I find it challenging to write about sexual assault. However, I still want to write a review of the Netflix movie Luckiest Girl Alive. It's significant.
My chest feels tight and my heart is racing as I sit down to type. I have to resist the impulse to turn off the computer. My legs are tingling, as if my body knew something that my head was unaware of. I liken my sympathetic nervous system to Whoopi Goldberg's character in the movie Ghost, who screams, "You're in danger, girl," in that scene.
I'm not in danger, though. Just bringing up a delicate subject. even though the topic in this instance is a film about rape.
When you've lived through sexual assault or harassment in any capacity, as so many of us have, you almost always hear that voice of caution. Thankfully, over time (especially if you've worked around it), you can notice it and politely request that it stop. You are aware that it won't likely completely quiet down.
That voice is there to protect you after all. It is unaware that the cause of your trauma could be 4000 miles, dead, in jail, or many years distant. It just understands that its task is to protect you against the things that have previously injured or traumatised you. You do so out of respect. It is thanked. You attempt to let things go.
Additionally, you make an effort to write and speak about sexual assault in a way that ultimately benefits survivors. I do, at least.
Rape became a startling storyline twist thanks to Netflix's use of bait-and-switch marketing.
When crafting the initial trailer for Luckiest Girl Alive, Netflix, regrettably, appears to have forgotten the obligation that media portraying rape has for its audience, and particularly the persons being represented for entertainment.
In the movie, Mila Kunis plays a rape victim who is coming to grips with how the abuse she endured as a teenager affected every aspect of her life, including her job, her relationships, and even her self-perception.
In the end, Luckiest Girl Alive is a film about empowerment. In fact, I don't recall ever seeing a movie that explores sexual assault survivorship's long-term ramifications with such compassion. Beware of spoilers: Ani triumphs.
Even more, Kunis plays Ani with respect rather than acting like she's trying to win an Oscar. This regard is for Ani's courage, persistence, and eventually, her fragility. In this mystery-drama, there is so little exaggeration that it was often simple to overlook Kunis' acting.
The actress that portrays young Ani, Chiara Aurelia, is likewise amazing.
However, Netflix's early marketing choices for the movie seemed to ignore survivors in some way.
The teaser attached didn't even mention sexual assault in the first few days the movie was released, if not longer. According to the description, the movie follows a young woman as she deals with the trauma of the school massacre she survived when a documentary maker contacts her.
The brief content notice next to the maturity rating at the start of the movie is short and, for some reason, isn't always visible when the movie is replayed, even if it does seem that Netflix has updated this description. It might not be there if you try to rewind after missing it.
True-crime documentaries and a movie on a school massacre were promised by Netflix, yet that atrocity is not even mentioned in the film.
This movie is ultimately about rape.
The brutal rape scenes that would later in the movie completely caught those of us who saw it during its first week on the website off guard, as well as the fact that the movie would turn out to be nearly solely about surviving sexual assault.
In illustrating how sexual assault is minimised when it is committed by "important" men and boys, Luckiest Girl Alive succeeds where many TV shows and films fall short.
Everyone who was meant to defend and assist Ani—her mother, her school, her friends, and the system as a whole—disregarded the fact that she had been raped. Except for one compassionate teacher who is a ray of hope, everyone wishes Ani would just keep quiet and not spoil the future of these great young guys. It serves as a beautiful and practical reminder that not all males are nasty.
But Ani's rape hit us in the face when we saw the movie in the first few days after it came out. Not until at least 15 minutes into the movie, long after the audience has become engrossed, is it revealed that Ani was raped.
Netflix misled its early viewers by disregarding the people who will most closely relate with Ani in a movie that is largely about what happens when your rape is minimised by the people around you (see the author of the novel the movie is based on, Jessica Knoll, in the remark below).
They appear to have simply thought that we would accept them inserting sexual assault into a movie they promoted differently. However, the scenes are painfully detailed, and the main scene is lengthy.
Even when done respectfully, portraying rape for entertainment can be contentious.
Beyond the difficulty of describing a movie about rape in a bait-and-switch manner, the topic of whether Luckiest Girl Alive's depiction of rape is gratuitous or too graphic still needs to be addressed.
The rape is as explicit as it can be in an R-rated movie when we see what happened to young Ani (as described in the next sentence). Before dissociating, she screams "ouch" repeatedly while having her legs pulled apart and pleading with her attackers to stop. She is portrayed as being tortured and beaten, with blood oozing from her butt.
