I recently found myself in conversation with an earnest film school graduate — the kind of hip, bearded, 20-something who thinks acknowledging his white privilege and his problematic faves is enough to balance out his praise of Quentin Tarantino and explain away why he still watches films by Roman Polanski and Woody Allen. He volunteers with Planned Parenthood, you see, so he’s not like those other white dudes — the ones that get huffy about movies like Get Out, which he’d just come from seeing.
Yeah, there was a lot to unpack in that chat we had. And he’d had at least four beers and three shots, which made him particularly mansplain-y. But one thing that really struck me was his insistence that Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs has one of the most shocking scenes ever put to film. This was a follow-up to my condemnation of Polanski and Allen and my insistence that I don’t have to give them my time or my money. He turned to the responsibility of creatives within the confines of storytelling. Wasn’t depicting problematic things onscreen just as bad as actual abuse? Needless to say, I tried my best to set him straight on that count. (Mystery writers don’t actually kill people, remember?) But I keep coming back to what he said about Straw Dogs.
What was so jaw-dropping about the 1971 thriller according to this self-professed film buff? Well, it depicted a woman being raped — and coming to enjoy it. “So that’s more gratuitous to you than, say, The Last House on the Left or I Spit On Your Grave?” I asked. Well, yeah, he said. Because those movies are revenge fantasies. Peckinpah’s take, however, was a no-no. Sure, the character does end up assaulted “for real” and eventually kills one of her attackers, but she liked it once. Unconscionable to this white male feminist who thinks A Touch of Evil is one of the greatest movies of all time even though Charlton Heston is in brownface.
And this is where my brain breaks down. There are zillions of movies out there that are severely fucked up. Audition, anyone? Old Boy? 120 Days of Sodom? Human Centipede? And what about the hilarious “big reveal” in Snowpiercer — the only movie on this list I’ve seen, because I have no desire to watch crazy shit just because it has cinematic relevance. But to this supposedly “woke” young man, a woman orgasming from sexual violence is the most horrifying thing he’s ever witnessed on film. Why?
I can’t help but conclude that he still views a woman as something that needs to be protected, with no agency of her own, a victim of storyline and circumstance. We talked about Elle, too, and even there his focus was mainly on Paul Verhoeven deft handling of the film’s subject matter and not on Isabelle Huppert’s character. The Planned Parenthood anecdote he shared with me...? He said he feels out of sorts now because, before, he could be an escort. He’s a 6-foot-plus strapping white man who can be perceived as a threat. Now, with so many volunteers, he’s reduced to doing mailings. My takeaway? He doesn’t have relevance. He’s been rendered unimportant, impotent. In terms of how this relates to Straw Dogs, I feel like he was saying that showing a woman being raped and then liking it is an anathema because another man doesn’t have to come in and rescue her or avenge her. It also implies that all women should react to sexual assault the exact same way — that there’s only one acceptable narrative. (And, really, all of this is made even more absurd by the fact that Straw Dogs is all about the husband’s emasculation and how he evolves into a violent man after his wife’s assault.)
You can tell that this film school grad — “I’m 26,” he told me in an offended tone, when I guessed he was 27 — would turn up his nose at romance novels and soap operas and the questions about sexuality and agency they raise. He was surprised when I brought up how rape fantasy is often tackled in erotic romance — and I bet General Hospital’s Luke and Laura would blow his mind.
I’m not justifying Sam Peckinpah’s choices in the least. That shit’s bananas, and I really hate rape as a plot device. But the PBR-loving film scholar made me angry in a different way. Because when men see rape as the worst thing that can happen to a woman — or to anyone, really — they are reducing us to our sexual worth and our perceived purity. As a molestation survivor, I resent the idea that my reaction and my experience cannot be my own — that it has to be defined by what a man thinks is right. You don’t get to decide that being turned on during an assault is the worst thing ever. Worse than a gory wound or cannibalism or, you know, death. That’s not progressive, no matter how much you claim you’re aware of your privilege. Combine that with all of the “these films are important even if the directors are human garbage” stuff, and I couldn’t help but look at this guy like, “Are you high?” Though, to be fair, he was drunk.