September 30, 2009

Polanski, Tess and the Phenomenon of the Rapist

How to solve the problem of Roman Polanski and his recent arrest for the rape of a thirteen year old girl? A director of numerous wonderful films: Rosemary’s Baby, The Pianist, Chinatown, Macbeth , and Death and the Maiden, Polanski also directed and co-wrote the script for a film that has rape at its heart: his exquisite adaptation of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. There are many sets of debates raging, questioning whether Polanski is guilty, whether the testimony of the thirteen year old girl involved can be trusted, whether the corrupt dealings in the US legal system mean that Polanski should be acquitted, what it means that the 13 year old girl (now mother and wife) can’t bear to have the case re-opened etc. For my own part, whilst I can see that Polanski’s court case was not exactly fair and that the judge was rather suspect, a fair punishment does not seem to have been meted out for what appears from the evidence to have been the rape and anal rape of a minor. But this is not what I want to discuss here.[1] What I would like to do is rethink how Polanski’s case is narrativised using, as a point of comparison, Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and Polanski’s film version of it: Tess. [1]

The great irony is that Polanski so carefully portrayed the agony of Tess, a woman convinced that her true lover, Angel Clare, would reject her when he knows that she is soiled by a rape in her early life. In the script for Polanski’s Tess, she writes to Angel how “My youth, my simplicity and the strangeness of my situation may perhaps lessen my fault. But since I committed it, I am guilty”, words that now seem eerily prescient: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mezs1kCTML0.

Hardy never actually tells us what Tess writes in her letter; instead when she does confess to Angel after their marriage she tells him, “I was a child—a child when it happened! I knew nothing of men”, words that are repeated in Polanski’s script. This is no defence in Angel’s view, and is also no defence in the eyes of many commentators offering their take on Polanski’s act of rape and the thirteen year old girl, whose testimony makes shocking reading. There are in fact sinister parallels between that testimony and Hardy’s representation of Tess’ rape by the rich and powerful Alec D’Urberville.

Q. What did you do when he said, ‘Let’s go into the other room’?
A. I was going ‘No, I think I better go home’, because I was afraid. So I just went and I sat down on the couch.
Q. What were you afraid of?
A. Him…. He sat down beside me and asked if I was OK. I said ‘No’.
Q. What did he say?
A. He goes ‘Well, you’ll be better’. And I go, ‘No I won’t. I have to go home. He said ‘I’ll take you home soon’.
Q. Then what happened?
A. Then he went down and he started performing cuddliness… I was kind of dizzy, you know, like things were kind of blurry sometimes. I was having trouble with my coordination… I wasn’t fighting really because I, you know, there was no one else there and I had no place to go.”
Q. Did he ask you about being on the pill?
A. He asked, he goes, ‘Are you on the pill?’ and I went, ‘No’ and he goes ‘When did you have your period?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know. A week or two. I’m not sure’... He goes, ‘Come on. You have to remember’. And I told him I didn’t…. and right after I said I was not on the pill… and he goes… and then he put me – wait. Then he lifted my legs up farther and he went in through my anus.
Q. Did you resist at that time?
A. A little bit, but not really, because…
Q. Because what?
A. Because I was afraid of him.

(Source: Dominic Lawson’s article ‘Let’s not forget what Polanski did’: http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/dominic-lawson/dominic-lawson-lets-not-forget-what-polanski-did-1794717.html)

There is even the fact that, as in the case of Tess who was sent to the D’Urberville household by her ambitious mother, it is claimed that this 13 year old girl was given to Polanski by her own mother as a delicacy, as if that lessens the criminality of the act committed. Of course, Polanski is like Alec too, in that he is accused of raping (and anally-raping) a teenage girl from a position of power and money and with little regard for the consequences. [3]

There is a difference, however, between Alec and Polanski; while Alec remains a shadowy figure [4], we know a great deal about Polanski’s life: especially about his tragic early life in Poland during World War Two and the death of his wife, Sharon Tate. Many commentators use Polanski’s past to argue that his terrible life experiences explain the act of raping a 13 year old girl. The French minister Frédéric Mitterrand recently said he was ‘dumbfounded’ by Polanski’s arrest, adding that he ‘strongly regrets that a new ordeal is being inflicted on someone who has already experienced so many of them’. But does Polanski’s past really explain his actions?

