How To Prevent Rape Culture In Movies In Just Four Simple Steps
Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, James Toback, Brett Ratner, Bill Cosby — the list of famous men accused of sexual harassment and assault is growing longer each day. And as Hollywood is faced with handling these troubling allegations, there is another crucial aspect of the industry that requires attention: content. Not only do Hollywood films and TV shows sometimes enable sexual assault, they also help, if often unintentionally, enforce harmful, misogynistic behaviors. A panel of Bustle entertainment editors got together to come up with a simple way to try to address this problem: a Bechdel-style Test for rape culture.
For those unfamiliar, the Bechdel Test, created by Alison Bechdel, is essentially a test to see how feminist or female-friendly a movie is. To pass the Bechdel Test, a film must have three things: 1) at least two female characters (preferably named), 2) a conversation between the two women, and 3) at least one conversation between women that is not about a man. Granted, the Bechdel Test is not an exact science; in fact, many feminist films, or films featuring admirable female characters, don't actually pass it (the original Star Wars trilogy, for example). However, it is widely considered a good indicator as to how a film treats its female characters.
And so it is in this spirit that we've put together an anti-rape culture test. Like the actual Bechdel Test, this version will measure films based on a small set of rules, each established with one goal in mind: to ensure the agency of the romantic interest. If Hollywood really wants to be a part of the solution when it comes to sexual harassment and assault, then it must stop producing content that perpetuates rape culture, and it can start by following these simple rules.
1. The Romantic Lead Must Never Pressure Their Romantic Interest In Public
The public grand romantic gesture is a common trope in romantic films, whether it's a man banging on a church window to stop his ex's wedding (The Graduate) or a teenager standing outside his girlfriend's house with a boombox (Say Anything...). And, while these things might seem sweet on the surface, they're actually very manipulative and inappropriate.
Take The Notebook for example, largely regarded as a modern romantic classic. The beginning of the film features a scene where Noah (Ryan Gosling), our romantic lead, threatens to kill himself if Allie (Rachel McAdams), the object of his affections (and a complete stranger), doesn't go out with him. It's a tactic that depends on Allie's sense of moral responsibility and on societal guilt that dictates that she would somehow be responsible for his demise should she decide not to go on a date with him. This scene reinforces the belief that women are responsible for the crazy actions of men who love them (i.e. victim blaming) and is hugely problematic in how it manipulates the emotions of the romantic storyline.
2. The Romantic Lead Must Never Respond To A Love Interest Saying "No" To A Date Or Other Romantic Interaction By Pursuing Them Further
As every freshman hopefully learns during college orientation: consent is sexy — also, mandatory for any and all sexual encounters. And, contrary to the sexist and borderline dangerous belief that people like to "play hard to get," no means no. But you wouldn't know that from movies like Moonstruck, or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (a movie about a group of brothers who kidnap women to be their brides — literally). The movie trope of relentless romantic pursuit relies on the inaccurate assumption that women don't know what they want, and what they really crave is for a man to tell them what they want. In Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) is so obsessed with his pursuit of Ana (Dakota Johnson), he tracks her down to a club after she drunk dials him, even though she's already turned down his advances.
An important note about this rule is that the word "no," while the clearest indicator of when sexual consent is not given, is not always explicitly said. In Rocky, for example, after Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) sweet talks Adrian (Talia Shire) into coming up to his apartment, she tries to leave multiple times, even telling him, "I don't feel comfortable." And, still, he stops her from leaving, at one point even blocking the door and encroaching on her physical space. Once a character makes it clear they are not interested in another's sexual or romantic advances, particularly in an intimate situation, the romantic lead must back down to pass this test.
3. The Love Interest's Own Feelings Must Not Be Explained To Them, Or To Others, By The Romantic Lead
In Hollywood romances, a genre driven by predominantly heterosexual romances, the trend of a romantic lead mansplaining a woman's feelings to her needs to stop. It's everywhere, from romantic comedies like Wedding Crashers — no, John (Owen Wilson), one weekend with Claire (Rachel McAdams) is not enough for you to diagnose her every thought and feeling — to dramas like The Great Gatsby — Daisy (Carey Mulligan) doesn't have the luxury to live her life according to love, Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio).
Not only is this trend manipulative, it's also infantilizing, sexist, and another way to normalize the circumventing of consent in romantic relationships. Look at the romantic comedy Overboard, which literally features a man lying to a woman and tricking her into being his wife and the mother to his children. The plot point of having a man tell a woman how she feels (or, in the case of Overboard, who she is) is used specifically as a way of bypassing consent — not OK.
4. The Romantic Lead Must Not Make A Decision About The Love Interest's Body, Clothes, Actions, Or Appearance Without Their Explicit Consent Or Agreement
Many movies with romantic plots or subplots suffer from what's known as the makeover scene, wherein one party — traditionally the woman — gets a makeover that suddenly makes her more desirable to the other party (see: She's All That, The Breakfast Club, Pretty Woman etc.). It's an exercise in patriarchal control in which a woman's worth is determined by what men think of her disguised as the discovery of beauty. But this kind of control extends beyond the superficial.
In Twilight, Edward (Robert Pattinson) is constantly making executive choices about Bella's (Kristen Stewart) life, like who she can and cannot see, the limits of her privacy (he watches her sleep before they even start dating, WTF), and even her right to choose. Bella definitely passively allows this to happen, but the power imbalance in their relationship makes her consent questionable at best. Another particularly disturbing example is in Passengers, when Jim (Chris Pratt) literally sentences Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) to a life of loneliness and eventual death by breaking protocol and waking her up from a medically-induced sleep state.
To truly help put an end to rape culture, movies must be able to follow all of these rules. It's not enough to enact tougher internal policies on sexual harassment or to fire Weinstein and Spacey from their high-powered Hollywood jobs. Hollywood studios must also face their role in normalizing, and thus enabling, sexual harassment on screen. This Bechdel-style test for rape culture is just one place they should start.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.
Additional reporting by Rachel Simon and Kelsea Stahler.