Rape and captivity

by Elliott Gruner

from Jump Cut, no. 39, June 1994, pp. 51-56
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1994, 2006

In the very much B-quality action-adventure film, SAVAGE JUSTICE, a hostage explains her rape by saying, "I did what I had to do to survive." In popular culture, surviving rape or sexual assault is an essential trial which the female captive must face. Such moments of cinematic rape are so persistent that the rape of the female captive has become an assumption, an assumption that negates male responsibility for the crime since such a scene has come to he accepted as inevitable.

And, of course, the captive women in such films seldom learn anything worth telling. In contrast, the news media, popular lore, and often the military itself assume that captivity gives male POWs and hostages a privileged understanding of the enemy, God, the family, or self. The POW experience provides men with a degree of credibility and importance not afforded women. The cultural significance of captivity for men in the United States is so prevalent that it has become a cliché. Male POWs inhabit virtually every venue of popular and political culture. The most interesting recent examples of this phenomenon include the short, happy vice-presidential candidacy of former Vietnam POW James Stockdale and the POW flashbacks of the cartoon character Mr. Anderson on MTV's Beavis and Butt-head. Female captivity has popular and political appeal for much different reasons.

As the media treats it, captivity for a woman has a functional importance culturally, providing pornographic titillation, but a woman's insights have no epistemological value. Instead of being feted and pursued for endorsements like their male counterparts, real life female captives are often forgotten once their stories have been mined for explicitly sexual experiences. In the popular imagination captivity for a woman remains a problem of body, not of mind.

A whole cycle of films portrays the rape of the captive as imminent and necessary for women. Of course, this storyline follows a tradition in narrative and visual arts that began with the clash of Puritan and Native American cultures in early America. The stories of Mercy Short and others, which entertained Puritans in the 17th and 18th Centuries, demonized Native Americans. In the 19th Century the depiction of rape and sexual assault in women's captivity stories appealed directly to the reader's pornographic imagination. Rape in captivity stories of the frontier, the Barbary Coast, and slavery could entertain readers with the assault, torture, and rape of female captives in spite of otherwise strict censorship.[1] [open notes in new window] In this context the stories' didactic and political value was a pretext for absolving the voyeur from guilt as s/he thrilled to tales of sexual violence against women.

Today's film images of female captivity follow that line and assume that an emphasis on the sexual will have mass appeal. For example, women's prison films have always had their audience, but only so long as the lusty captive women wore clinging outfits and garish cosmetics. The home video markets of the 1980s exploited the women's prison theme, a theme no stranger to cinema, with a new cycle of action/ adventure films. These prison films always focus on the woman's body and her sexual agony under the guise of concern for moral and social injustice.

The ongoing debate on women entering combat includes a concern about what might happen to women in captivity. The assumption is that such women would he raped. Hollywood female captivity films help promote such an assumption and, therefore, seldom do without the subplot of rape or physical molestation. This is the case in films like FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO (1945), THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND (1952), FIVE GATES TO HELL (1959), SEVEN WOMEN FROM HELL (1962), BRUSHFIRE (1961), OPPOSING FORCE (1986), INTIMATE STRANGERS (1986), WOMEN OF VALOR (1986), and SAVAGE JUSTICE (1987). Films like SAVAGE JUSTICE foreground the rape of the protagonist as a pretext for a revenge plot, either carried out by the woman herself or by some male hero. Sarah Howard's line (Julia Montgomery) in SAVAGE JUSTICE, "I did what I had to do to survive," has become a cliché.

In addition, the female protagonist in such films must always apologize for the rape. This is one of the tactics of inversion incorporated into the motif, so that responsibility seems to fall on the female victim. The very inevitability of the scene negates both individual and more generalized male responsibility for sexual aggression against women. This inversion occurs for the viewers' pleasure: Rape can be enjoyed more fully if the narrative sets up ruses to absolve the voyeur of guilt.