Shouldn’t the real question be, why did Polanski still have sex and anal sex with a thirteen year old girl despite his intimate knowledge of pain, suffering and humiliation? Prof. Joanna Bourke’s commentary at the end of Rape: A history from 1860 to the present is particularly relevant to this kind of questioning, because she concludes that rape must be reframed as a male political issue rather than a female one. Following Bourke’s recommendation, the painful hounding of the 13-year-old-girl-now-mother should cease and instead we should be asking what made Polanski rape in the first place. Does violence create violence? Do we honestly believe that all rapists are totally evil like the “baddies” from some children’s TV show?
Do we really think that rape is a glitch in society, that it is just an unaccountable phenomenon committed by evil outcasts who were never part of our community to begin with? Or is there, as Bourke contends, something brutal and sinister in certain modes or parts of modern masculinity? [5]

Even great directors like Polanski rape, hence Whoopi Goldberg’s desperately lame comment ‘It wasn’t rape-rape. It was something else but I don’t believe it was rape-rape.’ (Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/sep/29/roman-polanski-whoopi-goldberg). Goldberg finds it hard to reconcile the Polanski she knows with Polanski the rapist, just as anyone would find it difficult to believe that a friend or colleague had committed an act of rape. What I am really saying here, to use Bourke’s words, is that understanding rape ‘exclusively through rape victims is wrong: it lets men off the hook’ (Rape, p. 116) [6]. Why a man like Polanski committed this crime is a crucial question and one from which cultural commentary is too easily diverted. As Hardy would put it, ‘The woman pays’.

Notes
[1] Polanski’s Tess was in fact made only two years after Polanski was tried for rape, posing a few questions about his intentions in making the film.
[2] I would direct you to Kate Smurthwaite’s blog for a great piece of writing that deflates some of the more ridiculous arguments for Polanski’s release: http://cruellablog.blogspot.com/2009/09/roman-roads.html Also see Amanda Hess’ blog: http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/sexist/2009/09/28/common-roman-polanski-defenses-refuted/#comment-17499
[3] Polanski’s “position of power and money” is not sufficient to explain this case of rape. Money is related to power though (see Bourke’s comments in Rape about the sexual exploitation of working class women), but obviously it is not the main factor in every case and it is not only wealthy men who rape.
[4] We know that Alec D’Urberville has an invalid mother, that his family bought the D’Urberville name with their new money and later in the book, we see him working as a lay preacher to try to atone for his sins. Otherwise he is merely seductive, dangerous, brutal, sensuous and self-serving.
[5] I am far from saying that these issues surrounding masculinity are a new or modern phenomenon, but merely want to suggest that we need to look at masculinity in its modern context. Bourke’s study Rape, however, does cover the period from 1860 to the present day, so there certainly are lessons to be learned from history.
[6] I want to highlight that when Bourke calls for a focus on masculinity, she is not saying like Marilyn French that “All men are rapists.” Rapists, however, are not always male. She explains her argument in ‘Women, men and rape’, when she explains that

sexual aggression is not innate to masculine identity. There is nothing “natural” about men’s violence. Sexually aggressive men in modern western societies don’t bolster manliness but actually enervate male power regimes. Rapists are not patriarchy’s “stormtroopers”, but its inadequate spawn. Rape is a crisis of manliness; its eradication is a matter for men – for a radically different conception of agency and masculinity. (http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/democracy_power/5050/tackling_rape)

Bourke suggests that rape is not innate to masculinity, but is characteristic of a particular type of masculinity, and I would argue prevalent in a specific masculine mode.


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  1. Sue

    When I said once that I admired Roman Polanski, I had no idea of the crime he’d comitted. I think at the time I was pretending to be someone else but even so I’d like that to be known. Since I’ve heard the story he’s someone I don’t even want to think about so I think it goes without saying that I haven’t been reading any of the press coverage or even what’s been written here (apart from the opening sentence) and I certainly no longer admire him.

    30 Sep 2009, 07:33

  2. James

    Hi Zoe,

    I’ve always read your blog with interest, especially when it covers such important and sensitive matters. I’m not clear however from this article quite whether you think (with Bourke) that the capacity to rape is inherent in or even promulgated by “certain modes of modern masculinity”.

    I completely agree that rapists are not boogie-men who spend their lives plotting the commission of evil. Evidence suggests that they are as likely to be intelligent, attractive and social intergrated, capable of succesful relationships with men and women. And I agree that most of discussion of rape is too victim-centric, with commentators content to condemn an ‘absolute evil’ and not see it as a phenomenon amongst ordinary people – there is a similar problem in responses to paedophilia and genocide (especially the Holocaust), where outrage against the crime overtakes analysis of its origins.

