In 2014, I started my first screenplay out of anger. The Michigan Daily, my campus’ newspaper, had released a story on how the University of Michigan may have knowingly embedded an alleged rapist, Brendan Gibbons, while seeking to bolster our sports program. It took four years for Michigan to expel Gibbons for raping another student—two years after the release of the Dear Colleague Letter which directed universities to seriously investigate all instances of sexual violence, timing that correlated with the conclusion of Gibbon’s football career. It seemed judgment of his behavior had been delayed so that he could continue playing football for the university.
Michigan’s acting president, Mary Sue Coleman, denied such a tie between Gibbons’ athletic career and the lengthy timeline for responding to the sexual assault complaint. Coleman retired a few months later, just as the federal investigations into Michigan’s Title IX compliance with sexual assault claims clicked into gear. After years of delays employed by the university, the start of the investigations were followed by Michigan’s request to only review a partial amount of the complaints they had ignored.
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The Gibbons story was first covered by student reporters at the Daily, a journalistic accomplishment later profiled by The New York Times. Michigan joined hundreds of schools under investigation for widespread administrative mishandling of sexual assault complaints. A senior in Michigan’s screenwriting course at the time, I pitched the idea of retelling the Gibbons story through a fictional university’s investigation of a sexual assault on campus. As in the Gibbons case, students who are assaulted on campus attempt to seek immediate protections from their schools, and filing a report with administrators, like my character would do, becomes their only recourse for action against an assailant.
Rape and sexual assault are the least likely crimes to be filed with the police or to be prosecuted in court, and this number gets even smaller accounting for race, class, and assaults against queer and trans people. This trend seems to reflect the reality of entering the judicial system as a rape survivor. As Jon Krakauer argues in his book Missoula, which explores a college town’s handling of campus sexual assault cases,
“the U.S. legal system is organized as an adversarial contest: in civil cases, between two citizens; in criminal cases, between a citizen and the state. Physical violence and intimidation are not allowed in court, whereas aggressive argument, selective presentation of the facts, and psychological attack are permitted, with the presumption that this ritualized, hostile encounter offers the best method of arriving at the truth.”
Following an assault, survivors often grapple with self-blame, memory loss, severe anxiety, and presentations of PTSD akin to that of war veterans. Entering an antagonistic legal process may do more psychological harm than good to survivors.
So, I began writing through my questions as I outlined my script. What action would a character take who felt that the judicial system was not for them? And how would a fictional university meet or understand the need for managing predation within their walls?
For a student assaulted on a college campus, their academic institution—purportedly governed by the principles of Title IX to promote a safe and equitable environment—presents a possible refuge from the trauma of the legal system. But the campus proceedings too often mirror the criminal justice system’s flaws, and sanctions that don’t seem to be to scale, such as letters of apology written to survivors or “suspending” rapists from campus during summer break.
Universities, no strangers to capitalism, clearly value the experience of some of their students, and employees, more than others. This has motivated much of the conversation around the “best” application of Affirmative Action, and inspired the creation of Title IX protections to begin with.
Looking to the current the news cycle, I want to feel inspired. Plastering powerful men for serial predation is “selling.” People seem to be paying attention. But then I think of what Kate Harding wrote in her book on America’s rape culture, Asking For It: “When it comes to rape, if we’re expected to put ourselves in anyone else’s shoes at all, it’s the accused rapist’s,” especially when those rapists turn out to be colleagues or classmates, the “normal” people in our lives we don’t position in the common imagination of rape being a violence committed by a stranger in an alleyway late at night, not their corner office. What worries me is whether the current national attention may be for the story we want to hear, one with distancing, cinematic details: the robe, the breathy phone calls. I worry about the deep psychological wounds survivors suffer when reporting fails to translate the realities of sexual assault and the lack of legal recourse for those without a spotlight. And if the survivor is the one profiled, they risk being positioned into the juicy web of discourse around redemption in the face of power and prestige and criminal behavior, a portrait of recovery that may do more harm than good for survivors who feel they don’t meet the standard of being “healed.”
