I just saw the new movie The Gift. In short, I detest it. I thought it was entertaining and decently startling for a thriller but the ending completely ruined it for me. Why? Because the oh-so-clever writers thought the best way to end the film was with rape as a plot device.
For anyone interested in seeing this movie, just know I am about to completely ruin it with spoilers, so beware. To start we have a husband and wife who move into a new home and shortly after encounter someone from the husband’s past. As it turns out, the husband was a horrendous bully in high school and this person was his victim. The lesson of this film is: Don’t be a bully because your victim might show up later in life and rape your wife. That is the short explanation of what happens in this movie. There is ambiguity as to whether or not a full blown rape occurred, but the wife is drugged and certainly violated. She later has a baby and there is a question of if the child is her husband’s or her husband’s former victim.
This is disgusting on many levels. First, the assumed rape and question of the paternity of the child is presented as something done to the husband, not the wife. Revenge is taken on the spouse of the bully but portrayed as revenge on the bully himself.
Second, rape in a story is another way to put women and the female characters we play in the role of victim, property, damsel in distress, object, etc. Are there stories wherein rape is an essential part of the tale and in which the inclusion of such a storyline is presented tastefully and respectfully? Sure. But in the case of The Gift and many other movies, rape is just a cheap and easy way to put female characters in their place. It’s a crass device that often depicts women as powerful only if they were violated and thus angered enough to become powerful, instead of being powerful in their own right. And in the case of The Gift it is a way to hurt the man in the story–never mind that it was the woman who was violated.
As for skill in writing, using rape as a plot device is just plain lazy. It isn’t creative, it lacks depth. It’s an easy way out.
As a woman who loves film, I tire of this kind of storytelling. I want to see movies with female characters who are dynamic and interesting. Characters who move in the story for their own purposes instead of merely for the benefit of or consumption by the male characters. I want to see writing that Is excellent and equitable.
Besides the twisted inclusion of rape in The Gift, the relationship between husband and wife is one of manipulation, lies, paternalism, and more bullying. It is a stale depiction of husband as commander and wife as subservient. For every film with what I might call a female character with depth, there are countless other films where women are mere props, objectified and seen only through the lens of men.
There is no excuse for this kind of writing. And yet, it persists. It is so common and accepted that when a woman is raped on screen, it isn’t really questioned. There seems to be a subconscious attitude that says, “Of course, of course. It makes sense she is being raped because she is a woman. What else could happen?” People aren’t necessarily going around saying this aloud. However, the presence of rape and objectification is so commonplace, it must be accepted on some level by viewers and writers alike. Why else would it be so prevalent, and without outcry from editors, directors, producers, viewers?
The change can happen but it must start with us: writers, viewers, directors, all of us. It is unacceptable to continue these kinds of representations in film. So let’s make the change.