    But I’m not sure how to define the ‘modes’ Bourke refers to. Rape is a masculine problem and so saying it is the result of masculinity is somewhat redundant, like saying ‘murder is something brutal and sinister in certain modes of humanity’. And what precisely is ‘modern’ about rape? The idea that modern conceptions of masculinity make rape more permissable than in prievious history seems ridiculous to anyone with any knowledge of either social or legal history.

    And surely Polanski’s “position of power and money” is not sufficient to explain this case of rape. From what I’ve read most rape can be interpreted as an act of assertion of power and control, but it is often committed by men precisely because they crave feeling in a position of power – not that they are used to it. As to wealth, as I’m sure you know, rape and poverty have a long association with regards to both rapist and victim. Perhaps it is both the physical intimidation inherent in the act (combined perhaps with a knowledge of the statistically small likelyhood of criminal conviction) that allows men to think they can rape “with little regard for the consequences”.

    I hope I’ve not misunderstood you or overlooked something obvious. I’d be very interested to hear more about what you think about ‘modern modes of masculinity’ and their relation to rape.
    best, James

    30 Sep 2009, 09:18

  3. Jennifer Drew

    In fact it is not ‘modern masculinity’ but dominant social constructions of masculinity and particularly male sexuality wherein men learn as boys that it is their inalienable right to have sexual access to any woman or girl they wish. It is irrelevant that not all men are rapists because the fact our society perceives aggressive and dominant male sexuality as the ‘norm’ justifies rape because this becomes ‘normal male sexual behaviour.’ ‘Dominant notions of masculinity’ are not new but in fact have existed for thousands of years and yes certainly social constructions of masculinity have changed but not the central one which is men because they are biologically male means they are supposedly the only group which is human and the group wherein human rights and bodily integrity is defined from the male standpoint and wherein only men have the supposed right of bodily integrity.

    Sexual autonomy for women is a very, very long way from being even perceived let alone accepted, which is why in rape cases the focus is always on the female rape survivor’s behaviour because ‘common sense’ tells us women are in essence ‘sex’ and it is their ‘sexuality’ which is so dangerous to supposedly innocent men.

    Many feminists have researched on the issue of how and why so man so-called ‘respectable men’ rape and commit sexual violence against women and girls and the central reasons are because they can, men are excused their accountability; raping a woman/girl is used to put her back in her subordinate place; men who commit rape against known women believe they are not committing rape but just enacting their pseudo male sex right. So, rape is not always about power and control over a woman/girl it is often about men expressing their sexual power and the belief they have not committed a crime because ‘hey she wanted it etc.’ all excuses used to deflect attention away from the male perpetrator(s)’s actions and accountability.

    There is a wealth of empirical evidence available concerning how and why so many men commit rape but always our patriarchal society refuses to see the truth which is why the focus always has to be on the actions/behaviour of the female rape survivor. Claiming the 13 year old girl’s mother is partially to blame is a common diversionary tactic because of course all women and girls are supposedly responsible for causing poor innocent men to commit rape. This is patriarchal beliefs at their worst but they work because it means the male perpetrator(s) become invisible.

    How masculinity is constructed and maintained must not only be challenged it has to change because only men can prevent rape and given too many men believe ‘I am not a rapist and it is not my problem’ this in itself leads many male rapists to assume they have the support of men who do not rape. Bystander behaviour as US male activist Jackson Katz states over and over, is the reason why so many men believe they never commit rape or sexual violence against women, because men as a group refuse to shame and hold those men who do commit rape responsible and accountable for their actions.

    30 Sep 2009, 10:34

  4. James

    Jennifer, am I condemned by the accident of my gender, my sexual orientation and the patriachal society in which I live to be pre-conditioned to rape and sexually abuse (whether concious of it or not)? Are you condemned by the accident of your gender to be disenfranchised, marginalised and sexually abused? Has the entire of human history failed to even notice, let alone address this situation?

    If this is true, the outlook is pretty bleak for both of us. Thankfully there are women and men who are determined to challenge the idea of humanity as you describe it.

    I would still like to hear what Zoe – who I’m sure is far better placed to respond to these descriptions of ‘dominant social constructions of masculinity’ than I – thinks on all this.

