Let me set the scene. A teenage girl, after a long and dangerous journey, finally arrives at the home of someone who is not out to kill her: another teenage girl. Though they don’t know each other well, they both immediately recognize a friend. The traveler’s new friend runs a bath for her, pulling a curtain around the tub so she can have some privacy. As our traveler undresses and washes off the dust and weariness of the journey, she feels safe enough in this intimate setting to divulge her growing feelings for a boy they mutually know. She blushes as she shares, glad that no one can see her in this moment of emotional and physical vulnerability.
What she doesn’t know is that hundreds upon hundreds of people see her.
Is this a betrayal by her new friend? A dangerous trap to catch the traveler just when she thought she was safe?
No. But it is a betrayal. The hundreds of people watching her are the audience of the anime FullMetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, and this scene betrays the character, the audience’s humanity, and the story’s integrity.
I was one of those people watching, almost ten years ago now, and the scene still deeply disturbs me.
The traveler’s name is Winry Rockbell: ultra-competent mechanic with a specialty in cybernetic limbs, childhood friend of the show’s protagonist(s). She is orphaned. She owns a dog whose leg she constructed so he could run again. She is outspoken, sanguine, and despite her rock-hard determination, she has a great capacity for entering into others’ pain.
She is a character with hopes and dreams and a robust, well-developed personality. She is a young woman (not of legal age) at her most vulnerable, in what should be a safe space, sharing deep feelings, and we the audience are invited to ogle her barely-covered breasts, wondering if those bubbles will move.
Not protect her vulnerability. Not root for her safety. Not care for her feelings. She’s been reduced to a sexual body, and we’re expected not to sympathize but to forget or ignore all that other stuff we know about her and try to catch a glimpse.
As I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly why I was so troubled by this scene, which assuredly is not the worst of its sort, I’ve noticed other shows and movies repeating the pattern. For example, my husband discusses the abuse of the Star Trek Into Darkness character Carol Marcus here, but the TL;DR version is this: Dr. Marcus asks Captain Kirk to turn around so she can change clothes in privacy. But he sneaks a peek—and the whole world looks with him. This is blatantly disregarding a woman’s privacy, and more than that, it was a woman who specifically asked for privacy. “No” doesn’t mean “no” all of a sudden.
With whom does the film ask us to place ourselves, with Dr. Marcus or with Kirk? It’s Kirk’s gaze and perspective we’re invited to share–Kirk, who at best is an immature idiot in this scene, and at worst is the nastiest sort of entitled and perverted Peeping Tom.
In the 2006 film Déjà Vu, Claire Kuchever is getting ready for bed after her workday. She stops midway to the shower in only her underwear to listen to a voicemail from her former fiancé. She looks hopeful, then hurt, as she hears it play. Then she goes to take her shower. All the while, including during her shower, FBI agents who can look back in time are voyeurs to the scene. The female agent even asks a sarcastic question about whether this is necessary to the investigation. Another moment that should have been safe for that character—and she’s being ogled, not only by the characters in the film, but by the audience as well. Her hurt, her privacy are not important; how sexy her underwear is, however, is another story.
Are these scenes rape? Well, they’re all using unconsenting characters at their most vulnerable to get a sexual rise out of the audience. I’d say that they’re at least rape-y. And they add to rape culture, which we complain about with one side of our mouths and then say “Turn it to HBO so we can watch Game of Thrones” with the other.
This trend takes a fully developed character whose hopes and dreams we care about and invites us to shut that caring off for a few seconds while we check her out. It happened in Galaxy Quest. It happened in The Return of the Jedi. I’m sure it happens all the time because I don’t honestly see that many movies (did you notice all my examples are super dated?).
You’ll notice that the women in these examples are usually in some sort of vulnerable position aside from their state of undress: sharing feelings, having her wishes denied, being hurt. In these moments of heightened emotion, instead of feeling along with her, we are distanced from her. And the distance is not just from the character’s emotions, but from her (and our) very humanity. It’s as if we are expected to relish a chance to be base, to take advantage of vulnerability rather than reach out in sympathy.
This is wrong. If we’re willing to do it to characters, we’re setting a pattern in place that will make it easier to do it to people. Does our society really need more encouragement to think only about what we can gain when others are helpless, hurting, or exposed? Do we need scenes like this in our media that actively encourage people to think with the mind of a pervert or rapist?
I’m pretty passionate at the idea that no, we don’t. And next week, I plan on detailing why these scenes not only damage our humanity, but damage the story as well.
P. S. You may wonder why damaging the story is so important when our humanity is at stake. That’s what I always wonder, too… because when Cap writes against the objectification of women in our media, the Story is the one of the main things people bring up in defense of scenes like these. “Well, the Story is redemptive.” “Well, the scene is necessary to tell the Story.”
So stay tuned for next week, tentatively entitled, “A Lit Major Looks at Voyeurism’s Damage to Visual Stories.” (If you couldn’t stand to miss it, you can follow my blog by clicking on the Follow button in the black at the bottom! And if you can’t wait for a look at it from a story analysis perspective, check out Cap’s moral/spiritual response to “but the STORY” here.)