Trigger warnings: rape, sexual assault, acquaintance rape, Tyler Perry
A week after rapper Rick Ross found himself in hot water over a lyric that was said to promote date rape, producer and director Tyler Perry found himself facing questions about a scene in his latest movie, “Tyler Perry’s Temptation,” in which a character appears to be forced to have sex against her will.
Except — oops. That hasn’t happened. And probably won’t.
While the Internet continues to explode with commentary about Ross’s offensive lyric, almost no one is talking about the disturbing “seduction” scene in Perry’s latest movie. In fact, of all the reviews I read of Perry’s latest — including several that were scathingly contemptuous — only one characterized the scene as rape, and even that reviewer dismissed the movie as camp.
[Spoiler Alert - spoilers follow]
In the film, Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is wooed by Harley (Robbie Jones), a super-rich playboy who is obviously the Devil. We know this because Harley drives a red car and runs shirtless regardless of outdoor temperatures. But we really know Harley’s the Devil because Judith’s preacher mama (Ella Joyce, whose pinched facial expressions deserve their own billing) exclaimed, “That’s the Devil!” in an effort to drive Judith into Harley’s arms — I mean, discourage her from further contact with the man.
But I digress.
Judith and Harley are on Harley’s plane when Harley, in the most unsexy manner possible, lets Judith know that he wants to make love to her. Judith rebuffs him, saying they should keep things strictly professional. Harley grabs her, and Judith says “No,” forcefully, a few times, which turns Harley on even more. He pauses long enough to say, “Okay, now you can say you resisted,” and then appears to rape Judith.
The next time we see them, Judith is snatching away from Harley and telling him she wants nothing more to do with him and never wants to see him again — all signs that the encounter on the plane was, indeed a rape. However, in the next scene, Judith sees Harley at her job and becomes angry when he does as she asked, and ignores her. (Women are fickle, y’know.)
Suddenly, Judith is at home on her cell phone, berating Harley for not paying her any attention — while her oblivious husband (Lance Gross in dweeb drag) watches a basketball game in the next room. Harley demands to know if Judith’s husband is better in bed than he — and instead of saying, “Of course, since he’s not a rapist” — Judith flashes back to what passes for steamy lovemaking in a Tyler Perry movie. We’re then made to understand that Judith did indeed consent, or at least, gave in. Harley tells her he’s coming to get her, she invents a flimsy work-related excuse and leaves. Her preacher mama is shocked, but her husband doesn’t even look up from the game.
We next see Judith and Harley in a bathtub surrounded by about eight million candles — he’s the Devil, you know — and the proliferation of burning candles and steam means we’re supposed to imagine that some kind of hell sex happened, creating a whole different kind of fire hazard.
There are obvious differences between Rick Ross’s lyric and Tyler Perry’s film. Harley doesn’t slip a Molly into Judith’s Champagne –he drugs Judith with bad lines. She is fully conscious — so conscious, she says “No!” several times, in fact.
The woman who half-heartedly resists the hunk’s advances until she can no longer deny her own desires and gives in, is, of course, a hackneyed and familiar trope of romance novels and soap operas.
Problem is, we don’t see Judith giving in. We do see her saying “No,” and Harley forcing himself on her. We don’t understand that she eventually acquiesced until the flashbacks.
And this is why Perry deserves some backlash — backlash he won’t get from mainstream media — for this scene.
Perry could have easily made Judith’s consent obvious. A breathless “Yes!” wouldn’t have completely removed the “ick” factor, but would have made Judith’s desires clear. Instead, Perry inexplicably chooses to leave the audience in suspense — briefly — as to whether or not an actual rape occurred, all while promoting the dangerous idea that a woman’s “No” is not really “No,” but merely part of the game of seduction. This scene puts Perry in such fine company as men’s rights advocates who argue that date/acquaintance rape is simply buyer’s remorse, and men who argue — as one man did on Twitter last week — that a man has to push to make sure a woman’s “No” is really “No.”
In real life, people who are sexually assaulted sometimes stop resisting to avoid further physical injury. Relenting, or giving in to what feels inevitable, is hardly the same as consent. As many people have said in the wake of Steubenville, “No Means No” needs to be updated to “Anything Other Than Yes Means No.”
Of course, Perry also is out to punish Judith for turning her back on the Lord. Judith’s downfall is foreshadowed when she starts dressing like Kim Kardashian and drinking alcohol. In this sense, it may not matter to the film’s overall morality message whether Harley rapes or seduces Judith. Either she consented, or she asked for it. Notably, Perry screened this film for 100 pastors prior to its release. They gave him their blessings. That fact may be more troubling than the film itself.
I admit Tyler Perry’s films are not for me. Perry has achieved tremendous success by making films that are not only NOT aimed at people like me, but which are derisive of ambitious, professional black women like me. I’m sure many excuses will be made for how this pivotal “seduction” scene isn’t rape, or how I’m just a hater — the usual response to those who criticize Perry’s movies. Whatever.
Still, if we’re holding entertainers to account for their words and images, we should be consistent. Perry is as responsible for the images he puts on film as Rick Ross is for the words he puts on a record. And both deserve to be called out for promoting a patriarchal view of sex in which a woman’s consent is irrelevant.