    30 Sep 2009, 11:06

  5. Thanks for your comments Jennifer and James. It’s useful to have a male point of view on this issue, so thanks particularly to you James..
    I should highlight that this entry is written tentatively and it asks more questions than it answers. My area of research up to now has been looking at how women and male writers reframe rape narratives in a subversive and positive way, but reading Bourke has made me think that my focus may now shift towards analysing masculinity.

    When Joanna Bourke’s Rape came out, I read it from cover to cover and I was really fascinated by it. Bourke begins by unravelling “rape myths” (“no means yes” etc), but then she turns the focus to men who rape. I want to highlight though that when Bourke calls for a focus on masculinity, she is not saying like Marilyn French that “All men are rapists.” (I have a feeling that this is what James is worried about, hence his question, “am I condemned by the accident of my gender, my sexual orientation and the patriachal society in which I live to be pre-conditioned to rape and sexually abuse (whether concious of it or not)?”).

    This extract from Bourke’s article on Open Democracy:http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/democracy_power/5050/tackling_rape maps out her argument more clearly. It’s a little long so I have to post it in another comment box, but I highlight points that I think are particularly important.

    01 Oct 2009, 18:30

  6. Joanna Bourke’s View on Open Democracy: http://www.opendemocracy.net/article/democracy_power/5050/tackling_rape

    ‘There is an urgent need to reform the legal system so that more rapists are identified, convicted, and punished for their crimes. But in the final analysis, political attempts to reduce and finally eliminate sexual aggression require also a rethinking of masculinity.

    ‘We need to ask: who are these people who opt deliberately to inflict pain in sexual encounters? If we are to understand and eradicate sexual violence in our communities, we must train a steely gaze on the guilty parties: those who carry out these acts.

    ‘The vast majority of abusers is male, but sexual aggression is not innate to masculine identity. There is nothing “natural” about men’s violence. Sexually aggressive men in modern western societies don’t bolster manliness but actually enervate male power regimes. Rapists are not patriarchy’s “stormtroopers”, but its inadequate spawn. Rape is a crisis of manliness; its eradication is a matter for men – for a radically different conception of agency and masculinity.

    ‘A politics of masculinity that focuses upon a man’s body as a site of pleasure (for him and others), as opposed to an instrument of oppression and pain, demands a renewed focus on male comportment, imaginary, and agency. People discover sex: they learn its performance. Indeed, phallic masculinity represents a turning away from a complex model of pleasure, draining it (in the words of feminist Catherine Waldby) of “erotic potential in favour of its localisation in the penis, taken to be the phallus’ little representative”. Adopting a “good sex” model will enable men to love and be loved in more fulfilling ways.

    ‘This “good sex” model is always in a process of negotiation, of course. Translated into the language of the philosopher Judith Butler, bodily performances are reiterative: by acts of repetition, the sexed body emerges. Performances of gender don’t simply constrain; they provide subjects with ways to “tinker” with culture, subverting norms, redefining identities, and exploiting pleasures. Sexuality and identities become malleable things indeed.

    ‘Social theorists and feminists have exposed the innumerable ways in which environmental pressures and ideological structures create men who sexually abuse others. It is cultural forces that provide excuses and rationalisations that men use to justify sexual violence and the guilt that arises from it. In other words, rape is a form of social performance. It is highly ritualised. It varies between countries; it changes over time. There is nothing eternal or random about it. The narratives and rites involved in sexual abuse are embedded in humdrum practices, everyday knowledges. Rapists are not born; they become. By exposing those cultural tropes that sexually violent men employ, we can hold them up to ridicule, and undercut them. Demystifying the category of the rapist makes sexual violence seem no longer inevitable.’

    01 Oct 2009, 18:35

  7. Bourke suggests that rape is not innate to masculinity but characteristic of a particular type of masculinity, which as Jennifer argues, may be fostered by and certainly remains unchallenged in patriarchal society. What I was trying to say is that certain social/media narratives assume that rape and rapists are just bizarre phenomena that cannot be avoided and occur without rhyme or reason (similar to the opinion that prostitution is ‘just one of those things’ that will always exist). There are two reasons why I find Bourke’s argument useful to support this point: because she highlights the rapist as emerging from a crisis of masculinity/patriarchy which is generally ignored/sidelined; and because she frames this in a more positive way than some other feminist critics by pointing out that the propensity to rape is not innate in men. This may sound like a contradiction, but it isn’t – honest! Bourke says that rapists are an aberration of masculinity, but the problem and the most worrying aspect of this whole debate iss that it seems to be a rather common aberration! I hope that this makes sense!! I have added a few notes to the actual blog entry to try to clarify what I mean.