The Gibbons story mirrors the national one being held around male privilege: a campus-famous athlete with an army of friends, fans, and, possibly, administrators who wished for his victim to remain silent.
As I loosely based my script on the Gibbons case, I thought I understood where the dramatic tension was built in. There was a clear villain, a clear victim, a chance for some sort of resolution for someone who had been hurt. But as I wrote, the university itself became the villain, the hearings a process of re-victimization. I dropped the star athlete, and tried to write the antagonist as more of an “everyman.” When I decided to end the script with a shot of a door closing on the bedroom where the assault occurs, a student in my screenwriting class asked me, “How do we know what happened? Why doesn’t she retaliate?”
As a writer, I did not want to project an upturned arc onto a character who exists in a world where possible paths towards justice are closed off to her. While art is rarely just reportage of facts, I was trying to use reportage to create art. I struggled to navigate the space between representing emotional truth and plausible outcome. In Marilyn C. Wesley’s article exploring the pillars of feminist film theory, she outlines the “three R’s of feminist film criticism.” Reverence, the first, is “the naïve belief in cinematic fulfillment,” then “Rape, the exploitation involved in the film process,” and, lastly, “Resistance, the ways in which the audience can respond to depictions of violence and particularly how women can counter the negative effects of their visual subjugation.”
Writing the script and considering these questions, I realized the chance for my character to be sitting in her own screenwriting class was likely diminished after her assailant made her campus environment toxic for her, her loss of a safe educational space another kind of violence I didn’t know how to account for. To have a body on screen be acted upon violently, first through an assault and then by the failure of the systems of justice seemed to harm twice the body twice. I felt that I needed to uncover a kind of visual catharsis. But as I wrote, trying to stay close to what felt true, I could only imagine my character packing up her dorm room and moving back home after the assault was investigated and her rapist’s sanction was to write a book report on the effects of sexual violence, a common scenario I found in my research. Did I need a scene like Brie Larson smashing a windshield in Short Term 12 or Frances McDormand burning down a police station in 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or was there enough agency in my character choosing to no longer bear the daily challenge of living on campus knowing her assailant might be in line behind her at the dining hall?
Ultimately, the final scene I wrote for the film was of the door to the bedroom where she was raped shutting, a decision to never show the assault on-screen. I didn’t want to place the burden on my character to undo her “visual subjugation.” Perhaps by not allowing for the violence against her body to be shown would avoid positioning her into what seemed to be a kind of compound victimization.
The Accused was one of the first Hollywood films to depict a rape scene. The story is based off of the gang rape of Cheryl Araujo, played by Jodie Foster, and her lawyer, Kathryn Murphy, played by Kelly McGillis. McGillis is a rape survivor who turned down Foster’s role to play the lawyer who prosecuted the rapists, including the bystanders who cheered on the rapes. At the end of the film, McGillis delivers a powerful monologue, proclaiming “no matter how immoral it may be it is not the crime of criminal solicitation to walk away from a rape, it is not the crime of criminal solicitation to silently watch a rape …but it is the crime of criminal solicitation to induce or entreat or encourage or persuade another person to commit a rape.” Her legal argument relied on making the spectators of a rape complicit in the crime.
Tom Topor, the screenwriter of The Accused, says of the script, “we were all determined to make sure it was about rape as violence. It’s not eroticized as all.” Still, at the test screenings, the film scored Paramount their lowest scores to that point. Sherry Lansing, the film’s producer, recounts that “the audience thought that Jodie’s character deserved the rape.” She was at a bar in revealing clothing, after all. She was a drunk, young woman dancing seductively around gruff men. What did she think was going to happen?
