WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Spent the week watching several cinematic depictions of rape (The Virgin Spring, Deliverance, Revenge of the Nerds, Tightrope, The Accused) in preparation for today’s viewing.
This is an article about Back to the Future. It’s going to start with some quotes by other writers and analyses of the films mentioned above, but I assure you, this is an article about Back to the Future.
One specific aspect of Back to the Future.
Before we begin, I’d like to share something writer Mark Millar said in an interview earlier in 2013:
“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.”
In contrast, here’s the title of a blog post I randomly came across by Martin R. Schneider, written in response to Millar’s comments:
In fairness, that article tries to delve into the different ways that rape is poorly handled by writers to move a story along, but regardless, it was the attention-grabbing title that prompted me to consider how both viewpoints simply couldn’t be true. When I tried to defend my stance, however, I realized that I hadn’t actually seen a lot of films on the subject of rape, so I compiled a small but varied list to watch prior to today’s viewing. I’ll be discussing each one in depth; if you haven’t seen these films, I recommend them all, not necessarily for their quality, but definitely for their cultural significance. Not surprisingly, each gave me a new perspective on the sexual assault of Lorraine Baines in Back to the Future.
THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960):
This superb Ingmar Bergman film based on a 13th-century ballad tells the tale of a young maiden who is raped and murdered, and her attackers coincidentally end up at the home of her family. When her father discovers the truth, he violently kills the group, including a young boy, and begs the Lord for forgiveness as he and the rest of the family wonder why God would allow all of this to take place.
Right away, I feel like this film negates the idea that rape scenes “just shouldn’t be written,” or that any old crime could be substituted in this script. The Virgin Spring is a poignant exploration of the moral dilemmas and mixed emotions that surround the act of rape: being frozen with fear as a bystander, questioning the righteousness of revenge, losing one’s faith in a higher power… not talking about these subjects seems more harmful than sweeping them under the rug just to avoid accusations of bad writing.
Name one problem that’s been solved by pretending it doesn’t exist.
Back to the Future hardly examines any of the major themes of The Virgin Spring, but both films share an interesting detail: the attacker is allowed into the home of the victim’s family. Many people, myself included, are baffled by the thought that Biff Tannen maintains a relationship with the McFlys and is allowed into their house. The rapists in The Virgin Spring only make it inside because the family is unaware of their actions, but Biff casually strolls through the door despite everyone’s knowledge that he once assaulted Lorraine.
You can practically hear the Seinfeld music.
It seems like the writers wanted the audience to know what became of Biff and tried to keep everything in one location at the expense of story logic. I honestly don’t feel there’s any more meaning to it than that, but it’s interesting to think about in the context of The Virgin Spring. That film focuses heavily on the regret of revenge; could Back to the Future represent a more civilized update of that same anguish?
“See you all for dinner tonight?”
Obviously, there’s a difference between avoiding your attacker and straight-up revenge murder, and nobody should feel it a necessity to forgive them and attempt an active friendship. Still, forgiveness can be one of many ways of moving on and shouldn’t be overlooked as an option, as long as it’s the victim’s own decision. Do I think Back to the Future was intentionally trying to comment on this? No. I still believe it’s a case of writing conservation, but before today, I only saw mercy for Biff as a bad idea. (Though I’ll always think it’s weird that George and Lorraine call Biff “the reason they fell in love.”)
All I knew about Deliverance prior to watching it were pop culture jokes about banjos and squealing like a pig, which is a shame, because it’s an excellent film. When four big city businessmen go on a canoeing trip in backwoods Georgia, two of them are cornered by a couple of locals at gunpoint and one of them is raped. Their friends arrive and kill one attacker with an arrow, causing the other to flee, and the group discusses what to do after these terrible events.
I’m not going to pretend like I have a good answer.
Deliverance is a fine argument against both of the quotes I’m examining today. When the canoeing party debates taking the matter to court, Bobby, the rape victim, is opposed to this idea; he does not want what happened to him to be public knowledge. In Mark Millar’s example of rape being on par with decapitation, Bobby would be just as embarrassed about revealing that somebody tried to cut his head off, which obviously wouldn’t be the case. And Martin Schneider’s quip on avoiding this scene altogether is equally misguided. This is a meditation specifically on the perception of rape and how rapists should be dealt with. It involves the victim, the victim’s friends, the attackers, their village, the legal system, and the moral quagmire that connects them all. It’s a study of what being “civilized” really means, and it all centers around a very specific type of crime.
Psychological trauma is one of the many side effects of an attached head.
This film made me wonder: what would have happened if George McFly punched Biff Tannen so hard that he killed him? He was trying to stop a rape from occurring, but would a 1950s court see it that way? Would they argue that a couple of kids were just trying to have a good time and George broke it up because he was jealous?
