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How Women Talking reimagines the rape plot

Cinematic narratives of sexual assault are so often formulaic, clichéd and depressing. Sarah Polley’s film asks: what if there was another way?

By Megan Gibson

How many rapes has the average woman seen on screen in her life? It’s a grim mental exercise – because there is an abundance of gratuitous sexual violence in cinema. Even movies that aren’t about violence against women have a nasty habit of casually using sexual assault to titillate or as a lazy shortcut to provide a character with backstory or depth.

Women Talking is a film about rape. The movie, adapted by the Canadian director Sarah Polley from Miriam Toews’s 2018 novel, begins after a handful of rapists have been caught preying on the women and girls in their remote, patriarchal Mennonite community. The women had been assaulted night after night, after being drugged with a cow tranquiliser. When one perpetrator was caught creeping through a girl’s window, bovine spray in hand, he ratted out his accomplices and they were all sent to the city’s jail “for their safety”.

As the film opens, the other men in the colony have gone to bail them out, instructing the women that they must forgive the rapists or risk damnation. In the men’s absence, the women vote about what to do: stay and do nothing; stay and fight; or leave. The majority is split between two options: stay and fight, and leave. So the female members of three of the community’s families are chosen to talk over their options and reach a conclusion about how to move forward.

But while the shadow of sexual violence hangs over every moment of the film, it is never depicted on screen. As a result of the tranquiliser, the women have no direct memories of the assaults. That’s not to say Women Talking shies away from the brutality of the acts: we see black and blue thighs; blood-soaked sheets; broken teeth spit from a bloodied mouth; a swollen pregnant belly; a four-year-old whimpering in pain after being infected with a sexually transmitted disease.

Though audiences might be used to seeing sexual violence in films, we are not accustomed to it being followed by any sort of hopeful ending. In fact, cinema typically only allows its rape victims two possible fates. In the first, the woman or girl (though it is occasionally a man) is destroyed by the violence. Her attacker murders her, or brutalises her so thoroughly she never recovers. This is the case in Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (1960) and 2002’s brutal Irréversible, which is told in reverse chronology and ends with the tagline “time destroys all things”. Alternatively in this scenario, the woman may survive the assault itself, but is so traumatised she later dies by suicide, as in Promising Young Woman (2020).

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Then there is the second cinematic fate: the rape revenge fantasy. The woman survives and seeks revenge, tracking down her attacker in order to torture and kill him (and, occasionally, other predatory men). This pervasive plotline varies hugely in style and tone. There’s the Nordic-noir-turned-sleek-Hollywood-blockbuster The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) in which Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) sexually assaults her own rapist; 2003’s Monster, where the murderer Aileen Wuornos (portrayed by Charlize Theron) goes on a killing spree after being raped; 2007’s horror-comedy Teeth, in which a date-rape victim’s vagina transforms into a literal weapon; or any number of exploitation thrillers released in the 1970s and 1980s such as Ms .45 or the despicable I Spit on Your Grave franchise. (The Virgin Spring, Irréversible and Promising Young Woman could also fit into this genre in different ways.)

[See also: BBC One’s “The Gold” is outstandingly enjoyable TV]

These revenge endings are meant to offer a sort of catharsis, and even provide some semblance of justice in a world where perpetrators of sexual violence are rarely prosecuted. (The 1988 film The Accused, for which Jodie Foster won her first Oscar for her performance as a working-class woman gang-raped in a bar, is a prominent exception. The film ends with not only her rapists, but the witnesses who cheered them on, in jail. But with just 1.3 per cent of reported rape cases resulting in charges in the UK, it’s little wonder that the film’s ending has been described as “pure Pollyannaism”.)

But how satisfying is the revenge narrative really? It might feel justified, but it is rarely liberating. Most often the acts of revenge are depicted as corrosive, the women sinking to depravity that’s perhaps as obliterating to their sense of self as the original act of violence. They may be avenging vigilantes, but they also become monsters. It is hardly a happy ending.

It’s surprising – and more than a little depressing – that different endings to these stories are so rare. What does this say about our cultural imagination? According to Hollywood, there are any number of cruelly inventive ways one can be raped. But it seems there are really only two possible paths post-assault: death or destruction.

Women Talking asks: what if there was another way? The movie reminds the audience that death and destruction are available options: a voiceover describes how one woman in the colony hanged herself after the assaults, unable to put one foot in front of the other any longer. Later another woman, Salome (played with incandescent rage by Claire Foy), who attacked one of the men after learning he raped her small daughter, admits that she will “become a murderer” if they stay. Because of their pacifist faith, the women acknowledge that this would be a fate worse than death.

As they weigh up their choices – stay and fight, or leave – it becomes increasingly clear that for them, there is only one option. Ona (Rooney Mara), pregnant with her rapist’s baby, is the most persuasive voice in convincing the women that they need to not just ensure their safety, but create “a new reality”; one where equality, pacifism and democracy are sacrosanct and form “a new religion, taken from the old but focused on love”. They will create, in other words, utopia.

Unlike dystopias, true utopias aren’t often depicted in films. They do, however, have a rich literary history. Feminist utopias – in which women live together, without men, in thriving, harmonious societies – have featured in literature for centuries, with roots as far back as Christine de Pizan’s The Book of the City of Ladies (1405). Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel Herland reportedly provided the inspiration for Wonder Woman 1984’s island without men, a notable cinematic exception.

How to explain utopian absence from film? It could be that utopias, feminist or otherwise, have in our cultural language become synonymous with delusion, an impossible and naive goal. Perhaps the hurdles to the suspension of disbelief are too great. Women Talking recognises this: at one point, after urging everyone to imagine the possibilities of a better world, Ona is dismissively called a “dreamer”. “We are women without a voice,” she replies. “All we have is our dreams.”

It’s true that Women Talking’s conclusion is as much a fantasy as any rape revenge story. But at least it breaks free of the bleak narratives that have boxed in cinema’s rape victims over and over again. At the very least, it’s something we haven’t seen before.

This article was originally published on 13 February 2023.

[See also: It’s time to admit that “Pulp Fiction” is a bad film]

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