Not highly educated or refined, Foster’s character was far from the “perfect” victim audiences seemed to want, the kind of victim who doesn’t deserve the harm against her body. Lansing revealed that “the studio wanted to put it on the shelf and forget about it. Stanley and I had to go in and beg for another chance at the edit.” The line between the portrayal of rape on-screen becoming pornographic or ammo to use against the victim seems almost imperceptible. At what point does encouraging spectatorship towards violence implicate the filmmaking? And with that, how much violence is necessary to translate the reality of its impact? By offering the visual details of a body’s violation, is visual subjugation a pathway to believing someone’s story? Is it necessary to see an act of violence to know that it had occurred? And what of the crowds? Not just the audience at the theater, but the men who gathered around Foster’s character, clapping and cheering as others in the room took their turn with her body.
In 1988, The Accused was released and Foster won the Academy Award for best actress. In a review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote that one of the most potent messages from the movie was “that verbal sexual harassment, whether crudely in a saloon back room or subtly in an everyday situation, is a form of violence—one that leaves no visible marks but can make its victims feel unable to move freely and casually in society. It is a form of imprisonment.”
In Laura Mulvey’s consideration of the female spectator, she proposes the possibility for filmic representation to provide a way of “enjoying the freedom of action and control over the diegetic world that identification with a hero provides.” To write a film around the trauma of the hearings, how then would my protagonists regain their control? Is exiting the system, leaving the university, action or surrender?
I thought it would be clear how troubling, perhaps even complicit in violence, the campus hearings were by placing the viewer in the room with my character as she underwent intrusive, inappropriate questioning about her assault. The administrators who hold these hearings are usually untrained in understanding the complexity of sexual assault, and often include employees from seemingly unrelated departments on campus, even the school’s bookstore. The respondent and the complainant sit in barren rooms in academic buildings to share their versions of events, a kind of kangaroo court that rarely ends in expulsion if a respondent is found responsible for a violation of the sexual misconduct policy.
What I wanted to translate to my imagined viewer was a kind of sorrow that might encourage empathy and action, not that I knew what exactly that would be—or if closing the door on the room was the best way to end things.
Exposure and disclosure seem crucial to combat the severe lack of justice for victims of sexual crimes, and, hopefully, the increased coverage of high-profile assailants this past year may move our culture toward disrupting the pattern of disbelief directed at those who share their stories of assault at any level. Despite having the same rate of false reports as other crimes, approximately 2-8%, sexual assault is still often pitched as a he-said-she-said situation in which she is likely not to be telling the whole truth.
A few days after graduating, I got an email from my screenwriting professor.“I was wondering if you were interested in developing your screenplay further?” I delighted at the chance to bring my script to life. As we came up with a plan to more deeply research the handling of sexual assault on college campuses across the nation, seeking to create a robust fictional university that could present as a sort of microcosm for the globality of the issue, an amalgamation of stories beyond the Gibbons case, I wanted to focus the rewrite on understanding how rape came to be framed in this he-said-she-said dynamic, how the university administrative processes might mirror or amplify the flaws in the ways our criminal justice system thinks about abuse, and possibly make some sort of offering as to how to mitigate these violences.
As we scheduled auditions, scouted locations, made T-shirts with the fictional university name stretching over a crest designed by a member of our crew, I wanted dearly for even one story with a just ending, a way to re-see. At the very least, I wanted to propose the possibility for a deeper understanding. We interviewed professors of women’s studies, cinematographers, legal advocates, reporters, nurses, social workers, SVU police officers, city prosecutors, survivors.
A few weeks before we started to shoot, Elle published an expose on the discovery of 11,341 untested rape kits in Detroit, a forty minute drive from where we were printing the final draft of the script.
A few months ago, I was staying with my friend Saba, a poet, in Michigan. Now living in Philadelphia, it had almost been a year since I’d been back in the state. I met Saba at a bar near campus after having lunch with my former film professor, the director of the film. After lunch, we’d walked around Michigan’s campus like we’d done countless time during the year and a half we spent on preparing the script for production. The project is still unfinished, but we’ve screened some clips locally and our footage has been used to do trainings for the university’s health services staff and at events held by the women’s center on campus. We’d spent the afternoon rolling around ideas on the editing process and my continued concern over the ending.
