This post contains:
SPOILERS FOR: Game of Thrones, Outlander, and Mad Max: Fury Road
HUGE TRIGGER WARNING FOR: Discussion of rape, also brief mention of torture, murder, imprisonment. But mostly for rape.
Also a lot of words. But that’s a good thing!
Recently I saw Mad Max: Fury Road (Our extremely positive review is here). Mad Max: Fury Road, which I’ll henceforth refer to as Fury Road, involves women escaping from sexual slavery. Meanwhile, during the week that Fury Road opened, Game of Thrones aired an episode called “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken” during which a major character, Sansa, was raped. During the same week, Jamie, the hero of Outlander, was raped and tortured during the episode “Wentworth Prison.”
I have not seen either the rape of Sansa in Game of Thrones nor the rape of Jamie in Outlander. I have no opinion on the scenes themselves. I don’t always think that it’s a bad thing to depict rape and without having seen the shows, I can’t comment on how well it’s handled. What I do find interesting is that whenever rape is depicted, many people offer reasons for why they think that it is not only desirable but also necessary to include it, and of course with two shows in one week featuring rape people were quick to proffer the usual defenses.
This prompted a mind-blowing tweet from author Saladin Ahmed:
Note: FURY ROAD is an R-rated movie w/ a sexual slaver villain yet Miller & co. didn’t feel the need to include a rape scene.
Mind. Blown. It actually did not occur to me that Fury Road does not contain a rape scene, and now that Ahmed has brought it to my attention I can’t stop thinking about how powerful it is that it doesn’t. I do not always think that showing a graphic depiction of rape is a bad thing, but I do think that it’s over-used. Moreover, Fury Road shows why some of the most common arguments in favor of including rape scenes in fiction are flawed.
The plot of Fury Road is very simple. In the future, the world is a wasteland. A warlord, Immortan Joe, has five “wives,” women he keeps captive. He forces these women to have his babies – their only value is their fertility. Another woman, Imperator Furiosa, rescues the women with the goal of spiriting them to “The Green Place.” Max, a wanderer who is also trying to escape from Joe, allies with Furiosa. The entire movie is a road chase in which Immortan Joe hunts Max, Furiosa, and the wives in an attempt to reclaim his “property” (Joe’s word).
If ever a movie seemed tailor-made to include a rape scene, it’s this one, an R-rated movie with rape at its core. Yet the director, George Millar, who has included rape in his earlier Mad Max movies, did not show a single scene of sexual violence in Fury Road.
Why not? Let’s look at some of the things people say in defense of rape scenes and explore how Fury Road deals with them. Again, this is a criticism of arguments in favor of rape scenes, not a criticism of any specific scene or show.
- “It’s important to show rape because it’s historically accurate (or because it would be realistic given a certain setting).”
Fury Road is a science fiction movie that features a guy in long underwear on a giant truck made of speakers who plays a flaming guitar while hanging from bungee cords, so if ever a movie might be allowed a “realism” pass, it’s this one.
Still, the movie is realistic in suggesting that this is a world in which most power is wielded by men who rule by fear, and therefore rape is very much a part of this world. However, while rape is omnipresent, we (the audience) don’t have to see it. In fact, it’s BECAUSE it’s so omnipresent that we don’t need to see it occur. Of course it occurs. We know that rape exists in this world because the entire plot revolves around women trying to escape from rape.
Often, rape is used as shorthand for, “This person is vulnerable.” This is a criticism I have of Outlander, a show that I admire in many other respects. There are scenes of sexual assault in both the book and the TV show that are pivotal to the story and that arise organically from the characters and their surroundings. For instance, I have not seen the rape of Jaime so I cannot comment on how it is handled in the TV series, but I do understand why they chose to include that scene. In the book series, the rape and torture that Jamie experiences at the hands of Black Jack Randall is the outcome of a long character arc and has serious practical and emotional repercussions for everyone involved for years to come.
Rape is a problem in Outlander when it is used as an easy way to indicate that Claire is vulnerable. Yes, Claire is vulnerable to being raped. But that’s not the only way in which she is vulnerable. She has no money, no family, no clan nor connections. She has no way to travel or to provide for her own most basic needs. She doesn’t know the customs of the time and she doesn’t speak Gaelic. Sadly, the show tends not to explore these issues. Instead, every time Claire starts to think she’s got a handle on things, she’s threatened with sexual assault AGAIN.
“The Devil’s Mark” was something of a relief because it explored a historically accurate way in which Claire is vulnerable that did not have to do with rape. When, at the culmination of being tried for witchcraft, Claire is publicly stripped, her partial nudity is shocking and upsetting because it is an organic part of the story we’ve seen unfold. This scene was so upsetting to me that I stopped watching the show, but I didn’t find it gratuitous or offensive. It was SUPPOSED to upset me and it worked in a way that several “Claire in Peril” scenes did not because it was a seamless part of the story that combined the various characters, the setting, and the plot in a way that felt horribly inevitable instead of shoe-horned in.
