Since I really liked Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho when I was younger, I decided to give the A&E prequel series Bates Motel a try. Despite that the cinematography was rich, the actors were quality, and the atmosphere was a great mix of foreboding while paradoxically retro and contemporary, I was roughly halfway through the first episode when I turned it off and washed my hands of it. What makes me think I can give a worthwhile review of a series that I watched for only 20-30 minutes? A rape occurs in that first episode about halfway in, and I know enough about TV formulas, characterizations, and plotlines to safely determine that this rape was gratuitous. A lot of rapes that occur on film and TV are unnecessary and unrealistic while subtly serving to punish the rape victim, to pruriently show the dehumanization of victims (most frequently women), and to trigger audience members who are survivors. A show like Bates Motel that so cavalierly uses a tired and painful device in its first episode is definitely not worth my time.
I generally think rating systems, especially Hollywood’s, are for the birds (maybe even the Hitchcockian birds… har, har). The MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) is a joke with its Catholic priest sitting in on viewings along with its hatred of all things involving female pleasure (check out the documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated to learn more about the secret society that is America’s rating board). I’ve been known to gleefully watch trailers, waiting for the rating description only to scoff, mock, and laugh. My personal favorite is still, “Some scenes of teen partying.” However, maybe I wouldn’t mind a system that cued its viewers in a way that, say, the new Swedish rating system does by integrating the now famous Bechdel Test to judge the level of female involvement in a film. If we’re going to be given a heads up about a film or TV show’s content prior to watching it, there should absolutely be a trigger warning system. The number of survivors of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) seems to be growing every day, so the compassionate, responsible thing to do would be to let viewers know if there are scenes of combat violence, sexual assault, child abuse, etc.
To give you an idea of the visceral response seeing certain triggering acts on film can cause in someone with PTSD, I’m going to describe to you what happened to me while watching the scene in Bates Motel where Norma Bates was attacked and raped in her home. The former owner of the Bates property, Keith Summers, breaks into the Bates house when Norma is home alone. He attacks her with a knife, brutally beats her, and rapes her. The familiar prickling of my skin and elevated heart rate kicked in when it became clear that Keith was planning to rape Norma. My thoughts were racing; I kept telling myself that she would get away, that she would fuck his shit up because she’s a manipulative murderess, but that didn’t happen. As Keith raped Norma, I found myself in a blind panic, yelling aloud, “STOP! STOP! STOP!” while crawling across the floor to get to the TV to turn it off because I no longer had the motor functions required to walk or use a remote control. After turning off the TV, I sat on the floor, breathing heavily, staring off in a daze. I did housework then, trying to calm down, trying to lift the feeling of dark ooze filling up inside me. After several hours of this, I was lucky enough to have a kind and perceptive friend call me, discern something was wrong, and let me vent about how upsetting and unnecessary the scene was.
I ask you, should anyone be forced to go through that? I’ve continued to be bothered by that scene days later and outraged enough to be compelled to write about it. If there had been a warning at the beginning of the episode that it contained scenes of sexual violence, I would’ve been prepared or, more likely, chosen to watch something else.
Despite the fact that I was triggered by this scene, I have thought and thought about it as objectively as possible to discern whether or not the scene did have value, and my conclusion is that Norma’s rape was, in fact, a broad application of a storytelling technique that is overkill. The scene is designed to render Norma helpless and to give justification to her future actions and neuroses. Guess what? Norma was already crazy before she was raped; she may or may not have murdered her husband, and he may or may not have been an abusive asshole. Shealready had an unhealthily sexual relationship with her son as evinced by her jealousy, possessiveness, and physicality with him. Not only that, but home invasions are traumatic events on their own. Having her home broken into and being beaten and knifed by a man are all enough to give Norma PTSD and to incite dysfunctionality. We already have all the justification for her behavior here without having Norma raped as a cheap plot device.
What is the function, then, of having Norma raped? Would this have happened if young Norman, instead, was home alone and Keith had attacked? It’s hard to see Norma’s rape as anything other than bringing a powerful woman low, turning her into an object that is acted upon, divesting her of her status as a subject. I also can’t help but see Norma’s rape as an intended lesson for Norman. After Norma told him he couldn’t go out, Norman climbed out of his window to hangout at a party with some cute girls. Knowing his mother was attacked and raped and he wasn’t around to stop it does more to service the forwarding of Norman’s feelings of responsibility and male protectiveness towards his mother, which I think still would’ve been possible if Norma suffered a home invasion and not a rape. This means Norma’s rape isn’t even about her. Talk about lack of subjectivity.
Norma’s rape is also problematic in the same way that many Hollywood depictions of rape are: they are intensely physically violent. Of course, rapes like that occur, and, of course, strangers rape people they’ve never met, but these things don’t happen with nearly the frequency their coverage by mainstream film and TV would lead us to believe. In addition to Bates Motel, some key examples of these physically brutal rapes are: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Downton Abbey,House of Cards (the rape is described by the survivor…not shown), Leaving Las Vegas, I Spit on Your Grave, and Straw Dogs (a Peckinpah film that caused massive controversy and was banned in the UK because the rape victim actually began to enjoy her rape). The list goes on and on. The problem with rape scenes like these are that they obscure and delegitimize rapes that are perpetuatedwithout physical abuse. As far as the media is concerned, rapes where the victim is beaten are more cut-and-dry. The rape that occurs between friends or a married couple where the victim simply says “no” are apparently more questionable as to whether or not the victim “wanted it.” Depictions of such monstrous acts make it hard to see our fathers, brothers, husbands, and friends as rapists, but, most of the time, that’s who they are, not the psychotic strangers Hollywood would have use believe in.
This mentality and this refusal to show the true gamut of situations in which rape and sexual assault occur is harmful to survivors. Because their rape didn’t involve slapping and screaming, it takes a long time for many survivors to even acknowledge and accept that they were raped. Many survivors doubt that their claims will be believed. Many survivors’ claims aren’t believed. This allows many perpetrators to go free without any consequences, and because there was no kicking and crying, I suspect many perpetrators don’t even believe that they are rapists. Isn’t that a scary thought? We value nuance and realism in film and TV characterization; why don’t we place the same value on the varied experience of survivors? Rape culture insists that we only see a narrow representation of rape because if we admit that rape occurs in so many different contexts and with so many different circumstances, then we must admit that rape is a pandemic, that survivors are telling the truth, and that we need to do something about it.