Most of us have probably heard the term “rape culture” before. Its definition is “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.” A good example is this article from Everyday Feminism, which describes ten pop culture characters who stayed friends or lovers with their rapists, usually as the punchline of a really bad joke.
There are dozens—if not hundreds—of factors that play into and influence rape culture, which in turn influences us. I’m going to focus on how sexism in our movies, TV shows, and books fuels that culture. In other words, we’re going to talk about how those rape jokes everyone laughs at in the theater lead to a more dangerous environment, especially for women.
At this point I should mention who exactly rapists and rape victims are. Perpetrators are usually—but not always—men. Victims are usually—but not always—women. Stats vary from CDC to WHO to FBI, but the general consensus is that roughly 1 in 6 women in America will be raped/sexually assaulted in her lifetime (1 in 4 if she’s on a college campus), which translates to one every two minutes. 1 in 8 rape victims are men. This does not mean that 1 in 6 men are rapists, but it does make the problem and the perpetrators a lot more common than most people realize. Perpetrators are not abnormal. They’re not sociopaths or psychotic or crazy old men who hide in the bushes. Their average age is thirty-one, and slightly more than half of them are white. Most don’t even think they’ve committed a rape, and even more believe they didn’t do anything wrong. (More stats here.)
So with that in mind, this article is going to focus primarily on heterosexual rape (re: man-on-woman), as that is the most common form of rape, and the kind our movies, shows and books encourage.
The fact that Hollywood has a sexism problem is no secret. The lack of speaking roles for women, the fact that so many of their roles are reserved for the young and pretty, and how those roles are limited to that of girlfriend, mother, and daughter have all been documented and argued over for years. The internet is saturated with editorials and commentary of how we need more women in our movies, more diverse women, more diverse roles, etc.
One excellent example of that sexism is the romantic comedy. I don’t like rom-coms anyway: the clichés, the tropes, the sheer ridiculousness of the entire premise, and, of course, the sexism. But while drowning the female lead in stereotypes that paint all women as men-crazed fashionistas who go into credit card debt for clothes is bad enough (or the opposite: men as unfeeling jerks ruled by their penises), there is something much worse: the use of stalking. Stop me if this sounds familiar: he wants her, she doesn’t want him, he keeps pursuing her and eventually she falls in love with him. That’s not just inaccurate, that’s dangerous. It teaches men to ignore a woman’s clear discomfort and fear, and even an outright “no” if she’s confident enough to try to put a stop to it. It teaches women to be flattered by his “persistence.” Worse, law enforcement agencies do not take complaints of stalking seriously, and often laugh in the victim’s face.
Now you might say, “Yeah, right. They’re just cheesy movies, Chris! Nobody takes them seriously.”
No? How about this man accused of stalking two women in Australia in 2015? He used the “Bollywood defense,” by arguing that he “learned from Bollywood movies that relentlessly pursuing women was the only way to woo them.” The argument worked, and his case was thrown out.
That’s just rom-coms. Now think about all the movies we take a little more seriously: historical fiction, superhero movies, horror films…they all carry the same sexist messages, and they all have the same consequences.
So, what exactly is the difference between a perfectly innocent man who drinks beer and yells at the TV on Sunday during football season, and the man who does the same and then rapes his girlfriend? It’s that men who are sexually violent “have ‘hyper-masculine’ attitudes and self-concepts—their approval of male dominance and sexual rights is even stronger than that of non-rapists…The difference between sexually violent men and others appears to be only a matter of degree.”
In other words, men who are sexually violent believe that it’s their right to be sexually violent. That that kind of behavior is acceptable, and in some cases even encouraged.
There are many places a person can learn this message. Parents/guardians, friends, and of course, media. Modern movies desensitize viewers to violence, particularly violence against women. Some, especially porn, encourage it.
Sometimes the sexist messages and promotion of rape culture are blatantly obvious (see above: rom-coms). Other times it’s a little more subtle, and serves more to reinforce what we’ve been taught about gender roles and male dominance. The Fast and Furious franchise (and most other action movies) uses women only as decoration: sex objects, damsels in distress, occasionally a minor supporting character who gets to drive a car. The men in these movies and others like it—Captain America, James Bond, Bruce Wayne—are ultra-masculine and dominating, both features male rapists value.
Beauty and the Beast is an excellent study of Stockholm syndrome, as Beast effectively kidnaps Belle and forces her into submission. The Notebook has elements of emotional abuse as Ryan Gosling’s character threatens to commit suicide if Rachel McAdams doesn’t go out with him. It’s even been argued that Ron and Hermione’s relationship in the Harry Potter series echoes abusive elements, especially in the movies (as any Potterhead will tell you, Hollywood really screwed that up).
“Wait a minute, Chris. Harry Potter? Disney? You’re telling me that rape culture is everywhere and in everything?”
Yup. Pretty much.
“So I can’t enjoy any of my favorite movies, shows, and books and should just avoid everything?”
Well, no. We all have guilty pleasures. And frankly, the rape culture in our media is so common and widespread that you literally cannot escape it without shutting down every electronic device and spending the rest of your life in a cave in the Himalayas. The number of sorority sisters I have who are feminists and yet love to spend their Saturday nights watching crappy rom-coms is enough to drive me out of the house for a few hours. I personally love the Marvel Phase Three reboot, even though almost every single major character is a white male, and every single woman with more than ten minutes of screen time has been reduced to a love interest.
And there are some franchises and sources of entertainment that go against stereotypes and sexism. Game of Thrones is one of my favorite examples: look at all the prominent women of diverse skills, from Arya and Brienne to Sansa and Daenerys. Mad Max: Furious Road actively tackles sexism and the issue of human trafficking with a flame-thrower guitar. And the Percy Jackson series (especially the later books) has a wide variety of girls, LGBT+ teens, and people of color.
But nothing’s perfect. Thrones has a rape problem and a race problem (especially in the show). Mad Max apparently thinks the only people who will survive the apocalypse are white people. Percy Jackson…that is perfect, actually.
But you have a voice, and you probably have the internet if you’re reading this article. So when you see Hollywood falling onto bad habits and the directors try to cover it up with BS, call them out on it. Tweet, blog, vlog, Facebook, Snapchat. Make the internet explode with outrage. Even better, hit them where it hurts: their wallets. Buy tickets to movies like Zootopia and boycott the others. I didn’t see the Beauty and the Beast reboot despite my love of Emma Watson, nor did I pay to see a whitewashed Ghost in the Shell.
And to my fellow writers. You aspiring Rick Riordans, you Marvel geeks who scribble comics in the margins of your notebooks, you Comic-Con regulars who dream of people creating costumes for your characters. Keep writing. And then step past that dark wall of fear and self-doubt and get published. (Your writing does us no good if we can’t read it!) If someone says, “Why did you make this witch trans? Can’t you just make her normal?” unfriend them on Facebook. If someone says, “I know you didn’t mean anything by it, but that’s a really bad rape joke on page forty, and your starship captain is sexist AF,” give that person a medal and edit the scene.
Write what you want to read. Pay for what you want to see more of. And never stop the crusade against rape culture and bullshit.
What movies/shows/books have you seen that promote rape culture? Do you know any that try to fight it? Comment below!
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!