There are so many reasons why the “it’s historically accurate” argument doesn’t hold water that I could devote an entire post to this issue alone, but ultimately the question of accuracy is irrelevant. In fiction, the story is everything. This is not a documentary. Every single thing in a fictional piece has to fit the needs of the narrative. Does showing a character being raped advance the story? Is it a logical outcome of the characters’ decisions and personalities? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then it doesn’t need to be there, accurate or not.
In Fury Road, showing the effects of rape culture advances the story, but actually depicting rape would not, because it would be redundant and it would damage the flow of the movie, which relies on almost non-stop forward physical and narrative movement. Miller trusts the audience to get what has happened, in all its horror, without being walked through every step, which allows him to get on with making cars explode.
- “It’s important to show a bad guy committing rape because it shows that he is the bad guy.”
Immortan Joe deprives women of freedom so that he can indulge in his own pleasure and procreation and he refers to them as his property. He tortures captives and turns them into eternal blood donors. He deprives people of water at his whim and distributes it wastefully so that everyone will cling to him in hope of abundance and stay weak because of deprivation. Also, see #1 – we know that he’s a rapist. Honestly, given the movie as it is, are you confused as to whether or not he’s the bad guy? Would actually seeing him rape The Splendid Angharad or Capable clear up some kind of ambiguity?
In Game of Thrones, before raping Sansa, Ramsay Bolton flayed prisoners alive after they were promised mercy, tortured Theon, hunted a girl with dogs and watched the dogs kill her, flayed some other people, and said many horrible things. Some commenters have said in discussions elsewhere that we needed to see Ramsay rape Sansa so that we would know how awful Ramsay is. Really? After seeing him chase a woman through the woods with a pack of dogs, some members of the audience were still confused about his moral standing? I have more faith in humanity – well, most of humanity. I’m pretty sure the majority of viewers were clear on the idea that a guy who lets a woman be ripped to death by dogs is probably not a paragon of goodness.
Fury Road trusts the audience to come to conclusions without having their hands held.
More on that here:
- “You have to show rape so that the audience will understand how awful it is for the rape victim.”
Here’s where Fury Road most gloriously puts its faith in the audience and in the actors. How do we know that being raped was awful for the wives? We know because of their desperation to escape it. We know because of how they cling to each other, how Splendid risks her own life to save her sisters, how The Dag hisses at her pursuers, how Toast the Knowing learns to load weapons, how Cheedo the Fragile creates an opportunity for Furiosa, and how Capable allies with Nux because she knows all too well what it means to be seen as a tool and not a person.
The wives in Fury Road are not hapless victims. They have agency. While they lack the combat skills of Furiosa and Max, they find ways to make themselves useful. Rape has affected them, but not destroyed them. It’s important that they are all affected differently, because in real life there’s not one single, universal response to being raped. They aren’t faceless tributes to Joe’s savagery. They are people. We know what they endured was terrible because we know what they will sacrifice to move beyond it physically and emotionally. It’s their story, not Joe’s. It’s not the story of how Joe is a bad guy, and it’s not the story of how they suffered. It’s the story of how they survive.
In short (too late) Fury Road’s omission of a rape scene highlights how unnecessary many rape scenes are. We don’t need to constantly show rape because of “historical accuracy” any more than we need to have heroes and heroines who are missing teeth and who have lice and nutritional deficiencies. We certainly don’t need to use rape to establish historical accuracy in a story that chooses to omit those other markers. We don’t need to use rape to show that someone is a villain if we have already established, either by showing or by telling, that they have done bad things. We don’t need to use rape as the only way to show someone’s vulnerability – it is one of many dangers that women (and men) face, but not the only danger. We also don’t need to show the rape itself to convey the impact of rape on a survivor. Rape deserves to be treated as an event that takes place in a certain context and which has powerful effects on the survivor, the rapist, and the people who surround them. It doesn’t deserve to be treated as a short-cut, a device, or a trick.
There are times when showing a rape is going to be the most artistically honest choice. But for this to be the case, artists need to stop falling back on the same excuses to use rape as a short-hand for “this person is vulnerable” or “this person is bad” or “this place and time is scary.” By choosing not to include a rape scene in Fury Road, Miller demonstrates how powerful a story can be when you trust the actors, the storytelling, and the audience, and when you keep the focus not on the actual moment of sexual assault but on the culture that permits it and on impact it has on survivors.
Well played, Fury Road, well played.