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.

Project revision, introduction – progress at last!

I’ve proposed a significant revision to my honours project. This is what I sent to my supervisor:

Title: Feminisms in Bed Together: Feminist Pornography and Feminist Responses to Pornography (or something similar)

Introduction: Lay out the structure of the project, including why the films were chosen and why they are relevant to a discussion of feminist pornography in conversation with feminist responses to pornography. Introduce Nostalgia in brief detail so that it can be tied to the lit review.

Lit review: Significant focus on feminist responses to pornography, moving through MacKinnon/Dworkin/Morgan extreme anti-porn stance, through anti-censorship feminist responses to this stance, through later pro-porn feminist writing. I want to address feminist writing (or lack, in the case of consent!) about the tropes I’m focused on, also, to tie into the analysis: coercion/consent, passivity/agency, homogeneity/diversity, and objectification. Rather than having a fifth focus on filmic elements and the voyeuristic camera, I am going to include this in the discussion of my four tropes (ie – how does the camera/posing/lighting/etc contribute to or subvert these tropes; how does the feminist pornographer respond to feminist critiques in their use of the film?) I think that this structure for the lit review will allow me to cover the necessary ground and still tie the review quite tightly to the analysis, which will be the second half of the project.

Analysis: Courtney Trouble’s “Nostalgia” and the four scenes that she has remade. This will tie better to the lit review because the four original scenes are from the Golden Age of porn and are representative of what the first wave of anti-porn feminists were arguing against, while Trouble herself comes out of the third wave pro-porn feminist movement. The choice of title seems like a good point of analysis (are we really nostalgic for those times??) and the way that she chooses to queer and reimagine the iconic scenes also seems like it can neatly tie into the lit review’s focus on film theory and on-going feminist writing about the tropes I’m focusing on.

What this cuts out of my project is any focus on the Feminist Porn Awards (I will mention them, of course, but they will no longer be a significant part of the analysis), and it cuts out a significant number of films since I will not be including the full films being remade by Trouble. (I will do her full film, and the four scenes from the golden age films.) This cuts the total analysis from 4 full films (approx. 25-30 scenes, not including transition scenes) to 1 film and 4 scenes (8 scenes total, not including the transition scenes in Nostalgia). The four films included in Trouble’s remake are Behind the Green Door, The Devil in Miss Jones, Babylon Pink and Deep Throat.

This seems more manageable and more cohesive. What do you think?

I haven’t heard back yet.

I have conflicted feelings about this proposed change. On the one hand I really do think that this will be a more manageable project. On the other hand, it is so far removed from the project I had originally wanted to do, the one that I was working on this summer when I was getting to excited about Whores and Other Feminists and writings like it… *sigh*

Making the lit review a full half of my project limits the project so drastically. I won’t be able to do anything more than a sliver of what I had hoped for the project, and the bulk of the work will be reviewing other people’s work rather than doing my own original work. I suspect that this means my chances of turning this into something publishable are much more slim. But it will give me a really solid grounding for doing future work, which may be publishable. So, there’s that. And focusing on a single film means that I can do a lot more scene-by-scene close-readings, which is good because it’ll give me a grounding in how feminist film theory intersects with my interests in representations of gender and sexuality.

It sucks to be throwing out a huge amount of work for the second time in one project (a more generous interpretation would be that I am just putting aside the work). And it’s good work! It’s award-winning work! But I really don’t think it can fit into this new structure without being wedged in awkwardly and ineffectively.

So. Hopefully my supervisor will approve the change. Despite my (extremely) mixed feelings, I do think that this will not only be a more doable project, but the end result will be more smooth and fully integrated. Less awesome… but better than the alternative. And given how far behind I am in every single class, I think doable trumps awesome (just this once. Or maybe for the rest of this year.)

