In the mid-Aughts, advocacy groups for sexual assault survivors began to publish guidelines for journalists covering sexual violence. “Reporting Sexual Assault: A Guide for Journalists,” produced by the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, came out online in 2004. “Reporting on Rape and Sexual Violence,” a forty-page media “toolkit,” was issued by the Chicago Task Force on Violence Against Girls and Young Women in 2012. In 2013 the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault published “Reporting on Sexual Violence: A Guide for Journalists.” “Use the Right Words: Media Reporting on Sexual Violence in Canada,” a fifty-four-page guide put together by the Toronto organization Femifesto, was first published online in 2015.
The guides contain statistics about sexual assault, advice on ethical interview procedures, and discussions of the way that a reporter’s language—the very nouns and verbs, tenses and sentence constructions—can shape public perception of culpability. A good deal of their pages are devoted to advice about a particular kind of writing problem: how to describe the sequence of actions that constitutes an assault.
Why does this pose a problem? Historically, the guides explain, media coverage of sexual violence (as well as police reports and other legal documents) have tended to direct the balance of skepticism toward the victim, except in those cases—a minority of all assaults committed—in which racial and class prejudice could work in the victim’s favor. When reporters reach for familiar phrases in their accounts of sex crime, they may be using terms that convey disbelief or prurient interest. For example, as several of the guides point out, the once-ubiquitous use of “claim” (as in “x claims y raped her”) conveys skepticism of x’s testimony; “reports” is suggested as a neutral substitute.
The more one reads, however, the more it seems that in order to avoid the missteps of the past, the journalist of the present must steer a very narrow—sometimes impossibly narrow—strait. Reporters are advised not to limit themselves to general terms like “sexual assault” or “molest.” These are “vague” and “tell us nothing about the actual crime, making it impossible for the public to understand what happened,” write the authors of the Chicago Task Force guide.
Yet journalists should also make sure that no detail they provide is gratuitous, advises the Femifesto guide in its list of dos and don’ts:
DO ensure that every detail you include about the assault serves to honour the survivor’s story or to contextualize sexual assault in broader culture. If a graphic detail does neither of these it doesn’t need to be in the story.
DON’T sensationalize sexual assault or depict it in a gratuitous or voyeuristic way. E.g., using words such as “sex scandal,” “controversy,” or including salacious details.
Reporters should avoid terms that are “needlessly erotic,” such as “oral sex,” “anal sex,” and “anal intercourse,” says the Chicago Task Force guide. Even if modified by “forced” or “against their will,” such phrases are too readily evocative of consensual sex. “These erotic terms bring criminal behavior discursively into the range of everyday, often pleasurable, human activity,” the authors write. “This necessarily prevents the public from appreciating the fact the victim experienced fear, disgust, objectification and blurs an important line between sexual pleasure and criminal violence.” What should the writer do instead? The guide suggests, for instance, that instead of saying “The child performed oral sex,” a reporter would do better with “The offender pushed his penis into the child’s mouth.”
The Minnesota Coalition guide gives a list of “problematic” terms evoking consensual sex alongside alternate suggestions that are more precise and clinical. Instead of “kissed,” better to say that the accused “placed/put/forced his mouth on the victim/survivor’s mouth/nipple/vagina.” Don’t use “gentle words” like “fondle” or “caress,” says Femifesto. Do “use language that conveys that sexual assault is not sex, it is violence.” But “even the word ‘violence’ can be a barrier to understanding,” warns the Minnesota Coalition guide. “Many people associate it with physical violence even though emotional harm is just as likely, and in fact more prevalent.”
The ideal account of sexual assault, it seems, would be detailed but not very interesting. The reader would get all the information about what took place during the assault without being gripped, much less sexually excited, by the unfolding narrative. The prospect of a voyeuristic reading haunts the journalist, but she shouldn’t—can’t—avoid describing the series of actions that took place. How she does it can affect the outcome of a case. She can afford no wrong moves.
These guides don’t exactly articulate a theory of news-media spectatorship, but you can find in them an implied portrait of the reading public. The public is an excitable yet easily distracted creature. When reading or hearing about anything to do with sexual organs, the public is liable to slip into modes of media consumption more appropriate to entertainment than to community news, and once it loses its bearings it will be deaf to questions of justice. Its sympathy for the complainant is a house of cards collapsing at the faintest indirect evocation of something pleasurably erotic. Any reports that don’t involve overtly violent rape by strangers are likely to be received with skepticism, if not outright hostility toward the accuser.
