“I don’t really do films set in the modern day because the female characters nearly always get raped,” Keira Knightley told Variety earlier this week. In the interview, the actress was asked if production companies are backing more female-dominated stories, to which she declared that it’s slowly getting better. “I’m suddenly being sent scripts with present-day women who aren’t raped in the first five pages and aren’t simply there to be the loving girlfriend or wife.” It’s a somber day when one of Hollywood’s leading movie stars has sworn off making new movies because rape is such a pervasive storyline in our cultural landscape.
Good for Keira—we need more stars to speak out about the problems surrounding women’s stories—but honestly, this isn’t a new one. Whether it’s used to drive a heroine’s revenge story or provide us with an understanding of her character, rape as a backstory is a common entertainment trope. These stories are usually meant to be cathartic and powerful, but let’s count the other ways a woman can be seen as multidimensional besides surviving a trauma she didn’t ask for. To me, the constant defaulting to rape narratives feels insulting and misogynistic.
Most times, I’m sure it’s not intentional or even a conscious decision—but it’s not surprising that male screenwriters are the main purveyor of this trope. Of course, many of our most cherished female characters have been written by men. We celebrate these characters because of their valiant displays of badassery, but look deeper at their motivations. The Kill Bill movies, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, are amongst the most famous rape-revenge films. For many, Beatrix Kiddo is one of the best woman-behaving-badly characters of all time. But when I reconcile Beatrix with similar narratives about intractable women, the unoriginality of it all is shocking.
Beatrix isn’t the only character looking for revenge: In Dick Wolf’s Law & Order: SVU, Mariska Hargitay’s Detective Olivia Benson pursues a career imprisoning sexual predators, having been a child born from her mother’s rape. Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri stars Frances McDormand on a ruthless trek for retribution against her daughter’s rapist and murderer. It was largely suggested that Furiosa, the heroine of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road was sexually enslaved to Immortan Joe, like the other female protagonists in the film. The list drags on.
“Many male-written movies or TV shows are packed with frivolous and
careless displays of sexual assault.”
Outside of revenge, rape is often used to justify why a female character is so hardened or brawny, as if it’s impossible to imagine a woman being emboldened and traditionally masculine without having survived an assault. Michelle Dockery plays the jaded and thick-skinned Alice Fletcher in Scott Frank’s 2017 mini-series Godless. It’s not enough for her to be an independent ranch owner and strong-willed, protective mother—her chilliness had to be justified by a history of sexual abuse. See: Game of Thrones‘ Khaleesi rising to power after being raped and abused multiple times.
Aggressive and uncooperative female characters are often given the same treatment, like Thirteen’s rebellious Evie, who was raped by her uncle. As are successful women, like the merciless Claire Underwood of Beau Willimon’s House of Cards, who was raped in college. Her assault is used as a device to justify why she seeks to advance her career. Then there’s the prosperous Gabrielle Solis from Marc Cherry’s Desperate Housewives, who was raped by her stepfather.
In contrast, male heroes and protagonists who share personality traits with characters like Khaleesi or Beatrix Kiddo need less explaining to justify their behavior. Many male criminals, spies, thieves, and con artists are often driven by something as simple as love. For example, in Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven, Danny Ocean seeks revenge against a wealthy casino owner, Terry Benedict, because Benedict married Ocean’s ex-wife. A lifetime of enduring painful abuse didn’t create his affinity toward crime—love did.
The psyches of characters like James Bond, Bruce Wayne, Han Solo, John McClane, or Walter White are explained by the death of their parents. Daddy and abandonment issues are extremely common explanations for male superheroes, Superman, Thor, and Tony Stark. Sometimes, men are motivated by betrayal, like Ethan Hunt from Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible or the eponymous Jason Bourne. Male characters are often hard and tough, but for a woman to be illustrated the same way, unfortunately, the sexual assault explainer comes into play quite often.
“We need complicated, multitudinous, bull-headed female characters—now
more than ever.”
Keira Knightley is right. Rape is often exploited in film and television, and many male-written movies or TV shows are packed with frivolous and careless displays of sexual assault. David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo has been criticized as making a spectacle of rape. The highly decorated Darren Aronofsky has directed three films with rape or assault scenes (Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, and mother!), a tendency that leans heavily toward creepiness or fetish. No doubt, women write these stories too, like Melissa Rosenberg, who created Jessica Jones for Netflix. But often, female-written stories about sexual assault offer an vastly different and important perspective. In Jessica Jones, the titular hero hunts for vengeance against her sexual abuser, but the show’s innate female perspective allowed for a nuanced portrayal of sexual assault and has thus been hailed by women as helpful or “getting it right.”
Many writers do their female protagonists justice, and rape-revenge stories can be mollifying to watch, especially for survivors of assault. But film and TV characters are a reflection of real-life women, and there are an infinite amount of motivations, methodologies, and histories that produce interesting, complicated women. I know, because I know these women, and so do you. I’m not calling for an end to these types of narratives; in this post-Weinstein world, it’s important to continue having important dialogues on sexual assault. But I am requesting a larger breadth of female characters, and a variety of backstories and motivations for them. We need complicated, multitudinous, bull-headed female characters—now more than ever.