In the Age of #MeToo How Should We Interpret Aggressive On-Screen Romance?

by Jillian Oliver

Until a few days ago, I probably was in the minority of movie buffs who hadn’t watched Blade Runner. For whatever reason I decided it was time to watch the Ridley Scott’s classic after years of people urging me to do so. It has now become one of my favorite films of all time. Yet, there is a scene that took me by surprise. Yes, there were a few violent, even gross scenes in the film (like the one where the replicant Roy squishes the head of his creator, Tyrell). But as a millennial living in the age of the #MeToo Movement, it was actually the love scene between Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young) that elicited a tinge of surprise in me.

How the Twain Meet . . .

Image via Nautilus

In Blade Runner, the future is at once decadent and technologically advanced; so advanced that conscious androids, called replicants, are made by humans and used as slaves. When some of the slaves go rogue, it’s the job of a blade runner (a futuristic bounty hunter) to track them down and kill them.

Harrison Ford plays a blade runner whose objective is to track down four intrepid Tyrell Co. replicants who have made it to Earth illegally. Deckard learns upon visiting the company that the stoical, femme fatale, Rachael, who works under Tyrell, is a replicant after he conducts a test with her called “Voight Kampff”. Tyrell explains to Deckard that by planting memories into his subjects he can make them easier to control.

In the beginning, Deckard doesn’t see replicants as anything more than mere robots. Upon discovering that Rachael is a replicant who’s in the dark about her identity, Deckard asks Tyrell “how does it not know what it is?” Despite referring to her as an object, his humanity extends to Rachael once he sees her wounded and plunged into an identity crisis after he tells her what he’s learned (and what she’s been suspecting).

Deckard’s love for Rachael seems tender, at first. In the contentious scene, the two sit at Deckard’s piano and he makes a move on her, and then the scene abruptly veers in a new direction. She pulls away and heads toward the door. He follows and drives his fist against the door, slamming it before she can escape, he then throws her against a window. With Rachael seeming perturbed, he instructs her — or coerces her as some would argue — into giving consent.

The Controversy

Image via

Being so used to our world, which emphasizes consent and brings the problem of rape and harassment to the media more than ever before, I was taken aback by the romanticized violence, though I was unsure what to make of it. I certainly wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

Even in its day the scene got some attention for being controversial. In an interview with Sean Young, the film critic, John C. Tibbits reflected, “I think people are gonna want to watch for this scene, very carefully. It might even arouse some controversy.” Young didn’t see the scene as controversial because it wasn’t, in her eyes, a “real love scene”– though the sultry saxophone complementing the scene may disagree with her.

As I listened to YouTube critics examine the scene, I considered that their reactions were inspired, at least in part, by the stories that have come out of the #MeToo movement, stories that mirror what we see between Rachael and Deckard. Listening to these very real stories may make it harder to watch aggressive men in older films like Blade Runner, and perhaps some current ones too.

Rape Culture or Harmless Fantasy?

Image via CNN Money

One prime example of a romanticized rape scene comes from one of the biggest films ever made, Gone With the Wind. Most of us are familiar with the well-known scene where Rhett Butler forcibly carries Scarlet up to her boudoir. Of course, this wasn’t the first time Clark Gable played a spirited lover. From his threats to “sock” women in the jaw to the scene where he smacked Claudette Colbert in the ass in It Happened One Night, Gable’s characters would easily raise some millennial’s eyebrows.

The quirky and often comedic actor, Cary Grant was nowhere near as macho as Gable, yet even he had a scene in the Hitchcock thriller Suspicion that could be troubling to some modern viewers. When he takes his love interest (Joan Fontaine) to an out-of-the-way spot on a hill we see her struggling to break free from his arms. With playful glee, Grant’s character says, “nothing less than murder could justify such violent self-defense.” Indeed, Old Hollywood is riddled with such examples of what feminists now call rape culture.

Despite their uncomfortable nature, interpreting these scenes may be a little trickier than it seems. The fantasy element shouldn’t be ignored. Though women generally don’t want to be in any of the above situations with a perfect stranger, women sometimes do fantasize about such scenarios when it involves men of their choosing. Cary Grant and Clark Gable were the guys women swooned over about back in the day, and by the 80’s Harrison Ford was the guy who made many women’s hearts lose a few beats.

Where Is The Line?

Erotic Fiction #MeToo

Image via HuffPost

Though modern film heroes typically lack the aggression of the older ones, we can find similar elements of sadomasochism in women’s erotica and fan-fiction, both on the web and in print — a notable example being Fifty Shades of Grey. Erotic stories are invariably more explicit than what we see in the typical feature film, and some BDSM tales lack the consent contract we see in Fifty Shades of Grey.

While not all women enjoy the submissive role, it can’t be denied that it’s a ubiquitous fantasy. For some people it has the intoxicating quality of temporarily allowing one to relinquish control, especially when in day-to-day life one’s independence and responsibilities can be burdensome and make one long for an escape from common boundaries and restrictions.