Another such ruse is the fact that the rape, so prominently referred to, is almost always elliptically photographed. These narrative cinematic strategies have a powerful ideological effect. Rape of female captives becomes a mythic taboo both to transgress for entertainment and to invoke for policy. As with earlier captivity stories that had an equal efficacy, the filmic presentation of rape, due to censorship codes, often avoids direct portrayal and thus saves audiences from having to deal with the true violence of the sexual act involved. This is especially the case in films about female prisoners of war, hostages, and other captives, whose imprisonment was not due to sexual abduction. In this way, woman's captivity has become sexualized.

Shots of perpetrator and victim in rape scenes most often focus on the face of the victim and shadow other characters involved. The visuals almost always appear from the point of view of the aggressor/ rapist, a perspective which supports the audience's covert identification with the attacker. The angle is seldom reversed to show what the victim sees. In narrative terms, the attacker is often a non-character. Such conventions indicate a troubling aversion to developing visually or identifying the attacker(s) in any coherent way.

Finally, films often narratively elide the actual rape scene or use such low contrast shots that it is impossible to tell what is happening except for a careful view of the victim's body and reactions. Although such tactics may keep a marketable rating for the film, this elliptical presentation occludes presenting the most damaging physical aspects of rape and retards audience apprehension of the crime's seriousness. Audiences must use their own imaginations and fantasies to supplement what is elided or shadowed. Consequently, the rape narrative enables audiences to enjoy a suggestion, a fantasy of sexual intercourse.

Such techniques of framing and editing allow acts of rape and molestation to slide more freely from crime to sex, from terror to pleasure. Indeed, although horror and terror are accepted as entertainment, the rape of the captive film motif comes to us within films that otherwise evince social concern. Rape in these films most often excites not at the level of abject fear or simple terror, but within an ensemble of sexually exploitive markers. The female captive is presented visually in an explicitly provocative way, exposing skin and other bodily features in a foreplay of images to excite the audience and foreshadow the rape.

According to the prologue, WOMEN OF VALOR (1987) attempts "to represent the collective courage and the experiences" of nurses captured by the Japanese in the Philippines. The film follows four nurses' experiences before and during captivity on the island of Luzon. Shortly after their capture, the film shows the nurses sleeping on the ground beside the road. Low-contrast images show shadows passing in front of and attacking the women. The senior nurse, Lieutenant Margaret Jessup (Susan Sarandon), wakes up and struggles only to be struck and knocked out cold. Another nurse, Helen, awakes but does not fight. We see her pleading with her assailants, "Please don't," while they unbutton her blouse, exposing her white bra. The film immediately cuts to the day after when the women briefly discuss the rape.

Both attack scenes emphasize the women's carefully illuminated upper torso and faces. The attackers appear only as shadows, groping hands, and the bright flash of a knife blade. We cannot see if the attackers are Japanese soldiers, although narratively we assume they are. The visual style and editing of this sequence imply that who raped the nurses or what the details of the assault were are not so important as the reactions of the women and the fact that they, as POWS, are raped.

Significantly, the two rape scenes are "unremarkable" in the context of the film. The rape hardly bears the connotation of a violent crime, WOMEN OF VALOR treats the rape so topically that it seems to be something that simply must he gotten out of the way before the female captivity plot can proceed. It is something that must happen. Such a cinematic logic makes it seem like female captives "have to" accept rape as a logical part of captivity.

WOMEN OF VALOR aired as part of "women you don't want to mess around with week" on Lifetime when THELMA AND LOUISE was showing in theaters around the country. The female announcer said the film "stars Susan Sarandon, and you know what she's capable of doing." The network highlighted the tough woman theme of the movie. Casting Susan Sarandon as Lieutenant Jessup reinforced the movie character's role as a tough woman lighting for justice.

Thus, Sarandon had to appear fighting until receiving the honorable knockout punch and raped only while she was unconscious. In contrast, her companion Helen, who does not resist, remains conscious during her rape, her apparent punishment for not fighting. Consequently, Helen becomes pregnant and has trouble recovering psychologically while the Sarandon character grows stronger from her initiatory experience.

Another troubling aspect of WOMEN OF VALOR is how the nurses are depicted before captivity. Although they were all nurses working in military hospitals before the war, the peacetime segment shows them doing nothing productive or professional. The first pre-war scene highlights the women's domesticity and shows them having a wedding shower for Helen at a country club.

