Special Victims

[r]From Elgin James’s Little Birds [/r]

You’ve heard the story before: two girls, one fiery and one temperate, set out on a road trip to slough off the piss-poor reality of their lives for a while. Adventures ensue, boys are met and kissed, and then the edges of the afternoon are tinged dark. A girl is raped, a girl takes revenge. The friends get back in the car and drive to an uncertain end, leaving the audience a little shell-shocked.

I’m not describing Thelma and Louise. This is a description, albeit superficial and insufficient, of Elgin James’s first film Little Birds, a coming-of-age story starring the nervy, tempest-in-a-teenager Juno Temple as Lily and Kay Panabaker as Alison, her levelheaded brunette-who-loves-horses counterpart. Both 15, Lily and Alison have been friends since Pampers growing up near California’s Salton Sea, in a desolate inland-empire town of chain link fences and double-wides, more Indian reservation than The O.C. But James extracts transcendent moments from the ruin: the girls holding hands and spinning in swap-meet clothes, empty streets set against guava and tangerine-streaked sunset skies, the moonscape of desolation scarred on their corner of earth. Certain stills look like they were nabbed from the pages of an Anthropologie catalog.

In a recent New Yorker profile, James admits that his two female protagonists are, in part, vehicles for telling his own troubled biography as a former gang leader: “I’ll tell the story of me and Bruce [a partner in crime] but as two girls, so I won’t be glorifying the violence,” he told Tad Friend. James achieved this goal: The violence in Little Birds is neither glorified nor especially baroque but bone-shatteringly authentic. In his director’s statement, James wrote, “There’s a version of Little Birds that I think people will expect — gritty, sensationalistic. I refused to make that movie. The story I wanted to tell, and that my brilliant lead actresses allowed me to, was about innocence and its subsequent loss.” And lose their innocence they do.

After meeting some scruffy but cute skater boys from L.A. in a drained pool near home, Lily and Alison abscond a few nights later to rendezvous with them in the city. It’s nervous, awkward fun for a while, watching the boys in men’s bodies bluster, warm forties in their hands, while the girls laugh a little too hard at their jokes. But after the alpha of the two boys slams a passerby in the head with a skateboard deck and makes off with his laptop, the hijinks are over. From the motel room in which the lost boys squat, they plan to troll the Internet, soliciting perverts to lure to their room and rob, using Lily as willing bait. They pull the scam off once, but on the second try a hopped up tweaker (J.R. Bourne) smells a trap and, with hulking cocaine strength, knocks out his would-be assailants and then brutally, realistically — spitting on his hand before snapping her apart — rapes Lily. Alison kills the rapist, and the two girls escape to a precarious middle ground, suspended between two moments: girlhood and womanhood, victimization and freedom, truth or consequences, take your pick. James’s film ends with Alison’s voice-over: “There’s a moment between getting a cut and realizing how deep it is … Once you know, there ain’t no going back.” One interpretation: you can never go home again. Because where is home once your body has been broken into?

Lily and Alison negotiate not only the high-beam balance of love and hate with boys their age but also the grim realities of loss: Alison’s mom to cancer, Lily’s dad to suicide. In L.A., they witness the orphan boys squatting on bare mattresses with homeless people defecating in the hallways. They encounter pedophiles who will pay to fuck Lily. They drink and make out with the boys who pimp them. There’s no arguing that they don’t lose their innocence. So why does Lily have to get raped?

It is James’s prerogative to tell the story of a girl who gets raped. But having this serve as the final blow to her innocence is unnecessary shorthand for the myriad other ways that girls become women. But how else to show audiences that Lily has really really lost her innocence, as has Alison by avenging her friend’s assailant? Rape in storytelling becomes a reflex. While James’s intentions may be in the best of places in wanting to reveal the persistence of sexual violence in modern life, it may have the inverse of the intended effect: The persistence of rape narratives show us that a girl comes of age by being pushed onto her back as much as standing on her own two feet.