The portrait is, unfortunately, true to life, at least as far as public opinion surveys and studies of jury behavior through the 1990s suggest. Beginning in the 1960s, sexual violence was a fertile area of research for public health agencies, psychiatrists, sociologists, and legal scholars. Researchers observed and interviewed juries, studied legal cases, talked to incarcerated rapists as well as “undetected” rapists (men who acknowledged committing rape for which they were never punished), and surveyed the intake data from a new kind of institution emerging in the 1970s: the rape crisis center.
The researchers pieced together a set of facts: sexual assault is not rare but common; it is usually committed by someone known to the victim, and usually of the same race as the victim; people of all genders are subject to assault; sexual assault often produces no physical injury; victims often blame themselves for having failed to anticipate and prevent the assault; most cases for which victims seek counseling at crisis centers are never reported to law enforcement for a constellation of reasons, including that the victims don’t expect to be believed, that they distrust the police, that they are afraid to lose their job, and that they don’t want their personal lives exposed to police interrogation or public scrutiny.
These facts are by now familiar, but there was a decades-long lag in making them widely known. Studies of legal cases suggested that the public—including lawyers and judges as well as people serving on juries—had inaccurate ideas about how most sexual assaults unfolded, who the perpetrators tended to be, and how victims responded to assault. Their notions of sex crime were crossed with racist stereotypes, so that, for example, jurors were especially skeptical of the testimonies of Black women. While convictions were generally rare, convictions of Black men were disproportionately high, and there could be enormous disparities in sentencing for raping white women as opposed to Black women. Together, the studies showed that in US courts rape law was effectively still functioning as a way of establishing which men had sexual access to which women. It was not a reliable means of redress for people who had been sexually assaulted.
The press played a part in perpetuating misconceptions, their news stories often saturated with the same inaccurate assumptions about victims and assailants. While reformers in the legal field focused on educating jurists, victim advocates began to put together recommendations for journalists.
The guides are confident in their advice on diction. For every don’t there’s a do. Yet they point to limitations of our existing language for which there is no immediate solution. We have a small number of words—rape, assault—for sexual acts forced on someone against their will. Beyond that, we rely on adjectives (unwanted, unwelcome, coerced), verbs denoting force if applicable (grabbed, pulled, restrained, compelled), and other kinds of contextual information to make clear the undesirability of the acts. There isn’t a separate word for someone putting their lips against yours when you don’t want them to, or any number of other gestures that might feel categorically different when they’re unwanted as opposed to welcomed.
As it is, one can either modify kiss (though modifiers are weak, and it’s not clear that in a contest of connotative intensity forced can neutralize the potential erotic power of kiss) or give a detailed description of a tongue being shoved in someone’s mouth, capturing the invasiveness of the act but introducing the terms tongue and mouth, which have their own potentially erotic associations. It’s possible that the Chicago Task Force guide’s suggested phrase “pushed his penis into the child’s mouth” creates as many problems as it solves. The sentence is precise, but it’s also explicit and vivid; you can immediately picture what’s being described. Is that what we want in a description of assault? If the goal is to discourage prurient interest, something like “engaged in forced oral sex,” with its dull intransitive verb and prefab phrasing, might be the better choice. Neither formulation can live up to what seems an impossible wish: to purge descriptions of sex crime of any erotic connotations.
Perhaps some of this problem is acknowledged in the counsel to avoid “needlessly erotic” terms, for the phrase seems to admit that even when you remove the needlessly erotic, you may be left with the necessarily erotic, or the inevitably potentially erotic. What is a journalist to do with that remainder? How much can be gained by emphasizing the violence of an assault when violence is itself an object of prurient interest? How much is gained by emphasizing the survivor’s disgust or fear? Have disgust and fear, particularly female disgust and fear, not been eroticized?
If you had read these guides before Me Too, you might have felt a wave of pessimism. Some kind of art not yet invented seemed necessary for a report of sexual assault to slip the traps of objectification and voyeurism. If you had to be this careful to have any hope of winning sympathy for the survivor, then sympathy, to say nothing of justice, seemed a distant prospect.
