Personally, I have had enough assault, bullying, harassment and “rape culture” crap for a lifetime. Arguably multiple lifetimes. (I know I’m not the only one.) I know exactly what happened at dorm parties at Yale in the ’80s and ’90s. And you, Amherst, and you, Dartmouth, and you, Harvard, and you, UC Santa Barbara! (Wesleyan, consider yourself off the hook—freakie-deakie, yes; rapey, no.)
In other words, I know. I know what it’s like to be speak out and not be believed, to speak out and get told you provoked it and it’s your fault, to speak out and find yourself blackballed as a troublemaker, speak out and end up in a five-hour deposition in which the burden is on you to “prove” that a power-abusing, dishonest and sneaky person was dishonest and sneaky about abusing his power. I know what it’s like to secretly agree it was your fault because hey, you ate that brownie. And I know what it’s like to never, ever, ever talk about what happened because you don’t want to go through any of the above.
So you’d think I’d sympathize with the notion that we’d all benefit from a Bechdel Test for “rape culture” in movies. An attempt at finding “a simple way” to address the problem of “rape culture in movies,” the Rape Culture Bechdel Test would test for “agency in romantic interest” and it would be failed by (for example) The Graduate. Not because of Mrs. Robinson’s seduction of a 21-year-old Benjamin Braddock, prompting a massive existential crisis, but rather because when Braddock screams “Elaine” through that piece of glass at the church in the film’s famous denouement, he is pressuring her. Also on the chopping block? John Cusack non-consensually standing outside Ione Skye’s with his iconic boombox blaring Peter Gabriel in Say Anything. The Great Gatsby is also out because apparently Leonardo DiCaprio has an opinion on why Carey Mulligan feels however she feels? So among other things, the rape culture Bechdel test also ramifies onto literary fiction from one hundred years ago. (I guess Hollywood should consider adaptations and historical fiction off-limits until “rape culture” is no longer a thing.)
The question we probably need to force ourselves to ask is an uncomfortable one: What do we lose when we make “easy” prescriptions for art. Nothing about “rape culture” is simple, and no four easy steps will eliminate it from the film (or actual) world. On the contrary, pretending some simple prescription would be an effective one would, I think, backfire. Because we don’t really solve problems by merely suppressing them, and because while film is certainly a medium that is often used for propaganda, narrative filmmaking interprets the world; it doesn’t dictate the terms on which the world exists. Basically, The Silence of the Lambs doesn’t perpetuate cannibal-serial-killer culture, 101 Dalmatians does not perpetuate puppies-butchering culture, and rape culture is not de facto perpetuated or normalized when it is depicted in movies. There is very much such a thing as a film that dwells extensively on non-consensual and/or seriously violent sex, harassment or objectification or infantilization of women, abuse of power by men, or all of the above, not only without perpetuating or normalizing, but in some cases doing the exact opposite. Case in point: the work of Pedro Almodóvar.
I was in tenth grade when Pedro Almodóvar’s film Matador was released, and I’m not sure I’d ever seen a straight up dragged-into-a-dark-alley rape scene in a film before. When a tormented young Ángel (Antonio Banderas) did that in the first 20 minutes of the film, I remember being surprised at what I was seeing. The fact that it is a humiliating premature-ejaculation failed rape didn’t diminish the discomfort; it made it even more squirm-inducing. Matador only gets weirder, kinkier and more violent from there. And I love it.
Matador is a film few would characterize as Almodóvar’s best (he himself referred it as one of his lesser efforts), but it is brash, gorgeous and a striking exploration of eroticism, machismo and Catholic guilt. Its primary characters are not “normal.” They have extreme and unusual characteristics, desires and drives. Protagonist Diego Montes (Nacho Martinez) is a retired bullfighter (disabled by a gore wound—to the groin, natch) who now teaches the art of the torero in a private school at his home. The bullfighter’s job is, as Montes explains to his students, to seduce the bull into letting itself be killed. It’s clear that since his retirement he’s feeling underwhelmed by normal experience—to the point that he has to occasionally go matador on a female student or two and bury them on the grounds in secret. So, you’ve got a middle-aged white male bullfighting teacher who masturbates to montages of women being mutilated in slasher flicks, and needs his actress girlfriend to pretend to be dead in order to get it on with her. Then you have him up and suggest to a shy, awkward young student that perhaps said young dude is not into girls. The shy younger man responds by attempting to rape his teacher’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, the teacher is already attempting to cheat on the actress with another woman, an attorney by day and literal femme fatale by night, who declines him several times, despite which he follows her around town applying pressure. Of course this woman is just playing with him; she’s been interested in him from afar for years, and as it turns out, she doesn’t just want to play dead during sex: She is willing to actually kill both of them as an erotic gesture.