And in my London term paper, progress! It’s not much, but it’s not nothing. I finally have some actual writing done for my London paper:

Time Tables for Ghost Trains: Techno-Temporal Hauntings in

Iain Sinclair’s Downriver and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere

            As the character Door says “[t]here are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber” (Gaiman 228). I will argue that these “pockets” contain not only “things and places” but also people and the echoes of their actions and thoughts. These haunted pockets are present not only in the London of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere but also in the similarly spectral London of Iain Sinclair’s Downriver. Both novels continue the Gothic tradition of “play[ing] with chronology, looking back to moments in an imaginary history” (Bruhm 259). But where the ghosts of classic Gothic were tied to architectural structures (CITE), the ghosts of Gaiman and Sinclair’s contemporary Gothic are detached from architectural place and travel by technological train, representing the deregulation of time (Sinclair 3484) brought in with the railways. This paper will explore two specific techno-temporal railway hauntings, one from each novel: Edith Cadiz/Mary Butts haunting the train in Chapter 6 of Downriver, and Richard Mayhew being haunted by figures from his past on the train platform in Chapter 12 of Neverwhere. These scenes will be examined as representations of contemporary Gothic texts, and will be compared to determine how each engages in “historical excavations that self-reflexively incorporate knowledge of the Gothic genre itself” (Luckhurst 529). I will demonstrate that the focus on trains and railways marks a new psychogeography, one in which charted space is fluid, disconnected from immovable castles and architectural structures, the “mirrored glass and cantilevered concrete” (Luckhurst 531) of stationary London, and also that the railways represent a reiteration of one of the “original impetuses of the Gothic: fears of reversion to arbitrary and oppressive rule” (Luckhurst 537), here represented by the merciless rule of railway time and time tables.

Works Cited

Bruhm, Steven. “The Contemporary Gothic: Why We Need It.” The Cambridge Companion to Gothic Fiction. Ed. Jerrold E. Hogle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Web. Kindle book.

Gaiman, Neil. Neverwhere. 1996. New York: HarperCollins e-books, 2008. Web. Kindle book.

Luckhurst, Roger. “The Contemporary London Gothic and the Limits of the ‘Spectral Turn’.” Textual Practice 16.3 (2002): 527-546. Web. TandFonline.com. 24 Oct. 2012.

Sinclair, Iain. Downriver. 1991. London: Penguin Books, 2004. Web. Kindle book.

It needs work (“technological trains”? derp) but it’s a start. And I think it gives me a decent structure for the final essay. Start with a discussion of the role of ghosts and hauntings in Gothic writing, and how these hauntings often point to social anxieties, move into a discussion of psychogeography and how the trains expand that idea, then a discussion of the importance of architecture in the Gothic genre and how the trains might indicate a shift happening within contemporary Gothic away from classic Gothic tropes (I still need to flesh this research out), and finish with the “oppressive rule” which I will expand from the trains to technology in general and tie back into the idea of social anxieties. It’s not the mindblowingly awesome paper I wanted to write, but I need to just get it finished, and today (for the first time in months) I was actually able to write something that has some value. Woot.

“How to Complete a Project” talk

Yesterday in my honours class we had a guest speaker on the topic of “completing projects.” The talk wandered far from its original topic but it was hugely helpful. I’m going to summarize it here, with how it’s going to change the direction/execution of my honours project.

The first topic was completing projects. The basic gist of it was that whatever works for you is what you should do, and you should do it consistently. This is one area where I’m stumbling right now – things that used to work for me no longer do. I can’t sit for an extended period of time and crank out usable work. I’m easily distracted (I often think of myself as a very bad date – wandering off in the middle of a sentence to check my phone or drift into facebook) and I haven’t ever had to learn how to keep myself focused because I’ve never had a problem staying focused before.

Our guest speaker also talked about finding the ways that we are good at not working and cutting those out. I’ve been experimenting with setting timers and only letting myself check facebook when they go off every couple hours. Part of the problem, I think, is that there is just so much on my to-do list and it all takes time. And keeping up with the sex-positive blogosphere is important to me, but I don’t have time for it anymore. I’m making time for it, but that time is cutting into my productivity in a serious way. I need to be honest about the ways that I’m avoiding work – it’s not just that my comprehension and focus is at less than half of what I’m used to, it’s also that when I get frustrated I just give up and don’t even look at my work for hours. I sink into blogs and articles instead. It’s a vicious cycle.

It is frustrating, especially, to realize how easy I’ve had it so far in my academic career. These issues of focus and being unable to pull my ideas together coherently on the first try… these are new issues. The recurrence of my mental health struggles is definitely not helping.

The next point that the speaker brought up was writing to the genre – recognizing that different papers will have different expectations placed on them. Our 40-page honours thesis has different expectations on it than a 40-page book chapter or journal article. We didn’t really get into the nitty gritty of what, exactly, the genre expectations for an honours thesis are. I gathered that it’s mostly up to our supervisors, and that we are writing to that very specific audience. I have my supervisor’s expectations of structure already clearly laid out for me, which is good. I can start writing into that framework, theoretically.

