Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Sexual Assault in Back to the Future or "I'm totally about to ruin your nostalgic love for this movie, so get ready"

[Trigger warning]

For the first time in probably more than ten years, I watched Back to the Future with my boyfriend, who had never seen it.  I remember it being not that great, but it's one of those classic 80s movies that everyone should see once.  I guess.  Watching it as an adult was very different than that first viewing as a kid.  Much of that had to do with my change in how I perceived the sexual assault in the movie.

I think we all know how the story goes: Marty's inventor friend, Doc, invents a time machine, Marty is sent back in time in his escape from scary brown terrorists, whom Doc cheated out of a proper bomb in exchange for time-traveling necessary plutonium.  Before he locates Doc in 1955, Marty inadvertently prevents his parents from their fateful meeting.

Let's stop here for a sec because this is where the sexual assault first enters: Marty's mom, Lorraine, falls in love with George after her dad hits George with the car.  Lorraine in 1985 still never knew what George was doing in the middle of the street in the first place.  Well, Marty follows George in 1955 and we find out that George was in a tree with binoculars watching Lorraine undress.  Lorraine's dad hits him, or is supposed to hit him, when he falls out of the tree.  However, Marty pushes him out of the way and is hit by the car, thus becoming the love-interest to his mom.

At any rate, during the course of events where Marty tries to figure out how to return to 1985, and also how to ensure his existence by getting his parents to fall in love or at the very least "park the car," we observe more sexual assault.  In the cafeteria, Lorraine is sitting with friends, and Biff (who in 1985 is George's boss, or at least more successful coworker) has his hands on Lorraine.  She is clearly uncomfortable.  She tells him to go away; she is cowering away from him.  Marty encourages George to stop them, but George is afraid, and slinks away.  So Marty steps in (which further cements Lorraine's attraction to him).

Later in the movie, Marty comes up with a plan to get George with Lorraine, a plan which involves Marty being not so nice to a nice girl (his mom), and he tells George to rescue her.  George points out that that is not a very nice thing for Marty to do, but he assures George that's it's totally cool cuz it's pretend and stuff.  Hear that everyone?  Sexual assault is okay if you're only pretending to assault the woman to act as wingman to your buddy (or father!), but it's gotta be believable, so scare the shit out of her.  Ugh.  I can't believe I just wrote that.

Anyway, the plan goes wrong.  Turns out Lorraine is totally hot for Marty, but quickly changes her mind when she finds kissing him feels like kissing her brother.  Biff interrupts, and in an act of revenge against Marty for a sweet skateboard escape attempt that earlier trashed Biff's car, Biff hands Marty over to his thugs, and jumps in the car with Lorraine, presumably to "have his way" with her.  Yeah, it's called rape, but it's not really treated as such in the movie.  It does, however, mean that George can really prove himself a man because Lorraine is really being sexually assaulted by Biff (and not just pretend sexually assaulted by Marty).  Long-ish uncomfortable scene short: George rescues Lorraine.  Seriously, this scene was really uncomfortable to watch. I mean, after all the other assaults that Lorraine endures, it's made even more disgusting by the fact that I'm made to think "omg will no one save her?"  That's what these assaults are all building up to, right?  George has a chance to protect her, and eventually does before it can escalate anymore. But it's just a prop to motivate George, which falls into that cliche of women dying / being assaulted / or being in any other form of danger to cause a man to act (I think one of the best examples of this is Wolverine in the X-Men movies, since the women are basically required to die twice to get Wolverine to do stuff).

Oh, but after George proves his manliness by saving Lorraine's virtue, George gets another chance to really hang on to that manliness because (guess what!) Lorraine is assaulted AGAIN.  Some random dude on the dance floor shoves George out of the way and has his hands on Lorraine even though she, again, says no, and even tries to get away.  At this point I believe I was throwing things.  Apparently the character of Lorraine exists solely for the purpose of being sexually assaulted.  I mean, she like goes around doing Lorraine things, and gets assaulted.  And it's okay, because eventually some upstanding man will defend her.  Maybe.  And even when she's sitting with friends, her friends just carry on like nothing is happening.  Can I get some damn female solidarity please??

