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Category: Art and Entertainment, Violence against Women

Reflections on the Observe and Report Date-Rape Controversy

| April 27, 2009

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Just in time for Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month, a comedy provokes argument—if not box office success.

Rarely does a film incite responses as diametrically opposed as the new "dark comedy" starring Seth Rogen and Anna Faris, Observe and Report.  The controversy stems from a date-rape scene included provocatively in the trailer, which exposed a cultural nerve and got the film noticed, to say the least.

Despite the old adage of all press is good press, the controversy looks like it might have had a negative affect on the box office in this instance. Recent Seth Rogen comedies have done well, including last summer's Pineapple Express, which opened at $23 million, and 2007's Superbad and Knocked Up, opening at $33 million and $30 million respectively.  But Observe and Report, which got mixed and polarizing reviews, opened at just $11 million and decreased 62 percent in its second weekend.

The week of the film's opening, which ironically occurred in April during Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month, the femisphere (feminist blogosphere) erupted with reports about the scene. It shows the Anna Faris character Brandi—passed out and clearly intoxicated with vomit drooling from her mouth—being raped by the Seth Rogen character Ronnie.  The film attempts to mitigate the rape charge by having Faris revive at an opportune moment to blurt out "Why are you stopping, Motherf***er?"

That scene alone caused many women to decide not to see the film and also to alert others to this issue (myself included.)  The boldness of including it in the trailer couldn’t help but provoke responses, especially from women who've been sexually assaulted.  Marcella Chester who blogs at abyss2hope.com said: "Those who deny that the rape scene in Observe and Report was rape will of course view the rest of the movie differently and will not understand why everyone else will not feel the same way about the entire movie."

But the lead actors and director all acknowledge that the scene is date rape. In an interview with the Washington City Paper, Rogen acknowledged the difficulty of the scene: "You can literally feel the audience thinking, like, how the [expletive] are they going to make this OK? Like what can possibly be said or done that I'm not going to walk out of the movie theater in the next 30 seconds? And then she says, like the one thing that makes it all OK."  Faris from an A.V. Club interview: "[I thought] ‘this is a studio movie, so this is all gonna be softened up. It’s a comedy, right?’ So when we were shooting it, even the date-rape scene—or as I refer to it, ‘The Tender Love-Making Scene’—I just thought, ‘We’ll shoot it, but it’s not gonna be in the movie. I don’t have to worry about that one.’ And yet there it is."  And from director Jody Hill to Wired.com: "We definitely wanted to make something that was like provocative and weird and kinda dangerous."

Of course rape is a common plot device in films.  We've seen it used many times in dramas, including now classics Thelma and Louise and The Accused.  But is rape—especially date rape with alcohol, tequila and pills thrown in—legitimate fodder for comedy?  To me, that's the crux of the controversy.  The fact that this conversation happened and that it jumped from the femisphere to the main stream is a good thing, because rape is an epidemic.  Every two minutes a person is sexually assaulted.  Eighty percent of those raped are under 30.  Sixty percent of sexual assaults are not reported. 73 percent know their assailants.  Those stats are not very funny.

The questions the movie raises are difficult ones. Is Brandi complicit because she's drunk?  In today’s "girls gone wild" atmosphere the line is even blurrier. Pilgrim Soul, who in her blog at The Pursuit of Harpyness worked hard to get people not to see the film, explains why she thinks it touched a nerve: "Much of the vitriol comes from the fact that young men are extremely afraid of being called rapists. Obviously, the stigma attached to being a rapist is very high.  That being the case, young men are verrrry invested in scrambling out from under the term by whatever means are available to them. So when they see a figure whom they idolize and identify with—here Seth Rogen rather than the character—being called a rapist, they overreact, somewhat." 

This controversy illuminates the power of movies to create and fuel cultural conversations both positive and the negative. Courtney Martin from Feministing saw both sides. But she gave the film a "Friday feminist F**k you" in a vlog saying she was "initially excited that there was a very public, national conversation about the definition of consensual sex."  But she adds: "In the end, I don't think the momentary discussion about rape could have possibly outlasted the ugly influence that scene will have on young women, and especially young men, for years to come."

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