Defending Descent: On Cinematic Rape and Retribution

Disclaimer: One, the conclusion of Descent starring Rosario Dawson is given away here so if you’d prefer not to have this spoiler you may look away now, but I encourage you stay for it is that conclusion which paves the way for my broader analysis. Two, this blog touches on the topic of rape which may be touchy subject for some because of their direct or indirect experience. Please know that I write this as a woman has not directly or indirectly experienced rape in reality but only through cinema. If you have experienced it, I’d encourage you–if you can–to stay and read along and add voice to this discussion so that it may be full and not lacking in perspective. Thank you for reading.

This weekend I watched a man get raped by another man and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was in a film entitled Descent in which Rosario Dawson plays a college woman who gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor and exacts revenge by planning for the perpetrator to get raped by another man. I watched the film with a close male friend whom, during the rape scene between the two men, turned  to look at me a several times and each time my eyes were glued to the screen. He couldn’t draw my attention away from it. It was 10 minutes of violent thrusting, name-calling, and shaming and I could not be moved to either talk about how excessive it might have been or turn it off all together. After the film was over I sat on my couch in silence with my eyes still hooked on the television screen. My heart was beating quickly and my mind was running a million miles per minute. My friend commented on how excessive he thought the rape scene was and all I could remember saying is that it made sense. He repeated that he felt it was excessive for the film and still I repeated, “It makes sense.” My logic throughout the 10 minute rape scene and in conversation with my friend was that for decades we have watched women get raped in film and on television. I watched Kristy Swanson’s character Kristen get raped in John Singleton’s college campus drama Higher Learning. In the second season of a Different World Freddie Brooks almost gets raped by her date Garth Parks. I watched Buffy almost get raped by Spike. In Gossip Girl I watched Chuck Bass attempt to rape two women in one episode. In For Colored Girls Only, Yasmine/Yellow gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor. There is the rape scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange which is edited out in most versions. I also hear that there is a rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which the main female character gets raped through sodomy. When I saw each of these movies or television shows I didn’t anticipate having to sit through a rape scene, but alas I did. And sadly, these movies don’t add up to even half of the movies with rape scenes in them.

Countless are the movies and television shows in which women get raped or are in another way sexually assaulted. As a woman, I am almost too used seeing other women get defiled in the media either through the dramatic portrayal of rape, sexual assault, or through the popular coerced or voluntary objectification of women in music videos. But when I watched the rape revenge in Descent I felt something. Maybe it was redemption for all the years of women being raped in cinema and real life. To be clear, I don’t believe in this type of personal retributive justice, because in the end it most likely will not resolve anything. This is illustrated in Descent‘s final scene as Dawson turns toward the man raping her assailant and, with tears in her eyes, silently conveys that this is no revenge at all. One reviewer of the movie, called it a demagogic feminist exploitation revenge drama, but to do so is to misunderstand the project of feminism which is not employed well in this film. For it to be a true demagogic feminist exploitation revenge, the movie would not end with the man in power but would end with Dawson’s character reclaiming herself. I believe the true feminist revenge is to not let rape define and shape you into anything other than a woman who reclaims herself–but maybe I have just been reading too much Camille Paglia and the movie does indeed represent feminist revenge.

But,lest I get too far away from my original point,  I do think watching that scene, unwilling to turn my eyes away from it, made me much more certain that personal retributive justice is not what I believe in. I derived no pleasure from the scene but in refusing to take my eyes off of it, even when my friend tried to divert me, was me implicitly saying, “Sit through this, get comfortable with it,” because I have gotten comfortable with rape over the years. And yes, I admit that is part of this, that I wanted a male to sit through a scene of another male getting raped without averting his gaze, I wanted him to be comfortable with it. The day after I asked my friend if his maleness affected his ability to accept the prolonged rape scene to which he said it didn’t, he just believes that it was excessive in film and not right in reality. We also had a conversation about the possibility of females being a little more open to watching it unhindered because it could serve as cinematic redemption to the pervasive rape culture. We have no answer to the aforementioned query. So maybe my reaction was my own and not representative of what many women might find agreeable, but I am curious to know if there are any women or men out there who may find this type of revenge dramatically portrayed helpful or harmful to rape culture as we know it? If you have seen Descent what might you suggest as an alternative ending? If you are a feminist or a womanist–because I can’t neglect that a part of this film was the power dynamic between this white man and Dawson’s “ethnically ambiguous” self which he insulted during the rape–what is your response to this film? And, generally speaking, what do we make of the rape in cinema, its prevalence, its portrayal of the act, the power dynamic, etc?

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