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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:

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’:

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: 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’.

[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: Also see Amanda Hess’ blog:
[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. (

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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