Content warning: This article contains a discussion on sexual violence and should be read with caution as the topic is extremely triggering and complicated.
Rape is defined as sexual violence carried out forcibly or coersively, typically by a man unto his victim with the threat of violence. An older definition for rape is simply: despoiling or to lose one's value. Words such as ravish, violation, pillage and plunder have all been used to describe the act.
The word rape is visceral.
The act of rape is criminal. (Although it hasn't always been. And when it became a crime, it was originally thought to be committed to the husband of the raped. A Property Damage claim.)
What can we say about the performance of rape?
The performance of rape historically is done in the wings of the stage — out of sight enough to disconnect the word rape from the reality of the act itself.
Why is that?
To answer this question, we must first consider the era, the author, the audience, and the particular administration.
If we accept theater, TV, and movies as vehicles for social responsibility, then we can analyze the representation of rape in any given era as a reflection of its disposition toward rape culture and gendered relationships. (Rape culture can be defined as any social environment that structurally supports the debasement of women and elevates and normalizes sexual and interpersonal dominance.)
In contemporary American drama we see off stage rape continue in some neoclassic drama, and from the 1900's on in America along with the advent of movies — we see the arrival of rape on stage or screen. Many up and coming play-writes begin to integrate their own experiences with sexual assault into the action (Law and Order SVU, Room...). For other producers and screenwriters, rape is used as a tool to drive the plot (or worse: to cheaply heighten the action for action's sake). Despite the tide of superficial representations of rape, new age authors have been finding their stifled voices through truthfully writing on their experiences. Hard-hitting, thoughtful accounts of sexual assault are emerging and jarring audiences into silence and serious contemplation.
Out of 1,000 people each year, three of them will be raped and have the courage to tell someone about it (this does not account for sexual assaults, molestation, or rapes that happen to children unable to tell their own stories). So, each year on a campus of 15,000 at Western, approximately 50 Western Washington University students will be raped and will report it. As we know, our current climate is not as receptive as it could be (Albeit it is much better than 1492). It is estimated 75% of rape victims will not share their story.
So, our number rises to 150 students on our campus. Even when one leaves college, they are not safe. In a lifetime, ¼ women will be raped. Rape affects so many lives directly and indirectly. A crime as serious, prolific, and underrepresented as rape cannot afford to be ignored (NOTE: This is only the statistic for female-identifying reporters. For this essay, I will lean more toward discussing the gendered dynamics of rape between men and women. Although I do not directly address male to male rape or female to male rape — I acknowledge these as real, vital experiences deserving of immediate attention in dramatic literature).
Let's first examine a "respectable" male written rape play. In Tennessee William's classic "Streetcar Named Desire," the climactic height of the play concludes with a detailed despoiling of Blanche's state of mind. We see her vulnerability, her trauma, and her fear. This is coupled with stark sudden violence from Stanley. In most versions, we actually see Stanley physically overpower Blanche. This domestic moment of utter debasement strikes audiences across the face, daring them to feel and relate to Blanche's experience. This isn't something that we, as a society can afford to keep letting happen in the wings out of sight — thus out of mind.
In this play, the rape of Blanche functions as a plot device — yet due to the structure of William's writing audiences have a clear idea on who the victim is, and whom deserves their sympathy.
A Streetcar Named Desire (7/8) Movie CLIP - Pearls Before Swine (1951) HD YouTube
Sociocultural ideas of rape, as well as depictions in drama and film, play a critical role in the construction and maintenance of gendered relationships as it relates to social capital. In Streetcar, we see power "play" underlying the very core of the piece — erupting into animalistic violence at its peak. The end — when Blanche is shipped off to the mental ward and Stanley reunites with his new family, unharmed — reminds us that the accepted reality of it being a man's world requires us to accept the debasement of those under mans thumb. The play depicts rape as the violence that it is. This is a decent (although problematic) representation of violence because it does not perpetuate rape as a desirable thing for both parties.
In narrative art, literature, and drama descriptions of rape differ from era to era but one thing remains the same. Despite the decline in rape-culture in the last thousand years, rape is still used most popularly as a plot device rather than a character's truthful experience. This begs us to ask: Who has the power? The storyteller or the reader? The rapist, the raped, or even the witness? Can both wield power at once? I've found the answer is not simple. If it seems to be, it is false. The answer changes through space and time. One thing remains the same: rape is a violent attack that reflects a power struggle.