Oh yeah, George eventually reclaims Lorraine for a second time.  Marty still exists.  Hooray.

But there's one more thing I want to talk about before I wrap this up.  Marty returns to 1985 to find that his and his family's lives have significantly improved because George is now a Man.  We have several signifiers that tell us about the family's success: Marty's brother is wearing a suit and not a fast-food uniform!  His sister has several boyfriends.  SEVERAL!  His mom is not fat!  That's like, the best kind of mom, right?  And his dad is the boss of other people!  Including (omg you're so not ready for this) Biff.  BIFF EVERYONE!!  You know, the man who consistently sexually assaulted his mom in high school, including a near-rape!  Yep.  They keep him around to wax the car because it's an indicator of MANLY SUCCESS and is not at all triggering to Lorraine having her attacker so close every day of her adult life.  Because Biff is subdued now, and is not at all likely to you know, attack her again despite having shown a propensity for just that behavior.

As a kid, I think I sort of glossed over these attacks.  They're treated so callously in the movie that I didn't process it as something out of the norm.  I simply accepted that Biff was a jerk, and Lorraine needed someone to save her, and then everything was okay.  I didn't think of George as a predator, even though he  is, because the movie still frames him as a hero.  When I saw Biff at the end waxing the family car, I thought it was a funny sort of justice--ha, serves him right!  Only as an adult do I see how utterly fucked up it is that Lorraine has to have him in close proximity, and how fucking unrealistic it is that she would be okay with that.

But no one cares about a woman's discomfort if it means her predator-turned-hero-turned-husband is all confidant and shit.  Yay for manliness!


Iscah said...

Actually, that's exactly what I thought about when I watched it the first time - although I never saw it as a child, and so watched it for the first time last year. I watched it with my husband, who loved it as a child, and who, to his credit, was pretty horrified upon re-watching. The car scene really was excruciating.

Whirlwitch said...

I remember the assault in the car being scary, and my impression of Biff as being not just "a jerk" but a really bad person.

But I missed a bunch of stuff at the end. It made sense to me that George would have turned out more successful because he had learned to be brave and assertive, but I don't remember ever noticing that this change in him was supposed to have changed things for his whole family too. And with Biff, I totally missed the whole "trigger" aspect.

I watched the movie as a pre-teen. At that age I had been molested many times, but was still repressing/denying any memory of that. And focusing more on surviving the abuse I was enduring at the time. Twenty-odd years, a couple of sexual assaults I didn't repress, experience with caring relationships, and a good deal of therapy later, I totally get the issue with Lorraine being triggered, and I'm squicked that nobody seemed to recognize it back then.

Anonymous said...

This sounds just about right. You look back on movies that you may have liked before (or even cheered during) and find things that set off red flags now.

It's never pretty.

CaitieCat said...

Feel free to delete my "testing" comment, FG.

This is a good post. I find more and more often, I can't watch even things I used to love with all my geeky heart sometimes, when I realize how hideously anti-progressive $MEDIA_EXAMPLE really is.

It's a frustrating loss, in some ways, when it was something you loved forever, but it just makes me more determined to produce $MEDIA_EXAMPLE that isn't infuriating.

FilthyGrandeur said...

yeah, it's kinda depressing to look back on something you once thought was awesome, only to find it upsetting as an adult. i think this movie in particular is a great example because it's one of those movies that everyone has seen. it disturbs me even more that it was rated PG, with the take away lesson being that sexual assault is okay in some situations. for the record, i think if i went back in time only to find that my existence was contingent on my mom being sexually assaulted a number of times, i'd be okay with just not existing...

oh, i just looked it up on the Netflix page: apparently it's been given the thumbs up for kids over 8. in further notes it states "Sex, wanted and unwanted, is implied, but it's pretty harmless and will go over the heads of youngsters." um, no it won't. i remember being a kid and i understood implied sex (hell, i remember sexual innuendos from Rocko's Modern Life, and I got those as a kid too). and while as a kid i did understand that the "unwanted" part was wrong, i didn't necessarily think it was abnormal in social situations, which, when you think about it, is pretty harmful since it plays into the whole rape culture thing. i also remember first thinking the peeping tom thing was funny, instead of a form of assault.

bike groggette said...

it's kinda depressing to look back on something you once thought was awesome, only to find it upsetting as an adult.