Reading these guides from the other side of Me Too, you sense a small but potentially significant rupture, a before and after, a shift in social perception. We have now collectively read or listened to thousands of reports of sexual abuse in many different industries and institutions: state capitols, restaurants, prisons, churches. In the course of this coverage, reporters have had to write stories about producers holding work meetings in robes, or unzipping their pants and exposing their genitals during interviews. The term “fondle” has appeared in numerous reports of harassment, including those written by the Pulitzer Prize–winning Los Angeles Times team that covered the story of the University of Southern California gynecologist George Tyndall, accused of sexual assault by hundreds of former USC students and charged with thirty-five felony counts.
These reports inescapably present the reader with salacious details; in fact, they sometimes seem composed of nothing but salacious details. On October 17, 2017, The New York Times ran a story about complaints of a culture of sexual harassment at the California State Legislature in Sacramento. Over 140 women who worked at the capitol as lobbyists or legislators signed a statement describing years or decades of “groping, lewd comments, and suggestions of trading sexual favors for legislation,” as the Times put it. Several women spoke to the Times about their experiences. One of them was Pamela Lopez, a partner in a Sacramento lobbying firm, who described an incident at a social gathering of lobbyists and legislators that had taken place in a bar the previous year. As she went into the restroom of the bar, a legislator went in behind her, locked the door, and, according to the Times, “had undone his pants and asked her to touch his genitals”:
“He had exposed himself and begun masturbating,” she said. “All I was thinking was what do I do, what do I do. And of course, I didn’t want to cause a scene.”
“I said, ‘No, I am not going to touch you,’” she said. “I was firm and clear but I did not want to make a scene and he continued to masturbate and he kind of moved toward me and said, ‘Just put your hand on me.’ I said no.”
In the episode above, two people in two different states of being: one is sexually aroused and focused on imposing his sexual wishes on someone else; the other is not sexually engaged and does not want to have any part in enacting the other’s wishes. The person telling the story uses formal and clinical language to describe the attacker’s actions (“exposed himself,” “masturbating”). But when the attacker speaks, his idiom is lascivious (“put your hand on me”). To narrate the episode in detail means having to fold his language into the story, a kind of pornographic irruption in an account of workplace injustice. Yet the presence of eroticized or “gentle” words in the course of Me Too reporting has not prevented readers, employers, and in some cases law enforcement agencies from seeing the actions described as potentially serious infractions.
It’s not that the guides were wrong—in most respects they seem to have been right, and they helped create the conditions in which many more people were able to speak to journalists about sexual abuse. But at times you become aware that the authors of these guides were working in the dark. The sustained coverage of sexual exploitation over the past five years is unprecedented. The authors could not have anticipated the way that such density of reporting would relieve the pressure on individual writers.
In the past audiences have chewed over one high-profile claim of assault or harassment at a time: the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, the Clarence Thomas hearings, Kobe Bryant’s pretrial hearings. Extensive media coverage of a single case—which was often a criminal case—invited readers to play armchair juror.
During Me Too, it became impossible to follow every story. Even if you read only a few of them closely, you could not help but get the impression that for each one there were many others, that workplace harassment and sexual assault were not rare but common, and that many follow the same patterns of abusive behavior, lax enforcement, and administrative indifference or cover- up. The public, now visibly made up of many people who have been subjected to sexual assault or harassment, was no longer necessarily reading as proxy jurors, poring over the details of a single case with the shadow-of-a-doubt standard guiding their interpretation. They could read as proxy social scientists, proxy public health workers, or, indeed, as whatever they actually might be: human resources managers, parents, activists, therapists, ministers, teachers, or anyone else concerned with ethics or public safety or mental health.
Pretty much anyone could see themselves as having a direct professional, political, or personal stake in the problem. It is of course still someone’s job—many people’s jobs—to investigate and weigh the facts of each case. But the public is no longer so closely or exclusively identified with the role of the juror. In this altered mode of news consumption, it matters much less than it used to whether the journalist writing a given article has decided to go with “forcibly kissed” or “shoved his tongue.” The writer has been freed from the burden of trying to create an immaculate account of sex crime.
I was an organizer for the student peace union and we did a demonstration in front of the US mission to the UN against the war. And I was arrested along with a bunch of other people and I was taken to a place called the Women’s House of Detention in New York City, which was a thirteen-story jail mostly for women who were in prostitution. And while I was there two doctors basically assaulted me sexually but they did it in the guise of giving me an internal examination.
Last fall I watched My Name Is Andrea, a film by director Pratibha Parmar about the life of Andrea Dworkin. Almost every word spoken in the film comes from Dworkin’s writing or her statements to journalists. Dworkin says the words in the passage above, about her 1965 arrest, to a television interviewer. The interview’s date is not indicated but it seems to have been made sometime in the 1990s. Dworkin, speaking to an invisible interlocutor, is frank and direct.