Cinematically speaking, Matador takes an arguably hokey premise and twists it into a saturated, sensual, lurid and sometimes really funny text on the entanglements of sex and death and transcendence and guilt and the desire for altered or heightened consciousness. The costuming and choreography of bullfighting appear in all kinds of places and to stunning effect. Personally, I’m one of those people who thinks bullfighting is disgusting, and I not-so-secretly hope the bull will go in for the kill before the man with the sword gets his chance. But in Almodóvar’s homeland, it is an ancient and much-mythologized tradition rife with metaphors. So we get to play with the trope of bullfighting as a way of trying to find the line between, for example, seduction and violation. It’s kind of an important line, isn’t it? Should film leave it unexamined? In Almodóvar’s gaze, death becomes sex becomes death ad infinitum, and the notion of people being the prisoners of their own compulsions is echoed in a million visual iterations of traps, cages, cells, walls of glass and hospital wards. A sword becomes interchangeable with a hairpin. The roles of pursuer and pursued, aggressor and victim, aggressor and counter-aggressor, bull and bullfighter—they shift over and over until it ends in a murder-suicide, and we close on the detective gazing at their naked bodies and remarking that he’s never seen anyone look happier.
Pedro Almodóvar has come under fire more than a few times for treatment of women in his films, and sexual violation and subjugation are arguably his master subjects. Rape is a very persistently recurring theme in his works. (I’m struggling to think of one of his films where it doesn’t come up.) This purveyor of sexual violence and violatory gaze is basically Spain’s most internationally acclaimed director. And if “rape culture” is the reason for that, it’s not for any reason as superficial and condescending as “it enables” or “perpetuates” or “suggests” rape as normative. If anything, it’s quite the reverse: Sexual violence is pervasive, all the time and all over the world. Women are the statistically likely victims, but they are by no means the only ones. Rape can be entirely premeditated or a sudden, radical failure of impulse control; it can be a weapon of war or a night out that goes horribly wrong. Pervasive does not equal normal. Almodóvar’s films often attempt to explore that reality and to inhabit the minds of people who are specifically not “normative” in their inclinations. It could be argued that far from being misogynistic or pro-rape-culture, Almodóvar is a director with a unique and abiding interest in female pain. Yes, he’s a man framing female experience from his imagination, but artists who work with storytelling simply cannot be barred from doing that. The whole point of fiction is to inhabit characters who are not you and do it in a way that makes them feel alive and real to readers or viewers. Almodóvar does it with camp, with melodrama, with exorbitant comedy and definitely with plenty of sexual violence. Good. A talented director is forging connections that illuminate or reflect something about the experience of being a living human being on this planet.
I won’t pretend that films cannot be used to reinforce the status quo, sometimes in ways that aren’t ideal. But films are works of fiction, even biopics (in some cases especially biopics, but that’s another rant). Lots of middling movies are two-hour palliatives we can depend on to satisfy our urge to get out of our heads for a bit. Some of the best ones delve into the really cobwebby, awkward corners of the human psyche and shine a light in there. They aren’t prescriptive; they’re reflective. But I start to develop an unsightly rash when we start talking about eliminating rape culture from movies in four easy steps. Both because where it needs to be mitigated is real life, and because as long as it exists (which will probably be more or less forever, though it might wax and wane), it should be explored by serious filmmakers.
Meanwhile, no Bechdel test that will ever replace discernment. Art is not especially amenable to standardization. And censorship is rarely, if ever, an effective agent of positive change. As the old psych-saw goes, what we resist persists.
Amy Glynn writes for Paste.