There was a moment at the beginning of Wonder Woman where I cried.
No, it wasn’t the terrible accents.
No, it wasn’t the fact that the Amazons had shaved armpits. (Come on, Hollywood.)
No, it wasn’t the inexplicable missed opportunity for casting Lucy Lawless as Hippolyta.
It was when I realized I was not going to have to watch a woman — any woman — get graphically raped onscreen.
I was sitting next to a nice, dorky man who told me that his wife and kids were out of town so they bought him an Alamo gift card for Father’s Day. We joked with the server about him paying for my drink. This man and I were not going to have to cringe uncomfortably beside each other while a woman was graphically raped onscreen.
Next to him, there was a father with his two little girls. They squealed “AWESOME” every time Gal Gadot did something cool and “no no no no” during the kissing parts. This man was not going to have to wonder how long it was going to last or whether they should get up and leave while a woman was graphically raped onscreen.
I was so grateful that I cried.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie where a woman character kicked ass and all of us didn’t have to pay the price for that by first watching at least one woman be violently dehumanized before us.
Now, I realize there was mass rape in the background of the story of the Amazons, but it was implied, it wasn’t graphically depicted. And Diana herself experienced no personal trauma that set her on a path of revenge — her motivation was an outraged sense of justice and a belief that it was her duty to help others in need. Like, you know, male superheroes usually have.
I think there is far too much rape in entertainment. I am obviously not the first person to say this. We all say it; I don’t know anyone who doesn’t say it. And yet, despite the fact that none of us want to watch it, there it is anyway. In everything. Who is driving this?
Not all the rape stuff serves the same mechanism in storytelling. Some of it is character background, an emotional trigger, a motivation (the Strong Female Characters out for revenge). Some of it is pornographic titillation dressed up as socially acceptable concern — your Law & Order SVUs, your real life docudramas. Some of it is a thin excuse for survival puzzles: the “how will she get out of this one” movies where women are trapped in an elaborate web and have to extricate themselves with few resources, like Outward Bound for the rapeable. And of course, there’s rape as plot device — the ‘nothing’s happened in awhile, can we rape one of these women to shake things up’ move (Downton Abbey).
Rape is so multipurpose! You can use it to kick off a thousand different types of stories. Rape is so ever-present that I’ve even heard people complain about the lack of realism when some movie or TV show omits it (“come on, in that situation, there would have been a lot of rape”).
Side note: did you know that at $150 million, Wonder Woman was the biggest budgeted movie ever directed by a woman? Previously, Patty Jenkins’s biggest movie was Monster, which was an independent film with an $8 million budget. (That one did have rape in it.)
As we all constantly consume all this entertainment, all these thousands of rapes, it’s little wonder that women are pretty obsessed with the constantly looming specter of rape. Rape avoidance comes up constantly in conversations among groups of women. It’s not always about rape qua rape, but it’s about safety management, the rituals and precautions that we all perform in any situation to ward off the threat of pending rape.
Of course, no one ever shares their own rape in such a conversation, which doesn’t mean that no one involved ever experienced rape. In fact, it’s likely that at least one person has. But it’s less likely that anyone there has been attacked or raped by a stranger, which is what these conversations are about. These stories are about the friend of a friend, a rumor, a news story, a near miss. The violent and random stranger rape is both a more ominous and a less emotionally charged threat for women than the far more common and less talked about abusive relationship. The stranger rape is a ghost story. The boyfriend rape is an intimate and prosaic living nightmare.
Short digression: did you know that the woman who plays Artemis in Wonder Woman, Ann Wolfe, is a retired professional boxer from Austin? You might not have noticed that there was an Artemis, because she had no lines, but she was the enormously ripped black woman. I googled her because I was so impressed with her physique and found that she is a single mom of two daughters who was homeless for a time before discovering boxing and becoming a triple champion.
But back to rape. Women do get randomly raped by strangers, and serial killers do exist. I’m not saying they don’t. I don’t want to minimize these crimes, or their victims, or the steps that women need to take to make themselves safe. But serial killers are extremely rare. And random rapists in alleys are pretty rare! Not as rare as serial killers. And you probably know at least one woman who was raped by a total stranger, which makes it difficult to argue that they are so rare we needn’t worry much about them.