Then the film cuts to a different kind of scene: a deliberately blurred and shaky shot of what seems to be a restroom, tiled and painted an institutional shade of blue-gray, weak daylight filtering in from above. As the camera focuses, we see a young woman sitting on the floor, pressed against a wall, her knees curled up and her head buried in her arms. A new voice, not Dworkin’s, starts speaking: “I didn’t know what to call what they did to me. They tore me apart inside so I couldn’t stop bleeding.” The woman on the screen lifts up her head, winces, stands up, gasps, and bends forward slightly as if in pain; she slowly walks toward the restroom sinks, turns on a tap, and splashes water on her face.
This is a reenactment. The woman in the restroom (the French singer and actress Soko) is meant to be the young Dworkin in the House of Detention bathroom immediately after her assault. Over the next ten minutes the film shifts among footage of the actual Dworkin speaking and reading from her work, photos of archival materials, and Soko’s reenactments of the long aftermath of the assault, which include shots of her speaking with a consoling older activist on a sunlit stoop and then testifying at a hearing about civil rights violations at the House of Detention.
When Dworkin herself is on-screen she speaks lucidly. She describes feeling shock, pain, and confusion after the assault, but she is obviously not speaking from within these states and makes no attempt to perform them. She has integrated the initial devastating events into a psychologically and politically complex understanding of her life and her society, and she tells her listeners—in this case, at a bookstore appearance broadcast on C–SPAN—about it:
I came out of the Women’s House of Detention mute. Speech depends on believing you can make yourself understood. That a community of people will recognize the experience and the words you use and they will care. You also have to be able to understand what happened to you enough to convey it to other people. I lost speech. I was hurt past what I had words for.
In contrast, Soko’s bathroom scene is a picture of raw suffering. This is what it was like, the film implies. You are there.
Over the course of the film, five actors of different ages, races, and nationalities take turns reenacting scenes from Dworkin’s life, most of them involving trauma and recovery. The conceit seems to be that Dworkin is an everywoman (one might also feel the suggestion of a Passion play). Parmar’s complex layering of reenactments with archival materials and footage of Dworkin’s public appearances is deft, as is her selection of Dworkin’s writing, pulled alternately from her fiction, memoir, polemic, and criticism. But I couldn’t get over the jankiness of the reenactments themselves: their bland, vaguely commercial look; the way that energy drains from the film whenever Dworkin is replaced by a “Dworkin.”
Why aren’t Dworkin’s own descriptions of her jailhouse assault enough? Why do we need to be whisked away to—or very near—the scene of the crime? And isn’t any attempt to transpose passages like the one above into visible action bound to seem inane? Dworkin’s words take about twenty-five seconds to read aloud. But given only twenty-five seconds of screen time, an actor cued to express “You’ve been hurt past what you have words for” may not end up looking very different from the one playing “Your application for a loan has been rejected.”
We live in an age of the profligate use of the cinematic flashback. The old prestige TV shows bear a decent share of the blame; The Sopranos and Mad Men had time and money to flout the classical unities. Why settle for characters speaking about their past when new sets and costumes can be made, child actors hired, and scenes from the past dramatized? All the comparisons to Victorian novels went to television’s head; the medium thought itself as fleet as prose fiction, got its maxims confused, took upon itself the duty to show things that actors might more effectively be seen to tell. By this as well as other routes, the habit has seeped into feature filmmaking as well.
She Said, directed by Maria Schrader and based on the book of the same name by the New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey recounting their investigations of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, came out last November. It’s a heroic journalism movie in the mold of Alan Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976). But while Pakula allows witnesses to talk to Woodward and Bernstein about obstruction of justice without even once cutting to a scene of someone at a paper shredder, She Said operates by a different principle.
The film concentrates on the challenges of reporting the story. Rumors of Weinstein’s harassment of employees and actresses had circulated for years, but it was difficult to find people who would talk to journalists about it: survivors not only feared Weinstein’s power to blacklist them in the industry; they also, in many cases, signed nondisclosure agreements as part of their settlements. Kantor (Zoe Kazan) and Twohey (Carey Mulligan) chase leads and paper trails looking for women, from famous actresses to unknown former assistants who left the industry decades ago, to speak on the record.