Oh this has happened way to often to me in the past several years! On the one hand it's a good thing because you're more aware and not afraid to call out troubing aspects of something you (used to) love.
On the other hand... nostaligia destroyed!

Jenny said...

Dammit- yeah, I don't remember the part about Marty assaulting his mom,but I remember the rest and watching the scene with Biff in the car and being really unnerved. Fuck, it was my favorite of Zemeckis' next to Roger Rabbit too. Gah.

kelly said...

This post is full of Win and explains the squicky feelings I had as a kid, watching the film (and as a kid I didn't even NOTICE the grossness of the dad watching through binoculars. I mean I like Crispin Glover for his creepiness but not criminal sexual assault).

You wrote brilliance here but sum it up with:

"Apparently the character of Lorraine exists solely for the purpose of being sexually assaulted. "

Yup. &: Ew.

Sean L. said...

"...and how fucking unrealistic it is that she would be okay with that."

But that traveling through time stuff, now -that's- realism.

It's called fiction for a reason.

FilthyGrandeur said...

@Sean L.

i publish your comment only as an example. further comments that read as rape-apologist will not be published. sexual assault does not fall into your "time travel" fiction--it's not fiction to real-life victims, asshole.

snobographer said...

I suppose if Lorraine had hoofed all her assailants in the junk, Sean would have felt sympathy pains for the behoofed. Then we'd have to just pat his little head and remind him that It's Only a Movie. They tend to forget, the poor sillies.

Jenny said...

I work for a women's shelter. This post is absolutely right, and I think Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale should both be thrown in prison for such an offensive, disgusting depiction.

Dom said...

As a man, I completely agree with you. I am ashamed to have admired this movie in my youth. These types of movies are horrible and should never be made. It is an insult to both women and right-thinking men everywhere that we must have these types of films forced upon us. As soon as I'm finished writing this, I'm going to send a letter to all the video rental places I know of, demanding that this type of filth be removed from their libraries.

FilthyGrandeur said...

you're completely misunderstanding how "criticism" works, Dom.

Anonymous said...

"dom" is a troll. He's being sarcastic and thinks you'll be dumb enough to believe him...

FilthyGrandeur said...

wow, thanks Anon! my lady-brain is totally incapable of understanding the concept of sarcasm without the help of someone else!

my response to Dom still stands, as it does for the rest of you assholes coming in from agitator. it being a popular movie does not make it exempt from criticism.

Steve Clay said...

It's a good sign that so many people now recognize these behaviors as assault and completely socially unacceptable.

I recently watched "Saturday Night Fever" expecting cheesy disco fun and was horrified, though I think that was meant to shock when it came out. Still, it's painful.

I find Radley Balko's characterization of this post as strange, as he'd certainly agree with your analysis if these were real events. He has some sheepish followers, but he's a good guy.

FilthyGrandeur said...

@Steve Clay--

thanks for commenting. given how the link to my post was framed, i have a feeling he didn't actually read what i wrote. similarly, a quick glance through my site stats indicates that those directed here by Balko are not reading, since the vast majority spend less than a second on the page, which means they've already decided i'm wrong based on Balko's framing (also indicated by the rather hostile comments i've been receiving).

nonetheless, i appreciate you reading, and your comment here and at agitator.

kelly said...

I love, times one million, that you called them on the LESS THAN ONE MINUTE they spent on your article. Good reminder for me, if I ever get linked to from some hostile area. Thanks!

FilthyGrandeur said...

thanks Kelly! site trackers sure are fun. it helps to maintain perspective. and these people wonder why i'm rejecting most of these comments. if they don't take the time to read what i've written, why should i afford them the same courtesy?

XI said...

I recently had something like this happen to me when watching a movie I enjoyed in my youth. A few months ago, a friend mentioned that he had never seen "Pulp Fiction". So we rented it from Netflix and watched it one Saturday.

