The Rape of Alice: An Exploration of the Abuse in The Killing of Sister George

* * * TRIGGER WARNING :: Depictions of Abuse, Stalking, Rape, and Homonegativity * * *

Hello again!

For one of the courses that I am taking at University, I have been tasked with writing 6  reaction papers over the course of the semester. Many of these take the form of psuedo- film reviews, where my reaction is to a film that we watched in class. The first of these was to the film Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). This was not published here as, well, I didn’t think about it at the time. This, the second reaction paper is in reference to The Killing of Sister George (1968). However, before I begin with my write-up, I just want to point out again that there is a trigger warning on this post, as well as on the movie being referred to, for depictions of rape, stalking, abuse, and homonegativity and discussions thereof. Please tread carefully and remember self-care.

[Image] A person with painted nails holding up a card saying "It's NO until I say YES without coercion"The Killing of Sister George (1968) contained quite a few problematic elements. Ranging from conflation of femininity with infantilism to the complete inability to resolve the plot, the movie seemed quite content to make wild, unfounded generalizations and then leave the audience hanging. However, perhaps the most problematic elements of the movie did not lay in the mechanics of plot development or basic storytelling, but instead with the depiction, and implicit normalization, of manipulation, abuse, and rape within lesbian communities of the time.

These themes were almost omnipresent throughout the film, but were mostly tied to those who took an interest in Alice ‘Childie’ McNaught. From the very first scene, it is shown that the relationship between June ‘George’ Buckeridge and Alice is one marked by alcohol, control, and abuse. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film, June is aggressively questioning Alice about who she has been drinking with, as if an empty glass on the table is an indication of sexual indiscretion. Despite this concern being quickly dispelled, June follows up by once again accusing Alice of sexual impropriety, this time with her boss at work. This leads into one of the most awkward and blatantly abusive exchanges in the movie when June screams at Alice “If that’s what he’s like, then why hasn’t he had a go at you?” This is quickly followed up by June exasperatingly adding “No one ever tells me anything” to Alice’s assertions that she is being honest, forthright, and true.

This seemingly confused behaviour on the part of June seeks to throw Alice off balance and pressure her into a certain pattern of responding. This is shown more clearly later in the film when June unexpectedly shows up at Alice’s work to find that her boss is not the sexy, suave, lady-killer that she was expecting, but rather an older, married, Jewish man. In this scene, June insists that Alice lied to her about the sexual appeal of her boss; However, Alice did no such thing. Rather, she gets pressured into responding in the affirmative simply to defuse the anger that was being directed her way by June. This pattern of denial, followed by continued abuse, and finally complete surrender is one that repeats itself throughout the film, and a truism of long-term abusive relationships: learned helplessness.

Alice isn’t the only person to be a recipient of June’s abusive behaviour, however. Rather, this list includes a pair of random nuns in the back of a taxi, as well as the entire cast and crew of the BBC soap opera June was working on. In both of these cases, alcohol fueled her exploits, leading June to act inappropriately. With her peers on the set of her soap opera, June simply hurled abusive barbs at those members of the cast she didn’t appreciate. However, with the nuns earlier in the film, it is suggested that June sexually assaults either one or both of these women, a fact that she uses to taunt Alice later on.

As with many abusers, June also shows a history of abusive, consent violating behaviour. In a scene detailing how June first met Alice, June recounts the story of how she stalked Alice, violated many of her personal boundaries, and even took a piece of her property as a souvenir, all prior to even speaking a word to Alice herself.

June: That takes me back years. When I first met you…

Alice: That awful boarding house.

June: You know, for weeks I watched you come and go, and I never spoke a word to you. Every morning, you set off for work punctually *giggle* at 10 past 9. You were always in such a rush.

Alice: I had no idea you were watching me.

June: Then, one night I went into the bathroom just after you had had a bath, and the mirror was all steamed up and the bathmat was all wet and glistening where you’d be standing on it. And, there was a smell of bath crystals and talcum powder. It was like an enchanted wood. And I stood quite still on the bathmat in your footprints and then I noticed that you’d left your comb behind, it was a pink plastic comb and it had your hairs in it and I kept that comb as a souvenir. And all that time, I’d never spoken a word to you.

This extreme example very much mimics the way that abusers and rapists choose their victims. They often violate social norms and minor personal boundaries as a way of testing whether the victim would be likely to rebuff their advance or challenge their presumed power. If these small invasions are successful, the abuser moves to larger boundary breaches and more controlling behaviours. Often, by the time the victim realizes what is actually going on, the abuser is far too close or far too connected to push them from their place of power and control. [Dick pictures as minor boundary breaches]

This entrapped nature of abuse, and the random, often unpredictable nature of the abuser pushes the victim in to a state of learned helplessness, much like that exhibited by Alice. In this, the victim often surrenders to the abuse, even when it is over things that aren’t factual or believable, simply because they know that correcting the abuser will only make matters worse. With this in mind, the sex scene at the end of the movie begins to look less like a failed attempt at romanticism and more like a new abuser using the learned helplessness of Alice to take a place of control and power. At the beginning of this scene, Mercy Croft places her hand on Alice’s breast, Alice pushes her hand away, not once, but twice, Mercy continues to push Alice’s limits until, finally, Alice gives up, “allowing” Mercy to do as she wills.

This pattern of learned helplessness does not imply consent; However, in the many years since the films release there is little to no discussion about how the sex scene at the end of the movie may actually be an act of rape. This may be because of general perceptions of rape as a wholly violent act, against a thrashing, fighting, completely unwilling victim. Patterns such as the one described with Alice are often not only discounted from rape discourse, but actively eroticized by generations of romantic comedies. This, along with the passing reference to a sadomasochistic relationship between June and Alice, offers real life people who act like June and Mercy social license to operate. This allows them to use the benefit of the doubt created by “gray rape” romantic comedies, and other aspects of rape culture, to continue their track record of manipulation, abuse, and rape.

Considering that Alice, June, and Mercy are the only developed lesbian characters, and given that not one of the three of them is a positive, strong role model (to say the least), it is safe to say that this film, much like Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) is highly homonegative. Further, since many of the major character flaws present within Alice, June, and Mercy can be tracked back to stereotypes and beliefs about the butch/femme dynamic of lesbian relationships (butch as sexual and physical aggressor, femme as childish, innocent, and passive), the film actively supported the hatred, fear, and misunderstanding that surrounded lesbian women and gay men at the time.

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