    P.S. Also to answer James’ points…
    • Regarding the use (or misuse!) of the term ‘modern masculinity’, I am far from saying that these issues surrounding masculinity are new or a modern phenomenon, but merely wanted to suggest that we need to look at masculinity in its modern context. Bourke’s study, however, does cover the period from 1860 to the present day, so there certainly are lessons to be learned from history.
    • Agreed, Polanski’s “position of power and money” is not sufficient to explain this case of rape. That’s why I think it’s important to look at the reasons why. You and Jennifer have different explanations obviously. Money is related to power though (see Bourke’s comments in Rape about the sexual exploitation of poverty–stricken/working class women), but obviously it is not the main factor in every case and may not be so in this case. Also it is clear that it is not only wealthy men who rape.

    01 Oct 2009, 18:43

  8. James

    Thanks Zoe!
    That’s an excellent and really thorough response. The quotations you’ve highlighted from Bourke are some of the most insightful and fair-minded I’ve read on this subject – I very much want to read the book now!

    You were right to pick up that my anxiety that Bourke might be arguing along the lines of French’s statement – though I can clearly see this was a complete misapprehension on my part. My question to Jennifer was more in response to her comments than to Bourke’s or yours, though I admit (with the joy of hindsight!) it reveals a certain defensiveness many men adopt when hearing rape linked to masculinity. This I think partly explains the reluctance that you and Jennifer identify in male-dominated societies to attend to the issue of rape – it is safer to dismiss it as alien and ‘not our problem’, rather than admit rape as a masculine aberration for fear that all men might be somehow implicated. A ludicrous fear, but a human fear that must be challenged if men are to take the kind of responsibility necessary to effect positive changes.

    I’d like to make clear again (I don’t think I managed it first time round) that I entirely agree that addressing the problem of rape requires us to look at masculinity in general and to specifically address contemporary problems of rape we must look at contemporary ideas of masculinity – I think I failed to understand the context of ‘modern’ in Bourke’s statement. I’m glad too that we seem to be in agreement about the relation of money to rape.

    To move the conversation on, I have a tentative question that may be too tangental to what is discussed here and was prompted by the distressing reportage of the cases of the two boys in Edlington recently and of Angela Allen, Colin Blanchard and Vanessa George today:

    Given what we’ve agreed on rape (i.e. as a masculine phenomenon) should more be done to have it treated as a separate issue to ‘sexual abuse’, which is a very large umbrella term that is used by both the media and the legal system to cover a whole range of offences committed by and against people of all genders and ages?

    01 Oct 2009, 20:18

  9. I have been thinking about your question at the end here for a while and I came across an interesting American book recently called Counseling to End Violence Against Women: A Subversive Model (1996; Thousand Oaks/London/New Dehli: Sage).

    Obviously the book is written in the context of counselling, but at one point, she starts to discuss sexual violence in relation to the identity of perpetrators and victims. This is what she says:

    The vast majority of the entire range of sexually violent acts in our society is perpetrated by adult heterosexual males on females of all races, social classes, ages, and sexualities … The second highest incidence of sexual violence is perpetrated by adult heterosexual males on other males – either adult gay males or male children … The other combined categories of perpetrator-victim have a much smaller incidence of sexual violence. (Whalen 1996: 137)

    What is perhaps more interesting than these simple statistics, is Whalen’s statement that ‘Because the preponderance of sexual violence is perpetrated by those with power in society against those with less power, it is appropriate to conclude that sexual violence is primarily an act of domination and control’ (Whalen 1996: 138). Sexual violence against women and sexual abuse have this is common.

    A male writer and campaigner, Rus Ervin Funk, has an intriguing view on this too, (see Stopping Rape: A Challenge for Men, New Soceity Publishers, 1993) because he suggests that rape is a form of cultural domination that is not necessarily unique to men V women. He actually says that ‘our culture supports and actively encouarges men to rape women, people of color, children and gay men and lesbians’ (1993: 27). This is an extreme statement, but he says ‘our culture’, he means patriarchal culture or phallocentric culture. In his view, sexual violence is always about power and difference whatever the context.

    02 Mar 2010, 23:20


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