More than An Age Gap: Statutory Rape in Popular Media

By ANNA GODEK

The fall of Woody Allen may finally be upon us. As the #MeToo movement progresses and the reckoning for abusive men in Hollywood (and hopefully abusive people everywhere) continues, there has been a re-evaluation of Allen’s famous 1979 film, Manhattan. It’s about time: the movie features a “romance” between a middle-aged man (Allen) and a 17-year-old girl (Mariel Hemingway). Hopefully, Hollywood’s newfound critical lens will spur more conversation about media that romanticizes statutory rape and ultimately reduce the prevalence of this harmful narrative trend.

Perhaps it bears repeating that statutory rape is a serious crime. It is just as abusive as any form of rape, and the adjective applied to it doesn’t make it a lesser form of abuse. When a rape is classified as “statutory,” the harm is not based on the absence of consent, but rather on the younger person’s inability to truly consent in the first place. Some situations are inherently abusive and non-consensual such as instances when someone is drunk or incapacitated in some way or when one individual involved is a child and the other is an adult. This has to be said because it can be easy to forget when we are watching a glamorous and romantic movie, even if we would still (hopefully) be bothered by the situation in real life.

Despite the abuse it portrays, Manhattan is uncritical of the relationship between Allen and Hemingway’s characters. No one at any point worries or suggests that maybe an adult man shouldn’t date a teenager. There is no guilt or questioning of the issue, but, considering that Woody Allen actually “dated” teenagers in real life, this total erasure of the situation’s abusive nature isn’t surprising. Despite the film’s flagrant glorification of statutory rape, many people still insist that it should be judged on some other artistic merits that make the portrayal of rape excusable; judge it on “aesthetics,” they say. And yes, while filmmaking techniques and aesthetic are part of what determines a movie’s quality, moral issues still matter. Just because Manhattan has some artsy shots of New York City, it doesn’t excuse its romanticization of predatory behavior. The content of a movie isn’t separate from its aesthetics; on the contrary: the two are inextricably linked.

Manhattan is far from the only movie that has a blind spot when it comes to statutory rape. The recent critical darling Call Me By Your Name focuses on a “romance” between a 24-year-old and a 17-year-old. Surely in the age of #MeToo, when we’re actually paying attention to sexual abuse in all its forms, a movie like this wouldn’t go uncriticized? It has, though, for the most part. Many reviews raise no issue with the adult-child dynamic, calling it “erotic” and “sensual” and a “sumptuous love story.” A much needed counterpoint comes from Cheyenne Montgomery of the Boston Globe; “it falsely romanticizes an exploitative relationship between a grown man and a teenager,” she says, speaking as a survivor of statutory rape.

Why has this been overlooked in public discourse of the film? One reason might be that the general paucity of LGBT films makes viewers eager for any representation even if it is flawed. But a need for representation shouldn’t lead us to lower our standards such that we equate rape with romance.

A similar effect was present in the widespread praise for Blue is the Warmest Color (2013); critics saw no fault in a film which features a “romance” between a 15-year-old girl and a woman in her twenties. Like many movies that frame statutory rape as romance, Call Me By Your Name coats its abuse in a glamorous veneer. Everything is beautiful in this film—Armie Hammer is beautiful, Timothée Chalamet is beautiful, the re-creation of 1980s Italy is beautiful. How could there be rape hiding behind this stunning cinematography? But no amount of superficial beauty can rectify the film’s legitimization of an abusive relationship.

Critics have defended Call Me By Your Name on the basis that the age of consent in Italy at the time the film takes place means that the relationship it depicts isn’t illegal. However, legality and morality are not the same thing, and just because the law fails to protect children, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing wrong with an adult having a sexual relationship with a teenager. Legal loopholes don’t change moral reality.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of other examples of statutory rape portrayed as romance in media. Pretty Little Liars features a student-teacher relationship and fully glamorizes what should be seen as exploitation and abuse—the two even got married at the end of the show! The student-teacher pairing is troublingly common in popular teen TV shows like Gossip Girl and Dawson’s Creek. Both shows fail, as Call Me By Your Name fails, to show that teenagers cannot enter into consenting relationships or sexual encounters with adults, especially teachers, who should be looking out for the best interests of their students. Yes, high schoolers often fantasize about their teachers or other adults, but the visual actualization of such relationships is dangerous, especially when the target audience is teenagers themselves.

I know what you’re thinking: Hey, can’t we separate movies and TV from reality? Does media really affect us that much? I’ll admit that, yes, the question of how much media reflects or affects society doesn’t have a clear answer, but it isn’t made in a vacuum. Movies don’t come out of a void; the people who make them are members of society and their ideas had to come from somewhere. Is it really so much of a stretch then to say that it’s concerning how many films and TV shows seek to make romance out of statutory rape? Additionally, media has an influence on our lives whether we want to admit it or not. It can reflect and shape our values as a society, and if we keep letting movies where sexual relationships between adults and children are romanticized slide by without criticism, we may find ourselves normalizing and even accepting real life abuse.

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