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Underwhelmed

Flirting With Danger

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 7/5/2000

A few weeks ago, I watched (for the third time) a 1988 movie that still disturbs me each time it rolls toward its horribly vivid ending. As you may remember, The Accused is about a woman (played by Jodie Foster) who is gang-raped in a bar while a bunch of drunken onlookers cheer. One of the brilliant things about the movie (besides Foster's unforgettable performance) is the way its narrative structure works in tandem with its complicated, paradoxical theme of female victimization and empowerment. The film opens in the immediate aftermath of the rape and follows the young woman through her difficult attempts to achieve justice. We hear her testify about it, we hear her attorney talk with her about it, but the filmmakers don't let us "see" what really happened to her in the bar until the final few minutes of the movie.

This delaying tactic creates suspense and allows us to get to know the woman, with all her flaws and admirable qualities, before she is violated in front of our eyes. But there's another reason why this woman's story almost had to be told backwards: to forestall the facile criticism that she somehow "asked" to be hoisted atop a pinball machine, forcibly stripped, and raped by three men among a hysterical male mob. Seeing the rape scene first might have made it too easy for audience members to say, either out loud or in their heart of hearts, "Well, she dressed like a slut and danced provocatively, she flirted with a man she barely knew and had no reason to trust, she was an attractive woman in a rough and obviously dangerous trucker's bar--it's no wonder. . . . "

I was a bar-hopping, miniskirt-wearing, flirtatious 22-year-old when I first saw this movie, and I must admit I really struggled with it in my heart of hearts. I remember confessing to a friend that the movie made me reconsider how I dressed and acted when I went out. My friend--I'll call her Belinda--jumped down my throat. "That woman did nothing wrong," Belinda insisted, and I backed off. In terms of law and politics and justice, I knew she was right. The Foster character was the victim of a violent crime, and her assailants deserved swift punishment. Yet 12 years later, long after I lost touch with Belinda, something about our brief exchange leaves me unsatisfied.

Belinda herself was an intriguing (though hardly uncommon) bundle of contradictions. A petite blonde, she was smart and could talk the feminist talk in private, but she also had a manipulative way of acting with men in public: giggling a lot, sitting uninvited on laps, speaking coyly with a little girl's lisp--essentially flattering the guys by making them feel big and masculine in comparison. I always felt tall, androgynous, and overly adult when Belinda and I were around men together, which was ironic, because when we were alone she had a way of making me feel immature and half-enlightened, as if I were her kid sister. (Looking back, I can't remember why I was friends with her, other than masochism--a common feature in friendships between young women, but that's another topic altogether.)

I thought of Belinda after the recent Central Park attacks in which dozens of women were groped, stripped, and humiliated by a small army of assailants. According to eyewitnesses interviewed for a report on NBC's Dateline, the situation started out "innocently" enough, with some horny, soused men spraying water guns at women passing by--an impromptu, involuntary wet-T-shirt contest. Allegedly, some women liked the attention enough that they voluntarily ran this gauntlet again and again. But the power dynamic in this "mutual" sex play eventually revealed its true, lopsided nature: Now, as women tried to pass from one side of the park to another, they were being grabbed, hounded, terrorized.

From the video footage NBC aired, it seems that those women who'd previously welcomed the water-gun spray were long gone by the time the male mob went nuts; it was a whole other set of females who found themselves shirtless and pinned down like hunted animals. In its insultingly earnest way, Dateline asked whether "the women" were partly responsible for the assaults--a question that implies, rather offensively, that all the women were responsible for the actions of all the other women, that there's no distinction between the ones who participated in the early aggressive flirting and the ones who unwittingly walked (or jogged) into the later near-rape nightmare.

Let's set aside the later victims and think exclusively about the few individual women who might have enjoyed what seemed, at that point in time, like a horny but harmless game. Did they somehow provoke the later ordeal? On one level, I can say with as much conviction as Belinda would: Of course not--those women did nothing wrong, and they had no reason to assume their flirtatious actions would contribute to the later assaults of other women.

On another level, I continue to struggle with a certain paradox here. Sure, I'd love to see a world in which women feel free to flirt, to flaunt, to express themselves sexually without fear of reprisal. Also, I'm well aware that in the real world, most rapes or assaults have nothing to do with a woman's looks, clothes, or behavior. But I still wonder: Isn't it foolish to forget, or deny, that the same thing that empowers us in certain situations--our ability to turn men on--can also make us vulnerable?

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