tw: rape, sexual assault
In parts one and two of this series, I combined feminist aesthetics and metaphysics to look at how feminine passivity is sexualised in different art forms (from cinema to high art) in a way which draws parallels to pornography and ultimately affects feminine subjectivity.
In part three, I examine Talk to Her (2002) as a case study which complicates feminist aesthetics and sexualises female passivity.
There is a key distinction between objectifying artwork that sexualises female passivity, and work which displays sexist tropes to explain the psychologically and physically damaging effects of subjugation. This difference lies in the creator’s intentions and the message one receives after engagement with the work.
Pedro Almodóvar’s film Talk to Her (2002), originally Hable con ella, seems to encourage the former. It operates on the plot of rape, parading female nudity decoratively only to leave viewers with an emphasis on the power of male friendship and a message of moral complexity. Although, aesthetically, the film may be miles away from similar narratives such as Brimstone and Treacle, it delivers the less sinister but perhaps even more dangerous notion that rape can be dismissed if accompanied by a narrative of “ravishing romantic obsession, loneliness and friendship” (Talk To Her 2002).
Although the plot hinges on the vegetative states of Alicia and Lydia (two women in comas), the narrative primarily centres around their male partners, who talk to the women’s bodies in a way they were unable to when they had still been conscious. Benigno, the male nurse, almost obsessively tends to Alicia’s body. This eventually leads to an unseen rape, implied through a cut to a short erotic film. However, the narrative doesn’t focus on the rape or the events following her awakening.
Alicia’s compliant body is almost more sexualised in its passive state than in her physical life. Her parted lips and permanently sealed eyes convey a naked vulnerability, which is complimented by the ‘gracefully languid’ (Freeland 2008:76) arm gently laid beside her head. Her ‘odalisque-like’ (Freeland 2008:76) pose seems intended for Marco and the spectator’s admiration in ways that draw parallels to classical female nudes, such as Giorgione’s The Sleeping Venus and The Sleeping Ariadne. As they have their breasts exposed, their erogenous zones are foregrounded. All three representations follow the tradition of eroticising a woman’s lack of autonomy rather than seeing her as an entire person (Eaton 2012:11).
These passive representations align with gendered stereotypes of beauty, delicacy and grace which invite the men to gaze with lust or adoration at their nudity. The idealisation of the passive feminine figures is achieved through the affective qualities, such as the camera angles and composition. Women are encouraged to adopt the male gaze towards these characters and accept these constructions of the passive body as an ideal. Therefore, a cognitive engagement with both the film and artworks could lead women to apply these same conditions for beauty when appraising themselves.
Completely nude male sculptures from classical antiquity, such as The Discus Thrower (460-450 BC), while physically exposed, stand upright with an aggressive demeanour and often perform physical tasks because an element of the masculine ideal was linked to the presentation of motion. This juxtaposition between male and female representations of bodies in fine art also parallels Talk to Her. In one brief scene, the camera zooms into a swimming man’s back and buttocks but refuses to pan over him in the same detail and focuses on the act of swimming instead.
When aesthetically presented, male nudity is often accompanied by actions inseparable from their subjective identity, whereas female nudity is passive and almost always presented in relation to the male senses: touch and sight. The scene’s almost immediate juxtaposition to Lydia’s failed bullfighting scene creates a subconscious internalisation of this man’s successful completion of his physical task, which contrasts from her own weakness.
The female body gains aesthetic value in relation to its vulnerability. When Alicia wakes up, the lens moves away from her character and focuses on the male protagonists instead. Benigno even views the rain symbolically as a “good sign” because Alicia’s accident happened amidst rain, suggesting that the physical catastrophe which led to her passivity was a blessing (like her pregnancy). When she is awake, dialogue regarding her circumstance is limited until Marco sees her as a potential sexual object. She therefore loses both relevance and screen time as a character compared to the attention her naked body consistently occupies.