An example of a crude portrayal of rape culture is found in Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." We are presented with the jarring rape and dismemberment of Lavinia. Her rape appears off stage, but the aftermath is brutally present. In many productions, the ravishment of the Lavinia — half naked and helpless is a staple to the show. Advertisements of the time goaded audience members to come to see the deflowerment of the actress. Not only does Laviana suffer rape, her rape is told through the words of her rapists, and her own tongue is severed, furthering her submission in silence.
"In 'Titus Adronicus,' Titus' daughter is brutally raped and mutilated. Lavinia's rape is important to the play for exactly two reasons. Firstly, it allowed Shakespeare to increase the shock, gore, and horror factor of his play (plot device). Secondly, it provides motivation for Titus' later acts of revenge. Lavinia's rape is not important as a means of providing a platform to discuss sexual violence nor is it important to develop Lavinia as a character herself." (Caity Goerke).
Lavinia Titus and the Volatile Body YouTube
For centuries, this was the standard of dramatic rape: victim blaming, neglect, and cheap tactics of grandeur. Although Laviana's rapists are punished, they are so through the ableness of other men in the story. It becomes more of a tale of a man's revenge over his damaged property than the survival and experience of the ravaged woman. Around the time of Shakespeare, women were officially allowed to act of stage. The shift from boys playing female roles to females playing female roles brought a new level of reality to rape plays. It is very telling of sociocultural interests that the first professionally produced play starring a woman is Shakespeare's "Othello" — where although there isn't rape on stage, there is a semi-sexual murder scene in which a woman is begging her husband on her knees, for her life. What does this say about a woman's place in the world in the 1500's?
What are learning almost 600 years later in America is rape/violence solely as a plot device is not a narrative method to be taken lightly. People, especially women are speaking out against dangerous representations of rape in the media. In my humble opinion, men unaffected by sexual violence should not write rape scenes to further their own fantastical desires (cough, cough "Game of Thrones"). Despite the idea that you can experience and write on things that haven't happened to you, the severity of a topic such as rape should be discussed with genuine transference and perspective.
Take the stranger rape theory: people mistakenly believe most rapes are performed by random creeps in dark alleys. This theory is perpetuated by plot-driven rape stories written by men for Hollywood. "The impassioned blue-balled drunk couldn't help himself. She was asking for it, look at how she is dressed… It's not rape if it's a prostitute…" This isn't reality. This is a man's fantasy, his entitlement and his sadism. The truth is: those we trust the most are the most likely to hurt us. This is becoming more apparent in modern TV, theater and film as victims use their own stories to create new ones. A vast majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated not by strangers, but by those we trust.
Maleficent's Wings are Gone (Maleficent). This metaphoric scene can be used to describe rape as a violation of trust. YouTube
Plays such as Paula Vogel's "How I Learned to Drive" show us glimpses of those gritty, painful truths. Lil' Bit loves her uncle, but she also hates him for what he does. We also see — he hates himself too, for what he does. The multi-perspective quality of this fragment play enables readers to contemplate the system of assault, and the cause and effect relationship it has to everyone around it. What jars me the most is how the mother is described when she suspects the sin under her nose. She tells Lil' Bit at 13 years old that it is her own fault if something happens to her. This sentiment isn't a reflection of the authors own ideals, but a commentary and revelation on the truth behind victim blaming, especially by those we trust.
Out of our 4,000 years of civilization, during approximately 3,900 of those years' women are debased socially and domestically. It's hard to imagine living in 2019 America, but this debasement was supported by the political opinion written in lawbooks that women are lesser creatures than men — devoid of a rib or two, thus devoid of a sound, civil mind. In many countries, this is still the case. This weak, submissive portrayal of women as a group is not the truth. It is a misrepresentation supported by a hierarchical society pumping out hierarchical literature written by those high in the hierarchy so they may stay high.
This is why literature is so important, especially resilience feminist drama. A play that understands you, and your position in life can create a cultural environment where it is safe to share one's own story. These stories validate and help heal a community and the individual. The presence of rape resilience literature reminds us we are not alone, and our experiences are valid.
Contrasting representations of rape has been a reality since before the dawn of Christianity, before Homer, before the Trojan War where rape was a war prize that women were taught to expect. Exquisite statues of Daphne and Apollo, Hades and Persephone at the Galleria Borghese in Rome, sculpted in the 1600s remind us that rape has always been a powerful, resounding narrative.