Lieutenant Jessup gives Helen a black negligee and makes a joke about Helen's virginity, a joke that uncannily foreshadows both the death of Helen's husband-to-be and her rape by the Japanese. Other early sequences include the women talking in the staff lounge at a hospital, conversing in their pajamas in the barracks, bathing in a tropical pool, and listening to a radio around a campfire.

The film consistently portrays these women as naive and frivolous before their capture. That tone is underscored by a male lieutenant's comment as he looks at the women swimming in a jungle pool shortly after the war starts: "Get a load of them. You'd think they were on a picnic!" This cinematic prologue to depicting the difficult life of captivity emphasizes that the film will show the lessons learned through and hardships of being a POW. But it does so at the expense of taking seriously women's roles in the military. These initial sequences deny the "valor" and valuable contributions of women in the military, which the film is nominally dedicated to.

These sequences also mirror the prologue of women's captivity stories dating hack to the colonies. For example, in his religious appropriation of captivity tales, Cotton Mather highlighted white women's initial naïveté and domestic bliss before capture by the Indians so as to emphasize the brutality of their capture, establish the demonic qualities of Native American raiders, and deepen the irony of the stories.

INTIMATE STRANGERS, one of the few movies that depicts a female POW of the Vietnam War, uses in its narrative structure Nurse Sally Bearson's (Terri Garr) rape as a suspenseful secret. This film focuses on a female POW/MIA's troubled repatriation. This focus is remarkable because it leaves the sensational POW/MIA issue as an unexplored subplot unlike hundreds of other POW/MIA plots propagated in U.S. culture. Instead, this television movie foregrounds the Bearsons' troubled marriage and depicts Sally Bearson's rape at the expense of dealing with anything else from her ten year captivity. The movie implies that a woman POW's successful return to domestic life overshadows all else. INTIMATE STRANGERS slights Bearson's captivity experience in much the same way that U.S. culture has forgotten actual women's captivity experiences. For example, few Americans remember actual women captured in Vietnam such as Kate Webb, Michele Ray, or Monika Schwinn.

The film reduces Bearson's remarkable captivity experience to a series of flashbacks to the night she was raped. This is particularly interesting and troubling since INTIMATE STRANGERS is one of the few films that attempts to portray, however erroneously, a U.S. woman who was captured during the Vietnam War.

The shots in this film are remarkably similar to those in WOMEN OF VALOR (filmed at roughly the same time as INTIMATE STRANGERS), The rape sequence, sprinkled in suspenseful clips throughout the film, tracks the approach of the rapist to a cage where Bearson is tied face up, arms outstretched on the bamboo floor.

The rape itself is really only foreshadowed. We see a carefully framed shot of the Bearson's well-illuminated upper torso and face just before the assailant penetrates the her. The sequence is shot almost exclusively from the rapist's point of view. In this way, INTIMATE STRANGERS encourages the audience to both imagine and enjoy the rape from the male/ dominant point of view. As in WOMEN OF VALOR, the violence of the act itself and the character of the criminal are left to the audience's imagination. The manner of depicting the rape, silhouetting the identity of the rapist and assuming the rapist's point of view, conspire to create a momentary identification with the rapist.

And, like Helen in WOMEN OF VALOR, Bearson must pay for her rape by becoming pregnant and giving birth in captivity. The denouement includes Sally's painful revelation that she was raped and that her seven-year-old refugee companion is, in fact, her son (fathered by one of her captors).

The final scene of the film shows Sally begging her husband, Jeff (Stacy Keach), to make love to her. Sally spends the entire film struggling to earn Jeff's forgiveness. Sally Bearson is, therefore, three times a victim: first of imprisonment, then of sexual assault in captivity, and finally of Jeff's neglect. Ironically Jeff's sexual relation and love affair with another woman (played by Cathy Lee Crosby) requires no apology or explanation. While Sally must suffer and apologize to redeem her tarnished image in the wake of her captivity and rape, affluent Jeff has affirmed his manhood and sensitivity by belatedly forgiving Sally and accepting her son. Such representations subordinate feminine POW captivity to the experiences and approval of the house-husband, the stay-at-home male.