Still, most child and adult victims are raped and beaten and murdered by men they know, often by men they love — their fathers, their husbands, their boyfriends, their colleagues, their best friends, their dates. At least I think so, based on the statistics that are readily available, which are few. According to a study cited by the CDC, 18.3% of women report experiencing rape at some point in their lives, and of those, 13.8% report that their attacker was a stranger. In other places I’ve seen this as high as 25% of female rape victims and as low as 7%. But going by this one study, that would mean that 2.5% of American women reported being raped by a stranger.
I think? This probably isn’t very accurate! And that’s because the actual factual data behind the frequency of this sort of crime turns out to be difficult to find. And I mean, 2.5% is not nothing, obviously — it’s pretty damn high (although I’m assuming this includes particularly vulnerable women like sex workers? I don’t know, it doesn’t say).
But the percentage of storylines where women are raped by strangers is closer to 95.9% (I just made that up), and the percentage of time women spend worrying about getting randomly raped by a total stranger is similarly disproportionate. Based on how often we tell this story to each other, to our daughters, to everyone who will listen, you would think that it was common as car accidents. You would think it was taking women down like heart disease.
Many of our country’s most notorious serial killers targeted boys, but we would never in a million years try to make our sons fear that they might be violated whenever they step out the door. From the study cited above, while a much lower percentage of men reported experiencing rape (1.4% to women’s 18.3%), a greater percentage of those reported being raped by a stranger (15.1% to women’s 13.8%). But we would never dream of infringing on male autonomy by suggesting they habitually modify their behavior based on the prospect of stranger danger.
This fear mongering is pure misogyny, and we are all participating in it.
Back to Wonder Woman: many of the Amazons were scouted athletes. In addition to Ann Wolfe, they include an Olympic pentathlete, a heptathlete, martial artists, and CrossFit champions from around the world. Says Madeleine Vall Beijner, champion Swedish kickboxer who holds two World Championships, on acting for the first time, “I know what real pain, like getting injured in battle, feels like. I may not know what it feels like being cut by a sword or shot by a German rifle, but I don’t have to pretend that I know what if feels like to have someone snap my collarbone, crack my ribs, or bust my nose.”
It’s tempting to tell ourselves that we continually frighten young women (and ourselves) with rape stories in order to protect them. But by encouraging them to feel helpless, dependent, vulnerable, and constantly targeted, we’re making them more susceptible to the very men we seek to shelter them from. In reality, your daughter isn’t going to meet a rapist when she’s in the middle of a forest by herself. She’s going to meet him when she’s gone out to dinner with him. She’s going to meet him when he’s in a position of power, when what she wants is on the other side of him. And whether or not he is able to harm her doesn’t depend on whether she let a nice young man walk her home (he very well might be that nice young man). It doesn’t depend on whether or not she arms herself, because no one shoots their date or their friend. No one shoots the man who made their heart melt just one week ago.
Instead, they try as hard as they can to convince themselves that what happened didn’t happen, that it was something other than what it was, something normal, something fine, something that was their own fault somehow. And they usually succeed until the next time it happens.
Violent men hunt for frightened women, so if we truly want to make young women safer, we shouldn’t try to make them feel vulnerable and weak and dependent every time they do anything. Instead, we should support women’s independence and strength and self-worth. We should listen to them, respect their autonomy, trust that they are capable, and most importantly, believe what they say. If we support every woman this way, misogynists of all stripes will be a historical footnote. They’ll have nothing to feed on, so we’ll starve them out entirely.
So the next time a young woman you know and care about tells you that she’s taking a trip somewhere by herself, here’s my challenge to you: don’t say “be careful.” It’s going to be on the tip of your tongue, it’s right there, it will be so hard to swallow it! But swallow it! You don’t need to say it.
So don’t. Don’t make her start her amazing journey with a rape scene. Instead say, “That’s so exciting! Where will you go? What will you see?”
In Wonder Woman, Diana’s family worried about her entering a war. Throughout the movie, Steve Trevor wrung his hands about her charging into conflicts. But all of their worry for her was ludicrous. She was untouchable and invulnerable.
She was an actual god and she lived forever.