Most of Kantor and Twohey’s sources are now middle-aged. They meet with the journalists in restaurants and cafés. They give detailed accounts of what happened in Weinstein’s hotel rooms as well as the effects of the harassment on their personal and professional lives. These scenes, finely acted, are taut with the sense of powerful emotion held in check. Or at least they are while the women speaking are on-screen. The camera doesn’t stay with them for the full length of their stories. Instead their testimony is intercut with brief bursts of footage that take us back to the time and place of the assault. Young actors whom we have not seen before represent youthful versions of the victims. They burst out of hotel rooms in tears or look sad while picking up takeout. This is what happened twenty years ago, we are to understand; this is what it looked like—we are there.
Sarah Polley’s Women Talking is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Miriam Toews about women in a rigidly traditional Mennonite community. For years the women have been secretly anesthetized and raped by fellow community members who broke into their homes at night. (The fictional community is loosely based on the Manitoba Colony in Bolivia, where a group of Mennonite men were accused, tried, and convicted in 2011 for repeatedly drugging and raping many of the colony’s women and girls over the course of several years.)
When the culprits are caught and taken to the town jail, nearly all the men of the community go with them to post bail. The men tell the women they will be gone for two days, during which time the women should forgive the culprits; if they do not forgive, they will be “ordered to leave the colony and denied entry into the kingdom of heaven.” It’s not much of a choice, but the women instead use their two days to decide whether they will leave the colony or “stay and fight” (what this would mean exactly is not spelled out). Those two days of debate occupy most of the film, which is set largely in a hayloft where the female leaders of the community and their children have come to discuss their course of action.
Yet here, too, we do not stay in the present tense of the story but periodically flash back to scenes of the aftermath of violence, usually because a character is remembering them or having a flashback in the clinical sense. Polley’s images of female injury are more explicit than anything in She Said or My Name Is Andrea. We see not only tears, but blood: the characters wake up to find it on their nightgowns and sheets, along with bruises on their thighs. The aesthetics of these scenes are different too: the colors are desaturated, almost black and white, and the compositions are dramatic. If the high-toned elegance of the cinematography gives these scenes a kind of commercial quality, it’s an ad for something more expensive than what the other two films are selling.
The opening shot is of a young woman (Rooney Mara) in bed, filmed from high above. It is morning—birds twitter softly, a slowly brightening light slants into the room from an unseen source—and the woman is still sleeping. Her body is slack in repose. Her nightgown is bunched around her upper thighs, her legs slightly parted. Her skin is very pale and we can see dark markings—bruises? smears of blood?—on her inner thighs.
Another scene, this one flashing on-screen for only two seconds as a young woman in the hayloft (Michelle McLeod) has a traumatic flashback: we see the lower part of her nightgown-clad body, shot from about the knees down, her feet positioned as if she’s facing us, dark blood clearly dripping from under the gown to land on the pale floor between her pale feet. And another: the same woman stands by her unmade bed, screaming. At the center of the bed, on white sheets, a dark roundish stain about six or eight inches across. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s soundtrack of bells, drums, and claps signals a state of psychic emergency.
Women Talking is at pains to hedge against the possible inadequacy—or inanity—of cinematic flashbacks. Against the insufficiency of actors merely looking stunned or pensive after assault, Polley also has them screaming. Against the insufficiency of acting itself, she keeps the scenes moving quickly and offers blood. She draws on the technical conventions of horror films so that we may be duly horrified by sexual violence—as a sobering political and social problem, of course. Though with the language of horror comes a rich store of visual references to works whose political commitments are more doubtful: blood running between and around Janet Leigh’s bare feet in Psycho’s shower scene, Linda Blair’s pee scene in The Exorcist.
But even blood might fail to horrify. It happens that many women bleed regularly and harmlessly from between their legs, sometimes staining bedsheets and nightgowns in the process. With all the bells, drums, screams, and disorienting quick cuts, viewers are unlikely to register the images as banal—and yet they just might.
Which is why, inevitably, at some point in Women Talking the source of blood must be displaced. About twenty-five minutes into the movie, an older woman in the hayloft, Greta (Sheila McCarthy), takes out her dentures and puts them on the table. Her face looks pained, and we realize she is being overtaken by a memory having to do with violence. Before we know it, we are seeing it too: the film cuts to a close-up of the palm of her hand holding several bloody teeth, then to her face as she tries to spit out copious amounts of blood overflowing her mouth and soaking her chin.