The speaker also talked about the importance of writing your intro first, even though many projects shift and change partway through. He said that this is because you need to know what you’re trying to accomplish, otherwise your project will sprawl all over the place – you need to set some limits and boundaries, knowing that you might break past them at some point. I’m going to try to take his advice there and write my introduction. I realize that at this point I do not have a clear idea of what I’m trying to do – introducing the comparison to mainstream film and introducing the idea of “feminist pornography responding to anti-porn feminism” has muddied the waters up considerably. I tried to write the beginnings of an introduction today and couldn’t get past the first sentence – I really have no idea what my goal is right now. This bit of advice was really good and relevant, and actionable.

He talked about killing the parts of our thesis that are not working – taking out the “Frankensteinian lumps.” I’m worried that one of those two additions will turn out to be a “lump” that needs to be removed. I think I’ll have a better sense of that once I’ve written the intro.

During his talk I was thinking about the long lit review that my supervisor is asking for. I realized that I haven’t engaged with the primary texts of anti-porn feminism. I haven’t reread any Dworkin or MacKinnon, partly because I dislike their writing so much. But I can’t write an honest and effective lit review if I don’t dig into those texts.

Here are some questions that I need to answer:

– Where are the areas of overlap between anti-porn feminism and feminist film theory? I see potential overlap in discussions of the male gaze, female agency in film, and violence in film (Gender, Genre and Excess seems like an immediate starting point.)

– How can I incorporate community emergent writing without straying too far from my limitation to keep the analysis focused on what’s performed on film? (ie: performer experiences are off-limits, but can I use performer writing about the finished product? I’m not sure.)

– How does it all fit together? Feminist film theory, anti-porn feminism, feminist pornography (!!!!)… What lens am I actually looking through? Am I examining feminist pornography using a feminist film theory lens, or am I examining feminist pornography through anti-porn feminist critiques? Something else? A hybrid? How can it be a hybrid without becoming biased against feminist pornography? Where are the theoretical writings that support feminist pornography or pornography in general? Where does the mainstream porn fit in? For the poster it provided a necessary foil – a highlight on the differences. But in this analysis, it seems like a strange (and lumpy?) intrusion. Yet, without it… how can I talk about the effectiveness of feminist pornography in providing an alternative, if I don’t demonstrate what it’s alternative to?

It seems to me that I am starting to move towards looking at the influence of anti-porn feminist critiques in both feminist and mainstream pornography. However, I do not like that project! I want the primary focus to be on feminist pornography, not on anti-porn feminism or on mainstream pornography. I also think that it’s a stretch, and that if I were going to actually do that specific analysis I would need to look at classic porn, the porn that made the critiques happen in the first place. And that’s way too much. Even what I have right now is probably too much!

This is a thought… A dangerous, impetuous thought…

What if I scrap my current films, all of them. I don’t analyze Fuckstyles or Asa Akira or any of the films I’ve picked so far.

What if I just do Nostalgia, Courtney Trouble’s queer reimagining of iconic porn scenes, and I compare it to the classic porn it’s remaking?

Yikes.

Anyway, I have to do a lot of the same reading at this point either way, so I’m just going to shelve that idea and keep working (as much as I can call what I do these days “working”).

Quick update

I have finished one chapter of James Loxley's Performativity and skimmed the second.

I also have a syllabus for the Feminist Film Theory course, and can start on readings.

This isn't much progress for a day, but I also had to work this morning, attended class, went for my half-hour walk and spent time with my sister and her kids. I wish that I could devote my time more completely to school but it is not possible. Bills must be paid, so work is not an option. And family is also important. My niece, the A-Bomb, is one of the most important people in my life.

I am still working on the parallel writing project for Dr. AS. This semester presents an intricate balancing act, with intense pressures from multiple sides – health issues taking up time and mental resources, family issues continuing to be time and energy-consuming, work a steady background buzz, activism growing ever more time-consuming as my groups grow and require tending through that growth, and school placing a heavy drain on all my resources. Last semester I was in the turmoil of grief and illness and I couldn't write about it even for myself, let alone for a project. This semester I am dealing with those same pressures but have a bit of emotional distance. I'm optimistic that I will be able to finally produce work for that final project, and using the blog to keep myself accountable and on-track with readings and assignments will be useful.