The treatment of women in Hollywood on set has been increasingly scrutinised in recent years, and as we are in the midst of campaigning as part of the 16 Days of Activism to end gender-based violence, there are claims that the notorious rape scene in the film ‘Last Tango in Paris’ was shot without consent of the actress, raising important questions over the way in which rape is portrayed in film.
A number of issues arise when discussing the portrayal of rape in popular culture and more specifically, film. It is a difficult topic to approach and the discussion is surrounded with controversy. Whilst its portrayal is often clumsy and fails to show much sensitivity, I do not believe the solution is completely eliminating the presence of rape in film. Rather, we should be asking the right questions when considering its representation. Firstly, how is it depicted; does it solidify the already present misogynistic images in society, or can it be used as an important tool to raise awareness of the realities of rape? Secondly, how much support are the actors and actresses involved given throughout the process of filming? Maria Schneider states that in the ‘Last Tango in Paris’ she was given no support or consolation immediately after the rape scene was shot. Something, that perhaps, if provided at the time, may have prevented Schneider’s later struggles with drug addiction and depression. The worldwide attention the film brought to Schneider, and the way in which she was treated by those involved with the film and society, arguably led to her eventual breakdown. Bertolucci, the Director, when justifying why he failed to tell her the full extent of how the scene would be shot stated that he ‘wanted her reaction as a girl, not an actress and he wanted her to react humiliated’. This demonstrates how, on occasion, the integrity and consent of actresses may have been sacrificed in order to shoot the most realistic scene. At the time of filming, they lived in a world where men could treat women in such a way in the name of art. Although the situation is not the same now, the healing process and inner struggle that is experienced by women after rape both onscreen and off screen is still frequently absent from the film world. For films to be revolutionary in the way that they represent gender-based violence, they need to fully address this process and provide extensive support and care to the people involved in the filming.
Another way in which cinema could be more progressive and sensitive in the way in which it portrays rape is to move further away from the myths about rape that films often perpetuate, which further consolidates inaccurate perceptions that are widespread in society. One example of this is is the frequent use of women as narrative objects designed to serve the story of male characters. Rape is often used in film to define the male character as either a ‘villain’ or a ‘hero’. In a ‘Last Tango in Paris’, the leading male role deals with the trauma of his wife’s suicide by emotionally and physically dominating a much younger woman; Schneider is essentially a prop for male catharsis. The film is about male tragedy, and to successfully present this to the film’s audience, a young girl is exploited. Schneider brought these disturbing facts to the public’s attention nearly a decade ago, but the claims are only now receiving serious backlash. Schneider was unfortunately one of the many women who felt abused throughout the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Only last month Tippi Hedren spoke out about the sexual abuse she endured from Alfred Hitchcock when she starred in his films ‘The Birds’ and ‘Marnie’.
The fact that ‘Last Tango in Paris’ continues to receive praise and critical accreditation suggests that Hollywood has a long way to go in combatting gender-based violence in film. Both in terms of its portrayal and in the support that is provided to the actors and actresses involved. However, the fact that this story has received a lot of attention demonstrates that it is an issue that is being taken more seriously than a decade ago, when Schneider’s claims were largely ignored, and we should act on the momentum that has been created to further the campaign end gender-based violence in film.
Holly Watt is an Associate of the Centre of Diplomacy, Statecraft and International Security at LCILP. She holds a Bachelor of Laws in European Law from Maastricht University. Her research interests include international law, human rights and the use of law in combatting climate change.