This plot structure uses an explicit inversion and perversion of male POW tales from Vietnam. In those films, the trials of the always, everywhere celibate mate protagonist is juxtaposed against continuous temptations of the stay-at-home wife. From the beginning, the POW film and the vast majority of POW stories have looked warily at the POW wife's faithfulness. The stories carefully surviel the wife's capacity to execute her self-imposed celibacy.

INITIMATE STRANGERS implies that captivity for a woman POW is not an experience that empowers or enlightens. Unlike male POWs, who are typically shown learning and benefiting from their trials, women must struggle first to reveal and then to apologize and compensate for their own captivity.

OPPOSING FORCE does have Air Force Lieutenant Cathy Casey (Lisa Eichhorn) learn from her ordeal, but only after one of her captors assaults her. This plot follows a female military pilot into a POW training camp where previously only male pilots were allowed. The training scenario turns all too real when the deluded cadre find that they must do away with their trainees to cover for the murder of a male captive and the camp commander's rape of the female pilot. It is in this plotline that the camp's commander, CPT Becker (Anthony Zerbe), tells Casey that he will assault her in order to prepare her for what the enemy will do. Up to that point, Casey remains passive and detached from the events in camp. When a male pilot rescues her from the evil CPT Becker, she becomes aggressive. During the remainder of the film she battles the camp cadre along with the men.

Becker rapes Casey during a mock interrogation. He explains the reason for what he is about to do and pushes Casey to the ground. Despite Casey's size and conditioning (she is as tall as and perhaps as heavy as Becker) she is not able to resist Becker and falls quickly onto her back on the bamboo floor. Unlike the shadowy attackers in other films, the assailant in this film is obvious to the audience, but the camera's point of view is still from the side of or above Casey's prostrate upper body. The camera focuses on the victim's reactions making the viewer's perspective consistent with that of a sadomasochistic voyeur or the perpetrator himself.

Ironically, in the context of the film, the assault on Casey really does seem to do what the camp commander said it would: the female pilot learns from the episode. She seems enabled to assume an aggressive pattern of behavior after she is sexually assaulted. Narratively, she cannot become a hero, taking charge of her own destiny until her powers of action are activated through rape.

Brian DePalma's CASUALTIES OF WAR is sensitive to the rape of the Vietnamese woman, Oahn (Thuy Thule), but however sympathetic the plot may appear, the soldiers' gangrape of Oahn narratively functions as just one episode in the maturation of yet another male-soldier protagonist. CASUALTIES OF WAR follows a U.S. soldier to Vietnam where he joins a squad of infantry who kidnap, rape, and eventually murder a Vietnamese woman for "R and R." The rape scene is central to the plot and does identify the perpetrators and their ambivalence toward the inhumanity of their crime.

The rape sequence in this film stays at the voyeur's perspective as low or skewed angle shots follow the male protagonist's viewpoint. However sympathetic the film might seem toward the Vietnamese woman, the visual images remain complicit with the criminals. At no time does the visual perspective shill to that of the victim. Nor does the audience see the most brutal session of abuse; one character later explains how another character held a knife (a weapon later used to murder the victim) to the woman's throat during the rape.

In fact, the oblique, voyeuristic shots of the rape scene are quite consistent with the overall perspective of the narrative. Oahn's captivity and murder give Eriksson (Michael J. Fox), the male protagonist, the luxury of working out his moral discriminations. The film ends hack in the United States where Eriksson mistakes a woman on a bus for Oahn, the woman his squad raped. The final sequence shows the character and the audience that justice has been done and order restored: Other attractive Asian women have survived to live happy lives in the United States.

The script's final lines make this conclusion explicit. The woman on the bus asks Eriksson, "You had a bad dream didn't you?" Eriksson answers, "Yes." The woman responds, "Its over now, I think." However repentant Eriksson might feel, his maturation has come at the expense of the female rape victim. As one of my colleagues, Cathy Haight, has pointed out, any atrocity he committed or saw might have served the same moral function. Whatever atrocity the U.S. soldiers committed, by the end of the film the male hero can dismiss it as merely a "bad dream." De Palma's ultimate ambivalence toward the crime of rape becomes clear when he takes as his major theme the men's redemption.

THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND (aka P.O.W.) extended the horror production skills of Hammer Studios to portray a World War II Japanese POW camp in Malaya. In this film a female pilot crashes in Japanese-held territory. Disguised as a man, she attempts to hide out in a POW camp. The Japanese eventually discover the ruse and bring her to a reckoning with the camp commandant. We hear the woman's screams as the camera pans over a darkened prison camp. Then there is a cut to various reaction shots of male POWs and their speculation about how the Japanese are assaulting the woman, Two of these images are remarkable.

In the first a badly disfigured POW (who has a particular fear of the woman) grabs a secret cache of hand grenades so he can "put that bitch out other misery." The implication is it would be better for the woman to be dead than to survive rape. Even worse, the episode implies that a woman must die just because the mate POWs cannot put up with her screams.

Toward the end of the sequence the senior POW goes to the Japanese camp commander's office to protest the assault. The Japanese cadre greet the POW in disheveled uniforms, drinks and cigarettes in hand while the deep focus shows other soldiers in the next room silhouetted against the shaded window and hovering over what must be the woman POW. This rape sequence titillates the imagination of both the POWs in the film and audience. One POW says blandly, "Can you imagine what they're doing to her in there?" By showing that the POWs imagine the violent sexual assault on the woman, the film magnifies the importance of the scene and unashamedly pricks the imagination of the audience while avoiding the problematic of depicting the actual rape.

The scene also reinforces the racist portrayal of the Japenese in the film. As Susan Jeffords has pointed out, rape in such films "becomes less of a 'crime' in and of itself than a justification for the characterization of the villain."[2]

After a night of torture, male POWs rescue the woman and help her escape. Several of the men die in the ensuing battle with the Japanese. The film's lessons are quite clear. First, women in captivity will necessarily be raped. Second, women captives so disrupt the fragile community of male POWs that even one might put a whole population of men risk. The overarching assumption is that all men of "honor" cannot rest until the woman is safe. As one POW exclaims while listening to the woman's screams: "Oh God! We can't just sit."

The woman who elicits such heroic efforts on the part of male POWs, nevertheless causes the death of some POWs and jeopardizes the survival of the rest. Such a plot tine perpetuates the notion that only an all-male military can effectively function in war. According to such logic, presumably the woman should never have been there in the first place.

In film rape, the referent, the crime of rape itself, is of less cinematic interest than depicting the force of male desire. A recent case in California makes this explicit. A woman who was raped by an as yet unapprehended man told her story to the writers of the television series TOP COPS. She is now suing the show because in TOP COPS' reenactment, supposedly produced to help catch the perpetrator, a buxom blonde actress who looks and acts much differently than the victim plays the victim's role: She actually flirts with the man before the crime occurs. The real-life victim claims that this distortion was gratuitous and misrepresented her role in the actual event, making her appear complicit in the crime itself.

At this point I must explain that depicting man-on-man rape is taboo in most POW and hostage films. With notable exceptions such as MERRY CHRISTMAS, MR. LAWRENCE and THE RED SPIDER, films never even allude to rapes of male POWs, even though the preponderance of POW stories involve an almost exclusively male cast. When rape of men is represented, films show it differently than when the subjects are female. Most certainly male POWs as well as women have been molested or raped in captivity. But the overwhelming impression of narratives from male POWs or representations of male captivity is that captivity is somehow asexual for the male and explicitly sexual for the female. The main event of female captivity stories continues to be the sexual violation of the captive, in many ways rape completes the plot of female captivity. Female captivity in film not only thrills viewers but also asserts a conservative, successful, and containing vision of male power. In film the female captive must be dominated and be raped. And afterwards we can expect to see the victim take responsibility: "I" did what I had to do.

The experience of real-life, ex-Gulf War POW Rhonda Cornum demonstrates how biased the presentation of rape has become. More than a year after the Gulf War, before a Presidential commission on women in the military, Cornum revealed the details of her POW experience. The New York Times reported that members of the panel were "stunned" by her testimony, which included descriptions of mistreatment and "indecent assaults" by her captors. Cornum had not revealed these events prior to that date.

