection between the fact that the vast majority of film writers and directors are male, and the acceptability of depicting graphic rape scenes of women in mainstream cinema. Child rape is rarely depicted in cinema (especially the rape of pre-pubescent children) presumably because everyone knows how horrendous that crime is. The rape of women is frequently portrayed in mainstream cinema, sometimes in extended scenes. Are they really depicting the horror of the crime, or is their something indulgent and possibly pornographic in these visions? There is no denying that cinematic depictions of simulated rape do have erotic power for many people- it may be disturbing, but it is true.
I am not for censorship necessarily: but I am for discussion. I would be very interested to hear other people’s thoughts on the depictions of rape in cinema, and what should be acceptable, or whether it should be acceptable at all. And do you think that normalising the inclusion of graphic rape scenes in mainstream cinema may have a slow, insidious affect on people and their attitudes towards women, sex and rape?