The scenes between the men are emotionally charged and fuelled with tears, tenderness and the speech absent from the hetero-romantic scenes earlier on- these are contrastingly led by the act of looking. By combining both spectacle and narrative, the feminine visual presence freezes the flow of action in pleasurable moments of erotic contemplation, creating an alien presence that is integrated into cohesion with the narrative. The plot focuses on the central male characters while the women’s appearance is coded with a strong visual end erotic impact that provokes a gaze directed at her body, further establishing a dichotomy of the active male and passive female (Mulvey 1975:838).
The woman’s body becomes an aesthetic device when Alicia is in her most vulnerable state, erotically caressed by hands and eyes; even after Marco is heartbroken, the scene follows his gaze to Alicia’s breasts through a half open door. Directly preceding the rape, the lens focuses on Alicia’s parted lips while Benigno removes her bra, before the scene cuts to the black and white film. The scene is interrupted again by another close-up of her breasts, before the miniature male figure in the short film climbs into a plastic reconstruction of what resembles female genitalia.
This symbolically simulates non-consensual intercourse between both the silent film actors as well as Benigno and Alicia’s comatose body. The giant woman is suggested to reach climax despite being asleep and unaware, and the film cuts to Alicia’s face while the words ‘and he stays inside her forever’ appear. The man’s miniature size and the allusion to female pleasure diminishes the audience’s awareness of what happened, despite its confirmation soon afterwards. The juxtaposition between the obvious lack of consent and the idea of enjoyment, and even aesthetic beauty, disguises the reality of the rape, especially as the parallelism with the silent film involves a genuine couple who enact a ‘soothing visual metaphor accompanied by romantic music’ (Eaton 2008:17). By displacing a physical rape with an almost ‘pleasant’ scene, Almodovar prevents the spectator from confronting their feelings towards the rape. Instead, one is enabled to continue sympathising with Benigno.
When subjects are incapable of understanding an important aspect of their social experience, such as suffering from sexual harassment in a culture where there is a hermeneutical lacuna about the concept, it is difficult to convey or understand an experience (Brady 2009:382). Therefore, by excluding the full scope of knowledge about the rape, there is a hermeneutical injustice which prevents the ability to correct attitudes or judgements regarding rape, such as victim shaming or trivialising. According to Miranda Fricker’s concept of epistemic justice, the film’s omission of the
rape commits an injustice (in the hermeneutical sense).
Without certain concepts, people can’t recognise the injustices they experience because they can’t name them (Brady 2009:382). Rape in marriage was legal and not recognised as assault until 1991 because there needed to be concepts of female rights and injustices before the laws could change. Therefore, the omission of the rape scene’s reality prevents discussion around the topic and denies viewers the ability to fully recognise the weight of the experience on Alicia. Concepts need to be in place before society or the law can change, an aspect which omission can damage. The film’s denial of scenes such as a court-case or Alicia’s physical recovery, which would have changed our relationship to Benigno, cinematically manipulates the spectator who can more easily accept the ‘beauty’ of Alicia’s passivity.
Almodovar rejects the ethicist concept that good art can be marred by omitting a forced, violent intercourse between an obsessed stalker and his unconscious victim. One might argue that feminist interpretations of this film limit its aesthetic value because including a rape scene would allow spectator’s to easily dismiss the complexity of Benigno’s character. Freeland argues that Benigno’s attempt to see Lydia as a person by talking to her suggests that the film encourages the audience to realise that their ‘mistake’ in liking and trusting Benigno makes them realise the importance of ‘interpreting’ as well as ‘listening’ to women (2008:71).
As ‘Benigno’ is Spanish for ‘benign’, he is intentionally meant to allude feelings of affection, warmth and benevolence that complicate how the viewer responds to his morally repulsive actions. Alicia’s unconscious state, while problematic, allows Almodovar to explore the possibilities and difficulties of non-verbal communication (Wilson 2008:49) through Benigno’s physical contact with her. Arguably, Alicia’s unconscious state during the rape, while especially intrusive in its helplessness, at least lacks some disturbing characteristics of rape such as humiliation and force (Wilson 2008:62) in order to decrease our revulsion towards Benigno. Arguably, by providing this moral complexity, Almodovar allows us to think for ourselves rather than dictating a clear ethical message.