I’ve made myself very angry at the thought of a defense lawyer saying that.
I’ve stated previously that the only course of action when witnessing a rape is to subdue the attacker by any means necessary, and if a fist is all you’ve got on your person, punch away. Yet, is George really punching Biff because it’s the only way to take him down, or because he’s just always wanted to crack Biff across the jaw?
This face is holding back some memories.
Burt Reynolds’s character in Deliverance is also simply doing what needs to be done to prevent an attack, but you get the feeling that shooting a man with his expensive top-of-the-line arrows was a bit of a thrill for him. Do a hero’s intentions matter as long as he does what’s right? Deliverance explores this idea, while Back to the Future double-checks its morality math and moves on.
REVENGE OF THE NERDS (1984):
While you might not immediately think of Revenge of the Nerds as a film about rape, there’s a scene in which one of the titular nerds, Lewis, puts on a costume originally worn by a jock named Stan and performs oral sex on Stan’s girlfriend, Betty. She thinks it’s fantastic, then Lewis reveals that he’s not Stan, but his cunnilingus skills are just so good that she instantly falls in love with him, because movies are stupid. Make no mistake, though… she’s not thrilled the entire time.
See the shocked face she makes for half a second?
I know there must be several comedy films in which a protagonist commits sexual assault and is never judged for it, though they’re harder to find now since TV Tropes removed all pages about rape. (I have to believe this ties in with the “don’t write rape scenes” mentality.) While I picked Revenge of the Nerds solely because I remembered hearing about this scene, the movie as a whole is a shockingly good example of the rape culture mindset. Prior to going down on Betty without her consent, Lewis and his pals hook up hidden cameras in Betty’s sorority house and gleefully watch the footage together. They print out nude photos of Betty and sell them in pies while Lewis is sexually assaulting her. And yet, at the end of it all, she loves him, because the disgusting message of the movie is that you ladies could learn to love nerds if you would just bother to fuck one, but since you’re not willing to try, they’ll have to trick you into it!
A fine lesson for this precocious young lad!
While I could keep writing about how awful Revenge of the Nerds is all day long, let’s get to what it shares in common with Back to the Future: a character we’re supposed to root for that hatches a plan to commit sexual assault. Oh, did you think I meant Biff? I was talking about Marty McFly.
“Hear me out, George.”
I’ve previously gone over why Marty’s plan to get his parents back together is unethical simply because it needlessly involves lying, but not the fact that his plan also needlessly involves assaulting his own mother. That’s the plan, right? George infers that Marty is going to touch Lorraine’s breasts, but Marty assures him that’s not the case. But wait, isn’t George supposed to say, “Hey, you, get your damn hands off her”? What part of deliberately putting your hands on someone in a way that they won’t enjoy isn’t unwanted sexual contact? And Marty even tries to brush it off as “just an act.” Marty is the good guy, right?
Well, by all means, commence Operation Good Guy.
This plan is even more baffling considering that Lorraine is clearly attracted to Marty. What sort of twisted way was he going to exploit her attraction and turn it into a denial of consent? When I was a kid, I always thought Marty’s plan was to just say weird things, and today I realized that that’s still a better idea. If you simply must stick with the lying, tell her you love the smell of dog poop. Tell her kissing makes you vomit. Tell her you want to eat her boogers. Say anything that gets her out of the car and running into the gymnasium looking for her second date option. Just don’t grope her with the explicit intent of her not enjoying it. You’re a good guy, remember?
Hmm. Tightrope is a strange movie, mostly because I don’t understand what it’s trying to say. Clint Eastwood plays a stock grizzled police detective that’s trying to catch whoever’s responsible for a series of rapes and murders in New Orleans. As he hits the streets looking for information, he has sex with several women along the way, sometimes partaking in fetishes that the rapist also enjoys. So… is he fetishizing the case? Is he freaked out that this rapist seems to share the same kinks? Are kinks bad? Maybe this title drop from a police psychologist is supposed to give us some insight into the overall theme: “Some have it under control. Others act it out. The rest of us try to walk a tightrope between the two.”
Why, that confusing and slightly offensive line absolutely justifies the title!
Eastwood is playing a flawed character here, but I don’t know if everybody can agree on what those flaws are. Roger Ebert praised the film for telling a story about a cop that learns to respect women. While he seems to have a problem with female authority (especially in regards to a woman that runs a rape prevention program), are his kinks also disrespectful to women, even if they give consent? While I can’t say the film is brilliantly written, I’m glad the writer tried to tackle this topic, because it still points out the problems with treating rape like any other crime and avoiding discussion of rape altogether. At no point does Eastwood wonder if he’s a murderer, but he’s nervous as all hell about his sexual conduct. I find it a bit laughable to have a detective not understand what makes someone a rapist, but again, I’d rather a writer fail at this sensitive subject than never attempt to discuss it at all.