The relevance of rape in the art in literature depends on the artist and the audience. Is it perceived righteously by the aggressors? Is it taken wretchedly by victims? Surely no pleasure could be derived from the tale of Lavinia or Chrysippus… but I'm not naïve enough to believe that. Rape has been used as a pleasure device to mock and marginalize women on stage, which adds much insult to injury. Throughout the last 2,000 years of theater, the voice of those represented in theater through assault has drifted from rapist, to the victim. As social justice movements rally around survivors, lifting their stories high, whispering and yelling "me too" — the decline of rape glorification comes 2,000 years late.
When observing American literature, we see empathy and realism claw its way out of the woodwork. A cultural shift from victim blaming to victim sympathizing begins to shatter the quiet oppression women suffer. Our voices begin to be heard, but really only after the 1950s. (Sixty Years, out of 4,000.) Rape is no longer a story written by the triumphant man, but a testimony to the pain and confusion suffered. Stories about rape ancient and current do much to inform us on the cultural ethic regarding male/female relationships.
"The rapist does not simply have to power to rape; the social script and the extent to which that script succeeds in soliciting it's targets participation, help to create the rapists power." – Sharon Marcus.
Taking this quote and flipping the script, it reads that a narrative written from the victim's perspective helps give social power and social space back from the rapists and to survivors.
The biggest cultural shift from ancient to modern American Drama is the question: Who is the victim? This is the question that is addressed as social power shifts through space and time. Is the man victim to his own deviant ways? Or is the raped a victim of a brutal violation of both body and mind?
Silence, hopelessness, madness, hysteria, passive aggression, anger, weeping, acceptance, suicide, deservedness…these are all modes in which historical rapes have been "expected" to be handled by the female characters. For example, Chaucer depicts Lucretia of 25 B.C. as desiring suicide over the prospect of living disgraced and raped by aristocrat Tarquin (where we get Tarkin from Star Wars).
What disgusts me the most is the inclusion of rape by a male author to further the backstory of his male character. "Always a Bride, Never a Person" (Rape, Rage, and Feminism in Contemporary American Drama by Davida Bloom). The framing of a woman's rape through the effect it has on a man's life is demeaning to not only victims, but to all men.
Take "The Last Tango in Paris" as a shining example of the misogynistic portrayal of rape in contemporary drama through the lens of the aggressor rather than the victim. Marlon Brando stars across Maria Schneider in the 1972 film. The director Bernardo Bertolucci along with Brando — in attempts to make his film appear more realistic, orchestrated a genuine rape scene for the cameras. Maria did not know this was going to happen, and left that day feeling violated and unable to speak up against her superiors. She stays silent for decades, fearful to lose her job and standing as an actress in a male-dominated industry. Her story is one of the millions.
Bertolucci defends his choice to this day, calling it a sacrifice for his art. The Washington Post reports (in a) "clip from a 2013 press tour, Bertolucci describes how he and Brando had come up with the idea to use the butter in the scripted rape scene but did not tell Schneider "what was going on, because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated."
What neither Brando nor Bertolucci understand is that by perpetuating a women's rape through a male gaze, they are the rapists themselves. Rapists. NOT movie stars first, rapists second. In my humble opinion, this film should be burned at the stake, denounced critically, and declared dead.
The perseverance of victim written accounts of rape provide a cathartic freedom to both author and reader that wasn't found in past literature detailing rape. Renowned authors like J.K Rowling, L.M. Montgomory, or E.D. Hinton still use a Nom De Plume to obscure their gender. Advised by their publishers, these women hide their names so their work may be respected by all — despite their gender. The use of female pen names in drama and literature to this day shows us that sexism is STILL thriving on and off the page.
This is not to say things aren't changing as to who literature is written by and for whom it is written for. In the United States of America, freedom of speech has granted women their stolen voices. For that, we are lucky as many countries like Saudi Arabia do not acknowledge women as people worth being heard. I'm chagrined to say this because human rights should not be luck, they should be expected.
With strength and ability, heavy rape resilience plays along with progressive rape representation plays speak with 100 times the resonance than a plot-driven, male written, casted, and directed-- play using rape. The freedom of personal, thoughtful narrative performed by those affected by the subject matter is crucial to the climate of our empathy. Truthful artistic expressions of pain allow audiences to feel understood, validated, trusted, and most importantly: not alone.
How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, Streetcar by Tennesse Williams, Last Tango in Paris, Greek Mythology, Shakespeare and Rape, Rage, and Feminism in Contemporary American Drama by Davida Bloom.