James is by no means alone in using rape to signify lost innocence or something more sinister: the madman lurking in our midst. Women are sexually victimized in film and TV all the time. It’s not a crime scene worth gawking at until some DNA is found inside a girl. I stopped watching Dexter during season five’s Ode to Rape. Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI, and the other police procedurals all orbit around sexual violence. “Rape and Revenge” accounts for its own subgenre of ’70s exploitation cinema. Films like I Spit on Your Grave, I Saw the Devil, and the original Last House on the Left cemented the recognizable three-act plot arc of the defilement, rehabilitation, and revenge that high-grossing movies like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Kill Bill, and Gone have since employed. Recent films like Miss Bala and Martha Marcy May Marlene follow troubled heroines down their rabbit holes of abduction and portray their victimization in a realistic, unsexy way, as I wrote about earlier this year. But I question the motives for the ubiquity of rape stories as a narrative shorthand for loss of innocence, especially when this trope permeates even the most thoughtful and well-wrought independent films, like Little Birds.

Brit Marling, the screenwriter of acclaimed indie films Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice commented earlier this year in an interview with io9 about how the trope of rape entered her creative process:

When Zal [Marling’s writing partner] and I write sometimes you find yourself in a passive position. And you have to stop yourself. ‘I set out to write a story about a strong woman acting with agency. And now here I am having her be sexually assaulted by somebody so she can achieve something else.’ You have to tell yourself to stop … As an actor, that’s why I started writing. I came out to L.A. and I would read these things, you are hard-pressed to find a script where the girl is not sexually assaulted or raped or manipulated or a sex toy — an object of affection. It’s about the way men are looking at her.

By Marling’s estimation, writers use sexual victimization as the ultimate hurdle for a woman to overcome on her path to self-actualization. Nothing else could be more insurmountable. Her struggle isn’t internal, not in the mundane ditherings of making a life, but external: a man forcing himself upon a woman, rather than a woman carving out her place in the world. As Marling said, rape is a go-to in screenwriting, and audiences have been conditioned to expect it. And that makes rape less shocking. We see it all the time.

Perhaps the frequent depictions of onscreen rape simply coincide with the disturbingly high occurrences of the act. A 2011 government survey found that nearly one in five women in the U.S. has been sexually assaulted at some point in her life. Rape happens far too frequently, and perhaps these films just reflect reality. But while they may reflect the numbers, they do not accurately reflect the perpetrators. The vast majority of rapists — two out of three, according to RAINN — are known to the victim, at least as an acquaintance, and 28% of rapists are an intimate: a friend, family member, boyfriend, or husband. But in films, often the rapist is a lone madman, a perverted stranger who stalks a woman, peering into her windows through binoculars late at night, who, like the tweaker who rapes Lily, meets his victim outside her circle. This type of depiction is what Missouri Congressman Todd Akin would deem “legitimate rape.”

“Legitimate rape” is the classic nightmare — a psycho lurking in a dark alley. Any other variety, like date rape for example, is simply a misunderstanding. That’s what many commentors said on online forums when in season two of Mad Men, Joan was raped by her husband. Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan, told New York Magazine, “What’s astounding is when people say things like, ‘Well, you know that episode where Joan sort of got raped?’ Or they say rape and use quotation marks with their fingers. I’m like ‘What is that you are doing? Joan got raped!’ ” It may be that audiences have gotten so used to rape being portrayed as “legitimate,” and the rapist as the lone madman or the shadowy pervert, that we are uncomfortable with seeing rape looking like anything else. 

Another story James might have told about Lily’s loss of innocence is when she finds out Kyle, the skater she falls for, has another girlfriend. Or maybe she realizes that she’s just not that into him. But if James needed his protagonist to be raped, another way that scene could have played out is between Lily and Kyle. They drink too much or do too many drugs, and while making out on the sticky motel room floor, Kyle keeps going in spite of Lily telling him to stop. Is that legitimate rape? Many would say no. But that is a far more recognizable and far more frequent scenario for the teenage girls and women who will see Little Birds. That is a story I have heard repeated anecdotally by countless women, far outnumbering the “legitimate rape” scene often depicted. That’s also a story that would make men squirm, when they cannot so easily assign the role of the rapist to the crazed pervert. That story would force everyone to see a more complicated shade of themselves.

It’s tricky to puzzle out exactly what to make of the persistence of rape in film. You could argue that the ubiquity raises awareness about sexual violence as easily as you can say that it desensitizes us to the trauma. But one thing is certain. The idea of “legitimate rape” is not an idea ensconced only in red states by conservative extremists. It’s in blockbuster action movies, on TV, and in sensitive indie films. And when you start to recognize the persistence, it’s hard to see the experience on its own terms rather than a trope, the cherry atop the coming-of-age sundae. When you see it this way, you start to see it everywhere. As James’s heroine Alison says, “there ain’t no going back.”