But many feminists would ask, who’s controlling the narrative in films like Blade Runner? In the case of the aforementioned films, it’s mixed. Margaret Mitchell made Rhett the aggressor — or rapist depending on your point of view — in Gone With the Wind, and Fifty Shades of Grey we all know was penned by Twilight fan, E.L. James; while the Blade Runner script and the book it was loosely based upon were the products of the male imagination. Yet it’s not too easy to distinguish one type of romantic fantasy from another. Does this mean that the line between men’s and women’s film fantasies isn’t always as clear as we tend to believe?

Thanks for reading! How do you think we should reconcile on-screen fantasies with real life issues? Leave a comment below!

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Bhavna Saurabh Sharma October 13, 2018 - 11:54 am

very well articulated.
This article under, by me, is about those survivors’ partners who want to be more supportive and sensitively help their partners through the healing process. I believe that Survivors’ partners encounter some real challenges related to the trauma, too.

megbski August 31, 2018 - 9:02 am

This article is so well done. Really thought provoking and even daring because it’s asking us to examine a truth. Most people want to choose a truth that works for them in the moment but don’t like the way it looks on someone else, so this is an honest and well-written challenge to each of us as readers.

The Animation Commendation August 30, 2018 - 3:32 pm

Like you mentioned, I believe there is a line. We can’t argue that rape and the like exists and we need to fight it. And we also can’t argue that people (both men and women) have BDSM desires or wants for some level of “harsh-ness” or at least “seduction”. I remember there being a letter signed by many actresses, particularly French ones, that came out after the whole #MeToo thing where they criticized the movement for destroying the concepts of seduction and flirting, etc.

I dunno if I fully agree with them or not, but like I said, it is a tricky line to go. In fiction, I dunno, I think maybe the content should be known by the viewers who wanna watch it beforehand and then they can make the decision whether it’s something they wanna see or not.

I dunno if that made sense, but I tried explaining my various feelings.

jdo7576 August 30, 2018 - 6:53 pm

Thanks for commenting!

It is a tricky issue. As I was writing this article I found myself thinking of a couple of scenes from Tootsie where the character Julie gets tipsy and tells a cross dressing Dustin Hoffman that she dreams of a guy who’s bold enough to bypass social norms, walk right up to her, and say “I want to make love to you.” But when Hoffman’s out of drag and tries the line on her at a party she throws a drink in his face. I think that demonstrates the importance of compartmentalizing fantasy and reality. We can of course enjoy fantasies with people of our choosing in consensual relationships, but not every spontaneous dream we have translates well to the real world–though we’re still entitled to enjoy them. I feel like feminists are successful in advocating for real world change, but when they critique art their scope can sometimes be a bit narrow.

The Animation Commendation September 1, 2018 - 10:47 am

Yeah, it is tricky. At least we are still able to have these types of discussions and respect each other.

The Animation Commendation September 3, 2018 - 12:26 pm

I remember not long after the #MeToo thing came out, some French actresses, about 100 or so, signed a letter saying how this movement was destroying the concept of seduction and the like and discouraging people from seducing and the like. And I never really knew how exactly to feel about that.

Kali Tuttle August 30, 2018 - 2:42 pm

This is a really thought-provoking article. As much as I love Cary Grant and Clark Gable, even I can admit that they have their faults. I think the #MeToo movement has really made people take a step back and take a look at their actions and who they admire.

AlexTRyan27 August 30, 2018 - 1:28 pm

I’d argue against this reading of the scene in Blade Runner. For me, it’s another example of Deckard’s moral ambiguity. Harrison Ford is a stone-cold dreamboat, no doubt, but Deckard is in many ways an unpleasant character. By the end of the film, and really from the moment he sees Rachel as human, he can’t kid himself that he’s any more than a hired murderer. An assassin. Worse, he’s an assassin specifically sent after slaves who have made bids for freedom.

In this light, I’d argue his rape of Rachel is in part an attempt to reassert his dominance and, crucially, her status as an object.

Of course, this reading raises the troubling question of how we should make sense of his continued relationship with Rachel. In both the remainder of Blade Runner and in its sequel, we’re definitely meant to believe Deckard genuinely loved her.

Jillian Oliver August 30, 2018 - 3:01 pm

Thanks for the comment! I have heard it argued before that Deckard’s moral ambiguity is exemplified in this scene. The only flaw I see in the argument is that Deckard, by this point in the film, seems to want Rachael to believe that she is an individual in her own right and not simply a robotic copy of Tyrell’s niece. When she expresses confusion about whether the music she played came from herself or Tyrell’s niece, Deckard asserts “you play beautifully.” It looks like he’s trying to supply her with stability as she struggles with her identity. I’m not sure why he would have done this if he wanted to see her as an object.

YariGarciaWrites August 30, 2018 - 11:41 am

I like violence and murder in my fiction, but not in real life. Same with strange romance. I enjoyed the type of romance in Phantom Thread, but would never want that in real life. Ever.

Personally, I like to explore dark parks of humanity through the safety of fiction. But I guess I can see why some would view this as an example for society, since life imitates art.

Very thought-provoking, for sure.

Take care,

Nick Kush August 30, 2018 - 11:21 am

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