Being aware that this is happening to a youngster makes it even more agonising.
Some critics contend that it shouldn't be portrayed on screen in such a realistic manner, if at all.
Those who think rape should not be depicted on television or in movies have my respect. Yes, I do concur that it is misused and even abused.
Indeed, several studies show that regular exposure to sexual violence in the media makes young men less sensitive to these kinds of acts. Two of these studies are cited in an excellent article in Vanity Fair that examines the use of rape as a plot device, particularly in the TV show The Handmaid's Tale, and makes the following observations: "In one study, it was discovered that young men who watched rape scenes went on to feel more at ease using violence against women. Male university students were shown to be more drawn to sexual aggressiveness in a study that examined the effects of sexual violence in feature films."
It's important to consider the potential risks of utilising rape as a plot device despite the fact that psychological elements like these are difficult to evaluate.
The rape, however, is not used as a story device in Luckiest Girl Alive.
The rape serves as the movie's focal point. It serves as the basis for the movie. It is the pivotal moment.
It is the essential component for our hero's survival.
Although the rape might have been skipped and the film still created an amazing impression, there is a purpose for the brutally accurate portrayal: to serve as a reminder that our character was, in fact, a victim.
In order for us to feel fury and devastation alongside Ani when she is embarrassed and accused of being intoxicated in a house full of boys, that rape scenario is intended to haunt us.
We were there and we witnessed it.
We are asked to recall what we witnessed happen to little Ani when the headmaster of her school mentions that the rape would need to be reported to the colleges where the lads are applying. We are reminded of exactly who is to blame for what happened, and it is not Ani, when her mother informs Ani that she isn't the girl she expected her to be.
Irreversible, a 2002 Gaspar Noé horror movie about a terrible beating and rape on a Paris metro platform that alters the lives of everyone connected to the victim, opens with the girl's friends killing the man they think raped her. In some aspects, Luckiest Girl Alive is similar to that film. The video begins with a beautiful view of the victim lying quietly in a city park and finishes with a brutal rape scene that takes place in the midst of the movie, before the rape ever occurs. It lacks all hope and is gloomy and scary.
The majority of the individuals I know who saw Irreversible left feeling quite upset. However, Noé made that point. It was never intended to be hopeful, so it isn't.
Even though I agree that rape is overused as a plot device in today's television and movies (Game of Thrones comes to mind, but you are by no means the only one), there are times when I think viewers should be asked to look directly at the crime so we can feel the impact of what happens when someone chooses to harm us. Not only to confront the savagery of the act itself, but also the callousness of telling victims to "get over it" or feel sorry for the perpetrators.
Many people who survive trauma take it with them throughout the day, every day, as I just indicated.
We create mechanisms to control these emotions, such as actively looking for narrative summaries and spoilers for movies and TV shows that we even remotely anticipate might contain a triggering incident. Some of us even have networks of women we consult in secret for plot details in advance so we can decide whether we want to risk consuming a certain form of media.
Although some people could see this as supporting the "trigger warnings" of the early 2010s, that is not the point I'm trying to convey.
Although I believe that content notes and trigger warnings are generally helpful in situations where there will be an unexpected mention or depiction of often upsetting or painful content, I believe that most of the time we are capable of controlling our reactions without them.
However, utilising rape as a covert attack on the audience disrespects the victims and survivors who this movie is really meant to represent.
The movie's synopsis now reads: "A writer's neatly manicured New York City existence starts to disintegrate when a true-crime documentary pushes her to confront her terrible high school experience," which is thankfully proof that Netflix listened to us early viewers.
Because of the vague trauma that is hinted at, it is likely that survivors and victims may do some research beforehand. They might keep an eye out for the brief content warning listed with the movie's maturity classification at the start.
In the end, this should serve as a warning to all broadcasters, streaming platforms, and anybody else who chooses to produce media that depicts or features sexual assault: You must respect the people whose backs you are standing on if you intend to utilise trauma to inspire entertainment or even creativity.
Victims are not your plot device or literary device. Rape and sexual assault should never be used to create shock value.
In order to get feedback on all facets of creation, content, and promotion, including trailers, teasers, marketing materials, and even one-line descriptions, Netflix and other content providers should consult victim networks and survivor advocates when creating content that contains frequently triggering traumatic material.
It's the least they can do at this time.