One of the more memorable scenes that stood out in my memory was one where two guys who didn't like each other, Butch and Marsellus, weren't getting along very well. I didn't remember what they were fighting about, but Marsellus was really mad at Butch about something. They crashed through a storefront and the store owner, Zed, broke up them up and got them to stop fighting. After that, I didn't really remember what happened exactly, but I did remember that there was a guy in a Catwoman costume. Zed gave Marsellus a funny mask to wear, which really surprised Marsellus for some reason. I also remember that Marsellus said that he was gonna invite a bunch of his friends to come down there, and then Butch got a new motorcycle.

Then I watched it again.... Turns out, Catwoman was "the gimp". the "mask" was a ball-gag. Marsellus got raped. Zed was killed by Butch. Marsellus instigated a race riot. Butch STOLE the motorcycle, and it wasn't even a motorcycle... it was a chopper!

What I'm saying is, just because you didn't understand it as a child, doesn't mean that it's a aberration now that you do. Marty McFly hasn't been canonized. There's no National Back to the Future Day. It's a story that can stand on its own, and that story happens to include some extremely questionable behavior, and even some downright abuse. I will agree that it was marketed as "family friendly", and that scene is absolutely not family friendly. Nothing about it is really... his mom wants to jump his bones! But hey marketing is bullshit.

In the end, Back to the Future is a caricature... of time travel, of science, of the 1950's, of thugs, and yes, of rape. Childhood misconceptions do not change that. Yeah, Back to the Future is kind of messed up. But that's ok.

Anonymous said...

Same anon as above...

Thinking I'm not a woman? Fail. I am. And I am a feminist (and a libertarian! GASP). When I saw that you didn't respond with "WTF? TROLL", I just left a quick comment to make sure his smug little self-congratulation on the agitator's thread didn't go unnoticed.

FilthyGrandeur said...

you're right Anon, that is a fail on my part, but considering that the vast majority of commenter coming in from agitator are men, it's not an unwarranted assumption. plus, the tone of your comment indicated to me that you did not think i knew he was being sarcastic, and also that you thought it confirmed that i was "dumb enough to believe him."

i do have a site tracker. i know where every one of these comments is coming from, and yes, i've been reading the comments at agitator.

next time you want to look out for someone else on the internet, you might try being a little nicer about it. with all these asshole comments i'm NOT publishing, as well as the asshole comments on agitator, is it any wonder why i'd be just the teeniest bit defensive?

Quercki said...

I must have been older when I watched Back to the Future, because I remember noticing the assaults. But there are other examples of things I'd remembered fondly that turned out to be squicky when I was old enough to know better.

Anonymous said...

I think this posting makes a lot of good points and has now changed my perspective on the film. Possibly the reason it did not trigger in the mainstream when this fiction film was released is because this is a 1950's _Flash Back_ scene - you view it within the context of the 1950's when this behavior was probably more acceptable. Certainly it might be wise (but not required, it's a free country) for an 80's film to come up with a different plot device.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I'm an evil male who got here from the stupid Agitator site. Yes, I also read the whole post. I even read most of the comments.

And yes, "humorless feminist" is a great way to describe your post.

-Marty's father being a peeping Tom is not shown FAVORABLY by the movie. It's something men (especially unpopular men in past ages who has little hope of actually being with a woman) are known to do. It's pathetic, but realistic (especially years ago).

-the first "sexual assault" from Biff that you mention was also not shown favorably by the movie, and it also was something common back at the time being depicted. Indeed, showing that UNFAVORABLY in the movie is something you should cheer, since that was the sort of thing that happened back then WITHOUT sufficient disapproval from society. We disapprove now. Go us.

-The next thing, the "planned assault" is also not something viewed positively (George certainly thinks it's a bad thing), but Marty is desperate to SAVE HIS OWN LIFE. Considering the trade off (make myself look awful to make my dad look good to SAVE MY LIFE), I'd say that reasonable, especially when the plan is to not go through with it (Marty himself is shown to think it's a terrible idea to actually go through with it, see next)

-You totally ignore the sexual assault Lorraine commits on Marty. She merely "finds kissing him feels like kissing her brother." How does she find that out again?