Now that’s an image with the power to haunt. But what is it that jolts us? Blood running out of a person’s mouth. Greta’s particular type of injury creates an uncanny, disturbing sight, but it’s not an injury that’s typical of, or specific to, sexual assault. The jolt is borrowed. And how could it be otherwise? As advocates have been trying to tell everyone for decades, sexual assault often leaves no visible physical injury.
These three films face their own version of the problem posed by the media guides: How, if at all, should the assaults described in the articles and books be translated onto the screen? What do you show, and how should you show it? None of the films shows its characters in the moment of being assaulted. Yet to the question of what to show, the films answer: Well, definitely something. We need visuals.
They settle on the minutes or hours immediately following the assault as the subject for dramatization: a visual reel of female emotional reaction from which men are for the most part absent. Such images seem to have been accepted by critics as a sort of tactful middle ground. “While Polley wisely keeps the assaults off-screen,” the LA Times critic Justin Chang writes, “she layers in quick, subliminal cuts to bloodied sheets and bruised thighs; she wants us to know what it would cost the women to even consider the act of forgiveness, let alone embrace it.”
This may be the conventional wisdom of the moment: bruises and pained faces are a good way to convey the harm of assault and harassment, the film version of avoiding salacious details while putting across the survivor’s suffering. But the necessity and rightness of these kinds of scenes isn’t to be taken for granted. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015), for instance, about Boston Globe reporters uncovering abuse by priests in the local archdiocese, doesn’t intercut survivors’ testimony with shots of agonized young people. On the other hand, films and shows from only a few years ago, including episodes of Girls and One Mississippi, did dramatize acts of sexual harassment, allowing us to see the perpetrators.
Emerald Fennell’s film Promising Young Woman (2020), about a woman avenging her friend’s rape, doesn’t show assault, but it does pay a great deal of attention to what the men in the film say, do, and look like when they’re alone with a woman they think is too drunk to articulate her wishes. In its twelve half-hour episodes, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (2020), the most far-ranging and artistically ambitious work on sexual violence I’ve seen, dramatizes multiple instances of assault and ethically questionable sexual encounters. The show’s central story is about Arabella (Coel), a young writer trying to figure out who drugged and raped her while she was out at a bar with friends. Arabella has no memory of most of the night, and we see the rape from her limited point of view, as it comes back to her in brief, disjointed flashbacks of a man moving forcefully above her.
What stands out about My Name Is Andrea, She Said, and Women Talking is that despite their titles, they don’t quite believe in the power and sufficiency of their female characters’ words. But then, this isn’t a coincidence. All three films have books as their source material, something that sets them apart from Coel’s or Fennell’s work, for example. If they seem tied into knots over questions of how to depict sexual assault, it may be less because they’re trying to do right by victims than because they—or rather, film as a medium speaking through them—are at pains to do something that the books can’t, to prove their usefulness, if not their superiority.
Of course, at this point everyone knows that a book is just the baggy first draft of a film treatment, and no one should scruple to adapt anything they want for film or television. Still, Me Too has been a movement driven by the written word: the personal experiences shared on social media, the reporting published—and funded—by newspapers and magazines, Tarana Burke’s Unbound (2021) and Chanel Miller’s Know My Name (2019). When it comes to Me Too, film’s confidence is not unmixed with anxiety: What is it exactly that the medium has to offer? What does it mean to imply, by making an adaptation, that women’s (and everyone else’s) writing on sexual assault somehow hasn’t been enough? And if women writing is not enough, then maybe women talking is not enough either. The films can only justify their existence—and at the same time neatly satisfy their logophobic animus—by giving us the one thing their source texts are doomed to belie: wordless female suffering.
In order to do so, the camera will have to break away from the hard-won eloquence of middle-aged survivors to show us pictures of speechless younger women. It will unmake the older characters’ self-possession, insist on showing their inchoate pain, take us back to the very points in their lives when they are in fact most likely to strike us as victims rather than survivors. Yet the filmmakers, as you can imagine, will have a hard time tapping such scenes for galvanic purposes. A lot of viewers will walk away troubled, annoyed, vaguely resentful, having felt neither catharsis nor a call to action. The movies might get an Oscar or two, but history will scratch its head, chalk it up to politics, wince at the irony. The archives of cinema and popular entertainment are already filled with images of women’s tears and blood, after all; they’ve been something of a specialty.
May 25, 2023
History Bright and Dark
Saving Lives and Making a Killing