Saba was one of the first readers of the script and had even offered the house she’d been renting at the time off of frat row in Ann Arbor as a location for the party where the rape occurs in the film. I shared with her that night at the bar that I felt fatigued by thinking about sexual assault so much, so deeply, almost constantly, for the past few years, which led us to the larger question of woman – first writing, race – first, or whatever – is – seen – as – your – identity – first writing. We asked each other if we thought there was a way around having our identity markers being what’s notable in our work, if it might mean you’ve failed in some way if a piece gets boiled down to a woman story or a Persian story, and if it was a troubling line to walk to not examine identity rigorously, always, in some way, in our art—if identity was something to escape.
“Sometimes, I just want to write about a lady going to the store and feeling dread about a hole in the knee of her pants as she considers buying the fancy peanut butter, and have that be it.” I laughed at what I assumed would be a terribly boring short story, but enough of a distillation of something mundane to make what I thought was my point. “We don’t always have to write in some way about how the female body is vulnerable or objectified. What if we just write about being in love? Or a tree?”
“Yeah, or like a woman who is mean and does something evil because that’s who she is a person.”
“Well, I guess that pressure doesn’t need to be there. It is a kind of choice, just like not putting that pressure to represent something, some person, some identity in totality would be,” Saba said. “We should just write about what we want to write about at the end of the day. There are times where we aren’t targeted, so those can exist for our characters too.”
I agreed, trying to remind myself of this: creating and exploring pieces of the experience of being alive must be the point of art, of writing, and that in itself was enough of an answer for making art you could stand by. Wasn’t it? And, there can be more than one kind of representation.
As we left the bar and walked down to the bus station to head back to Saba’s apartment, a guy approached us.
“Hey sexy,” he called out. I kept walking, slightly in front of Saba, forming a line so we could move past him. We said nothing to each other, just looked ahead.
“I said, hello.” This time, Saba turned to him, half his size.
“Hi,” she said softly. We continued to the station where I could see a line of people forming at the curb. We just needed to make it another block or two. I stayed silent.
“Oh, you can say ‘hello,’ but your friend here doesn’t say anything.” His voice grew louder. “Fucking bitch. I was being nice.”
“She doesn’t have to say anything to you,” Saba said, calmly, peacefully, continuing down the street. I turned to see he was with a larger group. The air felt tense with possibility as we made our way past a nearly vacant parking garage. We just had another block to go until the station. We just needed to make it a little bit longer before the crowd could provide us with kind of buffer, a way to diffuse.
“Hey, leave them alone,” one of the guys in the back of the group called out as we got closer to the station.
We only had to wait a minute or two before the bus pulled up. Saba and I quickly boarded the bus, and they boarded theirs, the space between us and them expanding enough so we no longer feared their reactions to our every move.
Our ID cards from undergrad were still valid so we rode home for free. Not much seemed necessary to say once we were on the road, pulling away from the scene. Laughter burst out between us. Minutes earlier, we’d proposed an experiment in forgetting ourselves that had now been answered.
That night, after making mint tea and listening to a Charlie Brown Christmas record Saba’s boyfriend had bought at the thrift store, we went into their basement. He’d built a wooden platform with train cars and miniature trees and green felt grass. Saba stood next to him as I stepped in front of the control panel on the table that turned the electricity on.
“Go ahead,” she said. Rotating the dial, the street lamps lit up. I heard the rumbling of engines. The trains started to make circles around the track.
“Look,” I said. “It’s a whole other world.”
Juliana Roth’s work has appeared in Entropy, Irish Pages, The Bear River Review, Alternet, among other publications. She has worked as an environmental health writer and for the Center for the Education of Women. A 2017 Carlisle Family Scholar at the Community of Writers, Juliana is currently a teaching fellow at Rutgers University-Camden where she is at work on a novel and a collection of short stories.