-Biff and Lorraine in the car. Again, how is this approved of, or "not really treated as such" in the movie? Did I miss that part? Biff is a terrible person. He is willing to rape an innocent girl just because he can. This is supposed to make sure the audience HATES him. In the time being portrayed, this sort of thing was more common than it is today, and we hate that. Congratulations on missing the point (again).

-The dancing scene part is really the funniest part of your screed. Yes, it's "assault" to have someone cut in on the dance floor. He "has his hands on her". OH NOES! Oh wait - that's a normal part of a dance in the time being portrayed. People switch dance partners. She'd rather dance with George, yes, but that hardly makes it "assault". In the specific case, it was "a bit on the rude side". That was normal AT THE TIME PORTRAYED. No one (man or woman) considered it "assault", any more than a handshake is considered assault today.

-"her friends just carry on like nothing is happening." Um, yeah, that's because, especially by the standards of the time, nothing WAS happening (rape scene excepted). Most of that stuff was minor and common. Isn't progress great?

-"And it's okay, because eventually some upstanding man will defend her." For the vast majority of human history, the only thing that protected women from bad men was good men. Today, we have firearms, and the laws are generally better. Still, in a great many cases, what protects women from bad men is good men. It's not politically correct, and yes, I find it pathetic and terrible that there are so many rotten men, but that doesn't change reality.

-The thing at the end with Biff is quite silly, but it's a quick-and-dirty part of the ending (just to show how Biff turns out). Meh.

So yeah, I find your whole post to be completely ridiculous.

Just for the record, my WIFE was raped years before we met, and it affects our sex life. I'd like to kill the guy who did it. My sister was date-raped, and it deeply affected her. I KNOW that rape is a terrible, horrible thing. Your post equates "rape" and "dancing with someone she doesn't really feel like dancing with" as being equally bad (or at least really close). That's the opposite of helpful.

I don't care if you post this comment or not - it's primarily for you, anyway.

FilthyGrandeur said...

@ anon--

you clearly have no idea what criticism is. i merely pointed out what you could see for yourself in the movie, and discussed it.

i don't care that it's portrayed as "normal for that time." that's a bullshit defense, and does not make it any less WRONG that a woman who consistently says no is still being assaulted. and while we're on the subject, please go look up the definition of assault before you come at me with this bullshit, because every example list is assault.

i refuse to argue about the severity of rape or sexual assault, or discuss what is worse with you because that's irrelevant, and only minimalizes what victims have been forced to endure, but let me tell you that neither is pleasant, to say the very least.

i find it strange that a man who has been affected by the rapes of women in his life would fail to see how triggering these scenes are. but then again, i suppose it's not that surprising.

kelly said...

Is "my wife was raped" like "my black friend", in that if I can invoke it it's a trump card that my thoughts > yours and you are "ridiculous"?

If so DING DING DING I win over anon, as I've been sexually assaulted personally, so I guess my opinion matters the most? Until someone comes along who can evidence even more anecdotal rape fables that are "better" ones?

Anyway, I enjoy your analysis very much. Deconstructing rape apologist viewpoints and rape culture is definitely important from a human rights standpoint, and yes of course this includes our favorite "family" films that seem "harmless" to the undiscerning mind. Besides the triggering aspects you mention, I'm raising two kiddos and it's hard to raise them meaningfully and safely when "rape culture: you're soaking in it!" - you know? Lectures about "bad touch" just don't do the job.

FilthyGrandeur said...

thanks for the comment Kelly.

it certainly seems like the rape culture version of the "my black friend" defense. which just makes it even more disturbing since it's not something he lived, yet he's still invoking it.

the trolls are just upset i had the audacity to point out the bad stuff. my hobby is ruining everyone's fun.

FilthyGrandeur said...

note: i will not be wasting my time reading any more bullshit silencing comments. i will no longer extend the courtesy of reading your ignorant remarks given that you could not be bothered to even read and think about what i've written. i am closing comments on this post. you can go be pissed about humorless feminists somewhere else, because you are not welcome in my space.