by Sherry F. Colb

In my Verdict column this week, I talk about two of the ways in which African Americans and women have been marginalized: denial and devaluation. Denial refers to the refusal to credit the stories that people on the losing side of racial and gender conflicts tell. If a police officer kills a black suspect, and witnesses say that the killing was unprovoked, they face skepticism and disbelief. And the same is true for women who tell of being raped by a date; listeners (such as juries) choose not to believe what they are hearing and to assume that the woman is lying. Devaluation happens sometimes when African Americans and women manage to actually convince those in power that what they are saying is true. Devaluation consists in minimizing the gravity of the harm in question.

In this post, I want to talk about a movie, because even though movies ostensibly tell one story--and a fictional one at that--the story often represents a narrative about what typically happens. A movie about a white police officer who killed an African American suspect for a good reason would accordingly represent an effort to offer up the narrative that says that when police kill suspects it is usually justified.

To understand what I mean, imagine going to see a popular movie and finding out that the story of the movie is all about how a rich, Jewish moneylender exploits the poor Christians who live in his neighborhood. In the course of the story, the moneylender collects usurious interest rates for his loans, and various Christian borrowers descend into terrible poverty, unable to feed their children, some driven to suicide. At the end, the moneylender sits at the table celebrating the Jewish Sabbath with his family, singing songs and beaming at the heavy gold jewelry around his wife's neck that he was able to give to her after appropriating what rightfully belonged to his clients.

Such a story would be anti-semitic propaganda, and we would all recognize it as such. Does that mean that a Jew has never leant people money? Of course not. Does it even mean that a Jew has never charged excessive interest on a loan or that borrowers never suffered as a result? No again. And still, releasing a film that tells the story of one Jew who does these terrible things is hate propaganda, because the film implicitly says not only that this thing happened one time or may happen sometimes. It says that this is what people can expect from a Jew, that the Jew is a greedy villain. And even as this is obvious to most of us, a Nazi might reply with outrage, "It's just a movie!" or "This does happen sometimes," even as he would enjoy the effect of propaganda that conforms so well to what he thinks about Jews. 

With this introduction, I will say that the film I am about to discuss is one that I have not seen. Therefore, I may be completely wrong about the movie and apologize in advance if I am, although I doubt that I am. The movie of which I speak is called  Submission. At the movies last week, I saw a preview for it. From what I could gather, it is about a female student who feels attracted to her male professor. She submits assignments to him in which she writes very explicitly about a student having sex with her professor (in ways that sound strangely like something a man might find on pornhub). The professor refuses the student’s advances at first (again, from what I could gather), and the student falsely accuses him of sexual harassment.

The preview was dispiriting because it promised to tell such an old and tired story, a version of which David Mamet told us in “Oleanna.” The story, a libel against women who bring accusations of sexual violence, has a woman lusting after a man who refuses her advances. Once scorned, the woman uses false accusations to exact revenge. I am guessing that she gets hers in the end. Perhaps she dies or gets punished in some other way. Or maybe she gets away with her crime. Either way, the message is clear: the real victim when a woman accuses a man of sexual misconduct is ordinarily the accused man. And men should do what they can to avoid giving women the opportunity to make a false accusation, because that is exactly what they'll do if they get the chance.

The story is iconic and even clichéd, not a fascinating departure from the norm. Women who complain of being hurt by a man sound so believable, we are meant to understand, that we naturally feel sorry for them as they cry and make their accusations. We mustn’t allow our sympathy to blind us to the truth, however. They are liars when it comes to matters of rape and sexual harassment, we are told, and believing them is far too easy, though they lie through their teeth.

The reality, of course, is quite different. Many men routinely make advances on women who try politely but firmly to communicate that they are not interested. Women who have been 20 years old know that this is the case. Some of the men, moreover, have a difficult time accepting rejection and become enraged. This irrational emotion interferes with clear thinking and may manifest itself in violence, both emotional and physical. Rape is one kind of violence, and it may both satisfy a perpetrator’s sexual desire and punish his victim for rejecting him. It is, perhaps ironically, the male rapist and not the female victim whose hysteria warps his capacity to think straight. Hell perhaps hath no fury like a man scored. When women say they were raped, moreover, they are just as likely to be telling the truth as any other victim of crime, and we do tend to believe people who say they were victims of just about any other crime.

In a conversation that we see during the preview, a colleague of the professor’s tells him that he, the colleague, never talks to female students alone in his office unless the door is open. The implication is that female students (i.e., women) are prone to lying about rape and sexual harassment and that it is therefore important never to be alone with them. This way, if and when the female student lies about rape or sexual harassment, colleagues can testify truthfully that they walked by the accused’s office and saw that nothing amiss. This entire story, including the “keep the door open” protective measure, feeds the rape myth that women cannot be trusted to tell the truth.

The appeal of movies like Submission—what Susan Faludi might call a “backlash film”—testifies to the reality that we still have serious problems with denial when it comes to sexual violence. But perhaps the film can be taken as a good sign. We are now in the era of #MeToo, when women are finally being believed and, as important, having the content of what they are describing taken seriously. It is doubtless true that there are many people who like discrediting the stories of women who speak of being raped, people who also think we should continue to define rape in a very restrictive way (so that rapists cannot be prosecuted even if people believe their victims). Such thinking is the essence of male supremacy. But maybe the dominance of such people is on its way out. If so, then Submission may be a last gasp in response to an unwelcome change in perception, rather than representing the way people continue to see truth. Perhaps the fear that rape victims might actually be believed is warranted, a fear associated with guilt rather than befuddled innocence.