Rewatching Year of the Carnivore: Laughing at Rape

Content note on this post for discussion of rape.

I don’t remember the details of what I thought when I watched Year of the Carnivore the first time, a few years ago. I remember that I liked it. I watched it with some of my favourite people, and I love movies about women exploring their sexuality, and I love awkward quirky characters, and I love Sook Yin Lee. I remember really enjoying the film.

So when I wanted to host a “feel-good sexy awesome mini film marathon” I put Shortbus and Year of the Carnivore in the line-up. Because sex! Awesome, sex-positive, empowering sex, right?

No.

Wrong.

I refer to myself as a pleasure-positive feminist rather than a sex-positive feminist, because I think there are problems with the sex-positive movement that I want to avoid. (Note to sex-positive folks – I do not think these problems are endemic to the movement itself, but the focus on pleasure is something that feels right for me.) I like pleasure-positive because I feel that it brings consent explicitly into the picture right from the beginning. Because I do not believe that all sex is good sex (that’s not what sex-positivity is, of course) and I think that negotiations that focus on *pleasure* for all partners are really valuable. Anyway, all that to say – I think about consent. A lot.

I try to behave in ways that are consent-focused.

Consent, consent, consent, consent. It’s one of the most important things in my life!

And yet…

Partway through Year of the Carnivore I thought, and said, something along the lines of “yikes, that’s coercive.” And then I said similar things many more times. I called what was happening on screen coercion, or non-consent. It wasn’t until hours later that I named it what it was – rape. And the word felt violent in my mouth and my experience of the movie was suddenly, irrevocably altered, and I want to unpack, if I can, why that word didn’t come easily as a descriptor, and why that’s a problem, and what I’ve internalized that allows me to view multiple rapes in a film and still laugh at it, and enjoy it, and not see it for what it is until hours later.

First, the things I love(d?).

The character of Sammy Smalls is, as so many reviews point out, adorable. She’s awkward. She’s quirky. She’s disabled and self-conscious about her body, and it’s so rare to see a disabled character in a leading role! She wears multiple layers of jeans to “give [herself] some shape” and the first time she has a bath with Eugene, she doesn’t take her undershirt or bra off. I see myself in Sammy Smalls, and I see the parts of me that I like. The toughness and vulnerability, the awkwardness, the thirst for connection, the curiousity, the inquisitiveness, the sense of restriction and self-doubt and negative self-talk and the awkwardness. Oh, the awkwardness.

And she has lots of sex! And the film doesn’t shame her for it. And I love that. I love it. I want more films that show disabled women having lots of sex and not being shamed for it. Fuck, do I ever want that.

I love other things, too. I love the way that queerness is introduced in such a casual fashion. I love Sammy’s relationship with Miss Nakamura, and I love that there is an elderly woman who still has a sex drive.

But a significant amount of the sex that Sammy has is rape. She is a store detective, and she starts taking men that she catches shoplifting into the woods, handcuffing them, and having sex with them. It’s rape. It’s not some grey-area, fuzzy, “lack of consent” (and wow, am I ever going to be watching my language from now on, because I had not realized how deeply problematic that phrase is when it comes to discussing rape, with the way it moves the focus onto the victim and their lack of consent and away from the rapist and their act of violence). It’s rape.

I realized it when I was thinking about the film and flipped the script.

I imagined a film where a man takes shoplifters into the woods, handcuffs them, and has sex with them. That’s fucking rape. Multiple scenes of rape. She is a serial rapist.

The realization makes me feel sick.

But she’s a girl. She’s small. She’s got a “bum leg.” She’s quirky. She’s adorable. She can’t be a rapist, right?

And her victims are men. Generally large men. And they have sex with her, so they must have wanted it, right? Can’t be rape.

Because men can’t be raped.

Because somewhere in my mind, that disgusting, insidious bit of rape culture had embedded itself so deeply and so securely that I did not recognize rape when I saw it on screen. In my house. With my friends. In a space and with a group of people that bring the consent-focused feminist to the fore. I didn’t see it.

I laughed at it.

Out loud.

I commented in horror at her lack of condom use.

Victims of women rapists face this kind of erasure all the time. I know, because I post articles about it. I know, because I have friends who are survivors. I know, because I am a consent-focused, pleasure-positive feminist activist, and it is my job to know.

But I laughed.

Like Kate points out over on Autostraddle regarding Orange is the New Black, “That material was carefully crafted for you to laugh at it. The show is designed in order for you to find it funny.” It’s true of the coercion and rape in OITNB and it’s true here, and in both cases, it is so important that we simultaneously forgive ourselves for laughing, and think critically about it going forward.

I found a gross bit of rape culture in my mind today, and although I can’t do anything about the fact that I didn’t realize it was there before, I am sure as shit going to be aware of it going forward. We laugh at these representations of rape because they’re scripted to be funny, because we’re conditioned to view women as victims rather than perpetrators, because consent is the exception when it comes to media representations of sexual interaction. All those reasons are real, and valid, and impossible to avoid. And they cannot be excuses for contributing to rape culture by refusing to see it once you know it’s there. They can’t be excuses for perpetuating the harm.

I still love Year of the Carnivore. I consume problematic media all the time, and I’m okay with that. But I will never talk about this film again without talking about the fact that it is the story of a serial rapist. A likeable, relatable, adorable rapist. The film doesn’t represent her as a rapist and I doubt she sees herself as a rapist, and I doubt her victims view what happened as rape either. And that doesn’t change the fact that that’s what it is.

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