Perhaps, there is something active in our internalising of the situation, similar to other controversial art such as Nabokov’s Lolita, which offers the audience to observe without the prejudice of strict moral judgements. If the spectator sees the rape, they won’t be able to get past it and realise the richness of Benigno’s character. Therefore, showing the rape scene could perhaps be reductive for the film’s ability to encourage reflection on our moral thinking. Arguably, the omission can help us understand that one cannot reduce a person to an action and that, in this cinematic world, virtue is compatible with vice. Although the rape’s cruciality to the narrative structure is disturbing and the intention to complicate our moral reaction to it is challenging, the film is not merely a patriarchal example of women’s bodies used to encourage the spectator’s eroticising gaze.
However, although Marco doesn’t possess Benigno’s delusions, he was also in a position to see the warning signs of her rape and this element of complicity goes unnoticed by the film. Both men harbour a similar responsive relationship to the women in their lives because they show a level of care but don’t actually hear or listen to them: they prefer to talk at their bodies, rather than with them. The doubling between the male characters suggests that what might connect them is their compassion, a deeper connection that casts a light on Marco’s role. Yet this message ultimately detracts from the women characters as active, thinking entities.
Remorse is absent from either of the men and very little attention is paid to Alicia after she emerges away from Benigno’s fantasy of her. In fact, the rape functions as a catalyst for her survival and, thus, acts as a ‘miracle’ which returns her personhood in the film’s cinematic reality but not in its script. While there is a sense in which Alicia’s body is treated as a person by Benigno when she is in a coma, he ultimately fails in treating her as more than an erotic fantasy which hinges on her passivity.
Both men fail to listen to the women in their lives, since even Marco asserts himself as Lydia’s boyfriend because he hasn’t realised that her relationship is not what he took it to be. When he talks to her, his speech sounds almost like a long monologue voice over, lacking eye contact, and he decides what she wants for her, rather than waiting to find out. The aesthetic productions within the film, such as ballet and bullfighting, are perhaps an attempt to superficially subvert male dominance on the surface. Yet, these elements of subversion are not enough to counteract the objectifying message. The film is an example of how difficult it is to escape the eroticisation of the passive female body and the spectator’s complicity in this objectification. These stage performances and the use of ballet conveys the idea that it is not merely looking at bodies which is the issue but denying them an equal space to explore their owner’s inner world. Spectatorship is not necessarily objectifying or dangerous in itself, but it is only when bodies are treated merely as decorative means to masculine desire that women are encouraged to treat their own bodies this way.
Although Almodóvar seeks to show how ethical defects can enhance art, there are nuances which he seems to overlook that do not make the film a better philosophical artwork, but actively encourage the male gaze by romanticising the control of passive female bodies. The camera’s attention to the female body and the focus on the emotional dimension of the male relationship creates a silencing effect on the female characters because even when the women are ‘talked to’, their superficial characteristics are a large focus of the lens. Although the film still has aesthetic and philosophical value, its objectifying dimension contributes to how women see themselves and prevents them from recognising injustice.
The lack of epistemic justice and the absence of the rape prevents a condemnatory view of objectification and allows the manipulation of the audience’s perceptions. Therefore, the film follows the traditions of the classic female nude by depicting feminine passivity as something which is not only sexualised, but even beautiful.
Brady, M. (2009) Book Review. Analysis. 69(2): 380–382.
Berger, J., Blomberg, S., Fox, C., Dibb, M. & Hollis, R. (1972) Ways of Seeing. Penguin: London: 51.
Eaton, A.W. (2008) Talk to Her. Routledge:Oxon.
Wilson, G. (2008) Rapport, rupture and rape: reflections on Talk to Her. In: Eaton, A.W. eds. Talk to Her. Oxon: Routledge: 46-64.
Freeland, C. (2008) Nothing is Simple. In: Eaton, A.W. eds. Talk to Her. Oxon: Routledge: 71-76.
Eaton, A.W. (2008) Almodovar’s Immoralism. In: Eaton, A.W. eds. Talk to Her. Oxon: Routledge: 12-18.
Talk to Her (Hable Con Ella). (2002). Spain: Pedro Almodóvar.