The timing of this revelation remains suspect. Cornum's testimony came not in post-captivity news conferences or Pentagon reports on the conduct of the war, but in the context of hearings on women in the Armed Forces where her tales of sexual abuse and mistreatment could be interpreted as evidence for limiting combat roles for women. That's exactly the agenda Cornum herself was working against. The article which detailed her testimony mentioned in the next-to-last paragraph Cornum's fears:

"Major Cornum expressed concern that her mistreatment had been blown out of proportion and would be used by those who want to keep women out of combat."

Cornum's testimony before the commission and her book, She Went to War: The Rhonda Cornum Story, have not been used by the media or the government to make her a hero but instead to foreground the tragedy of women serving on the front lines. Immediately after the war Commit did not make the "Yellow Ribbon" issue of People Magazine for Gulf War heroes, but a year later her testimony of sexual assault merited a two-page story in the same magazine. Cornum's painful experiences as captive were reduced and appropriated for their usefulness in a national political debate a year after her captivity. Her story was not used as evidence of a crime or to make her a spokesperson on the issues male ex-captives are invited to speak about. This political dynamic mirrors and stems from the same patriarchal ideology as the presentation of rape in cinema.

We might also examine when and how the press believes women's testimony of sexual abuse and harassment. When women from the Gulf War have come forward with allegations of being abused by friendly soldiers or when they claim molestation at a fraternal event like that of the Tailhook Association, the media treats the issue much differently than it treats cases of women who might claim being sexually abused by an enemy, particularly a racially different enemy. In many ways, the film rape prepares us for and leads us to expect the abuse of women in enemy captivity, while films seldom portray U.S. "Top Guns" who gang rape or a "Major Dad" who commits incest. Cornum's testimony about captivity fits a well-known and sought-after pattern while Anita Hill's was politically troublesome.

Rape in captivity is a part of a meta-narrative that not only attempts to represent behavior but also actually motivates it.[3] A 1992 Newsweek cover story reported that many soldiers in former Yugoslavia consider rape a virtual duty, a part of a war narrative that has to be acted out before a successful victory/ conclusion can be had.[4] President Bush used the rape theme to justify the invasion of Panama and the Gulf War.[5] Rape has become a part of war that Clausewitz might have described as "war conducted by other means."

Women in wartime and in military culture provide a ready test for male dominance and a ready target of anger: Women become the object of male violence just for being there. They violate the male terrain of war and fraternity of power. Tailhook is an excellent example of male terrain, where the women "had to" have it happen. Scenes in the media depicting assaults on female captives consistently deemphasize the criminal aspect of male violence in order to make more acceptable and exciting entertainment. The assumption of and presentation of rape in captivity films promotes a cultural logic that rationalizes the sexual attack on women in captivity and corrupts history.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.

1. For a compelling engagement of this history see, among other texts, James H. Lewis, "Images of Captive Rape in the Nineteenth Century, Journal of American Culture 15:2 (Summer 1992): 69-77.

2. Susan Jeffords, "Rape and the New World Order," Cultural Critique, 19 (Fall 1991): 212

3. Ronald Dworkin has recently claimed that media and, in particular, pornography do not motivate sexual assault. He has specifically refuted suggestions by Catherine R. MacKinnon that rapes in Bosnia were somehow motivated by the proliferation of pornographic material by citing George Kennan's claim that "rape was also 'ubiquitous' in the Balkan wars of 1913, well before any 'saturation' by pornography had begun." Unfortunately, such arguments beg the question and avoid the central contention that sexual violence is a trait of masculine dominated society that sanitizes, endorses, and propagates such crimes through many different forms of media including cinema. See "Women and Pornography," The New York Review of Books, 12 Oct. 1993: 38.

4. For a more detailed account of the 'mass psychology of rape" and "man's attitude toward rape in war" see Susan Browmniller, Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975).

5. The day before the invasion, President Bush claimed that Panamanian forces had assaulted an U.S. woman and that the United States could not tolerate such conduct. The "tape of Kuwait" became the controlling metaphor for the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. See Susan Jeffords, "Rape and the New World Order."