If handcuffs mean you’re a psycho, there are a lot of psychos out there.
Tightrope reminded me of a common Back to the Future theory (mentioned by Cracked, the BFI Film Classics book, and me while intoxicated): that George and Lorraine are mutually aroused by the idea of rescue from unwanted sexual advances. Is it appropriate for them to have this fetish? If they continue roleplaying in their own home with safewords and maybe a sexy friend or two, absolutely. Yes, Biff’s sexual assault on Lorraine is unforgivable and Dixon is a jerk for trying to drag her away at the dance, but if the idea of rescue is something that George and Lorraine discover turns them on and they achieve it without manipulating other people, that’s their business and leave them the hell alone, thank you.
Go ahead. Picture it.
I feel like an idiot even typing this, but in case Clint Eastwood’s character from Tightrope has somehow entered our world and is reading this, rape and rape fantasies are not the same. (I’ve just learned that the BDSM community prefers the term “ravishment” to further differentiate between the two.) If the silly fan theory is true and George and Lorraine really do love this sort of thing when it’s safe, sane, and consensual, even if they discovered this on the night that Biff tried to rape Lorraine, it doesn’t change the fact that what Biff did is deplorable and a crime.
I kind of don’t know what else to add on this topic. Tightrope set off my “kinks are bad” alarm.
THE ACCUSED (1988):
While I knew this was a courtroom drama about a rape case, I had no idea that it actually focused on charging the witnesses to the rape for cheering on the attackers. I’ll be honest, I thought convicting rapists was tough enough in our society, so trying to nab the onlookers seemed impossible. Jodie Foster is the victim and Kelly McGillis is the attorney, but there’s so much more to their characters. McGillis coldly slices her way through legalese and tries her best to present the alcoholic and unsophisticated Foster to the jury as a true victim, which is sickeningly difficult to do.
Asshole Test: Name a person that deserves to be raped. If you answered, congratulations, asshole.
I feel like a broken record at this point, but yes, there’s a difference between a rape case and a decapitation case, and yes, writing this film about rape is a good thing, especially since it’s based on true events. Awareness of this legal battle is an important step in ending the tendency to blame the victim, not to mention calling out bystanders for egging on the rapist.
How in the hell does someone perceive this as “not awful”?
And speaking of bystanders…
Yes, Match, Skinhead, and 3-D should all stand trial for criminal solicitation, though I sadly doubt that any aspect of this case would ever make it to a courtroom by 1955 standards. They are every bit as guilty as Biff in carrying out this assault, and that’s something I never would have thought of if I hadn’t watched The Accused. Also, there’s a scene in which Jodie Foster’s character turns down a kiss from her boyfriend shortly after the rape, and he fails to be… understanding about it. This tragic scene reminded me of Lorraine, who George kisses mere moments after she’s experienced severe trauma.
I’d try asking a little more than: “Are you okay?”
In fairness, Lorraine did ask George to kiss her, but if I were in George’s shoes, I’d think a quick check for reassurance or a short discussion about how she’s feeling beforehand certainly wouldn’t hurt.
It’s not hard to convince me that Lorraine’s rape scene in Back to the Future exists solely to establish Biff as a villain. I’ve previously argued that rape is the only villainous act that would make us truly feel okay with George straight-up punching Biff in the face. It also doesn’t help that Lorraine seems to have very little reaction to her assault other than an attraction to George. Not that this doesn’t happen in real life; people cope in many different ways, and arguing that Lorraine hasn’t “really” gotten over it is preposterous. (Though I still think it’s up to George to be cautious.) Of course, Lorraine isn’t exactly fleshed out as a character. As I’ve pointed out before, she has no say in her courtship with George, because the male characters assume it’s the man’s job to do the pursuing. I could conclude that Lorraine’s rape is shuffled into the background whenever it isn’t relevant to the plot, but then again, I could say the same thing about Lorraine herself.
ONE FINAL NOTE:
I read a Facebook comment posted under my analysis of the ethics of Marty’s plan to reunite his parents that seemed to suggest that I blamed Lorraine’s rape on Marty, since he changed the timeline. This is absolutely not the case. If your friend asks to be picked up from the airport and your car gets a flat tire, is it your fault if someone steals your friend’s backpack fifteen minutes after you were supposed to arrive? No, time travel or not, Biff’s attack on Lorraine is Biff’s fault, through and through. While Marty made other bad or unethical decisions, this particular event is merely part of an unforeseeable chain reaction that he need not feel any guilt over, nor should you as you’re fixing your tire.