On Males and Rape

Audiences evidently still find it pretty cool when a strong woman coerces a man into sex at gunpoint or otherwise under threat of life. Not so fun when the squirrel’s got the gun, is it punk? Payback is sweet, especially when it is happening in the world of make believe. Fiction can turn the table around and force people to think differently about the world around them.

There is an old movie I really want to watch again on this topic titled It Coudn’t Happen to a Nicer Guy. It is a TV movie aired in 1974 starring Paul Sorvino, with Bob Dishy, Adam Arkin, and Eddie Barth. If that sounds like an impressive roll call of great character actors (and it is) it also stars Michael Learned early-ish into her award-studded career. I was only twelve years old at the time and did not understand exactly what was happening or get all of the jokes, but the acting must have been superb because some of the scenes just stuck into my little boy brain and I can still see them vividly to this day.

Here is what one of the reviewers at the Internet Movie Database says about it:
(SPOILER ALERT)
Paul Sorvino plays Harry Walters, and the initial scene has him dressing for a Rotary Club dinner with complete instructions from his wife. He lives in a big house he does not like because his father-in-law wants his daughter to look successful, his father-in-law made the sizable down payment, and we later learn that Harry wanted to be a teacher, but again, the father-in-law interfered and convinced him to join the family business and sell real estate. In short, Harry Walters has spent the last 20 years of his life being a complete doormat to the wishes of his wife and in-laws.

Then comes the life changing moment. When his car breaks down on the way back from the Rotary Club dinner a beautiful well dressed “respectable looking” woman offers him a ride. However, instead of taking him home, she drives on a deserted road, forces him to remove all of his clothing at gunpoint and rapes him. Like so many women, Harry would probably have said nothing to anyone about this, but she dumps him in the middle of nowhere completely naked. He steals an apron from a woman’s clothesline to cover himself. The homeowner sees this and calls the police who wind up arresting Harry!

So Harry goes to the police station as a perp not a victim, and here is where there are so many parallels to what happened to women then, and still happens 41 years later. Nobody believes his story. He wants to talk to a male officer about the rape – request denied. Nobody shows any compassion. He is asked if he liked it. He is asked details about a crime he would rather forget. People question how he was dressed when he was picked up by the woman and how he was acting. Does any of this sound familiar ladies…and gents? Worse, a local newspaperman who hangs out in the police station gets wind of the story and prints all of the details, and Harry’s name, on the front page. At work he is greeted by snickers and pointing. His boss yells at him for making the firm look bad. At home his wife SAYS she believes him but she is treating him …differently…like “damaged goods” although that phrase is never used.

The epiphany moment comes when Harry is faced with a choice. He can plead guilty to the indecent exposure charge and get a small fine, or he can fight. He chooses to fight against all advice and pressure from his attorney and wife. He says – and this is one line that would never get on TV today – “I’ve allowed it (rape) to happen my whole life.” This time he is fighting back. He goes back to the police station and files charges against a woman whose identity is unknown, he pleads not guilty to his own charges, and gets the reporter who outed him in the papers to help him find the rapist with a composite sketch. How will this all work out? Watch and find out.

I gather that there was a big controversy back in the day when the movie was aired on prime time, at 8pm in a slot that usually showed family fare. At least there was one. A movie like that would never be aired in the safe-space atmosphere of the 21st century. It goes to show how much more liberal the world was about fictional depiction of reality before political correctness kicked in.

This story is a comedy that invites the audience to see what typically happens in the life of a rape victim by switching the gender of the victim. But not only that, it sneaks in the message that rape is going on in the world even before the physical sexual assault. The sort of life that a married man would be derided for as being a “doormat” or a “seat cushion” for his wife is (or was) typically considered commendable behavior for a married woman. This is the life that Harry Walters tries to break out of when he fights against his rape. Can you get more feminist than this? And yet, all the “feminist” roles are played by men. Michael Learned, the one accomplished actress on the show, plays what is arguably the victim-blaming sexist villain.

This movie would be very relevant today in the light of recent events. It is such a shame that we cannot see movies like this made anymore.

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