In life and in depictions of life, when is it better to look directly at instances of suffering, and when to turn away? When is looking a form of violation, and when is it a moral imperative? As the documentary image proliferates, so, too, does a discussion that has preoccupied feature storytelling: When it comes to images of violence and brutality, what needs to be seen to be believed, and which representations can’t be justified? Major news outlets now air images of death and suffering as matters of course; in a culture of mass documentation and dissemination, images that exist exist to be seen. Social-media platforms put kitten frolics and beheading videos on an equal footing. “Viewer discretion” and trigger warnings only grow more elaborate, even as they become superfluous: Who now sits down in front of any sort of screen, at any time and with even the most benign intentions, unprepared for some form of visual assault?
Sometimes a viewer reaches a line, or draws it; in such a world it’s more likely that the line will find her first. She discovers that bodycam footage and lunch at one’s desk don’t pair well, and culls her browser tabs accordingly. She learns to skip the cinematic retellings of sexual predation that have opened so many #MeToo exposés. She decides that the depictions of violence and oppression that had electrified her last year have this year come to feel more like status quo exploitation. The prerogative to choose, a cherished ideal of the consumer society, is dulled by a sense of inundation, if not compulsion, such that it can take longer than it should for a weary viewer to release her jaw, unclaw her toes, and ask herself: Why am I watching this shit?
This spring, the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale, a Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, prompted a flurry of responses in which critics explained why they would no longer watch the show. Where the first season, though graphic in its depiction of the torture and rape of enslaved female surrogates, “captured a moment in time and successfully funneled its rage outwards at a world in which women are indeed silenced, controlled and killed by men,” wrote Fiona Sturges in the Guardian this summer, the second season “stripped away all hope, swallowed its fury, abandoned Atwood’s social commentary and descended into cynical, pointless cruelty.” This feminist juggernaut had abruptly become its own antithesis, Sturges complained, joining popular entertainment’s long tradition of celebrating “artful depictions of lady corpses, all alabaster skin and wonkily splayed limbs,” along with the men who “stand over them[,] stifling their erections.”
When they don’t serve a larger vision—preferably optimistic and humane—Sturges implies, depictions of abuse and cruelty serve mainly to reduce viewers to their most basic impulses. In its second season, The Handmaid’s Tale “has left us as mere rubberneckers, peering stupidly at the carnage.” It’s not just that the show is bad, in other words, it thinks you are bad as well.
What might cruelty with a point look like? One could argue, and many artists have, that graphic depictions of violence are designed to caution and condemn, to function as a critique. “Violence in my films is shown as it really is,” said Michael Haneke, a director (The Piano Teacher, Funny Games) known to depict human suffering in detail that might be described as not just graphic but lavish, loving. “That’s why the films are often experienced as painful.” When a student at Brigham Young University complained that writer and professor Brian Evenson’s fiction condoned a certain “enjoyment” of violence, Evenson wrote a thirteen-page response. If his stories are indeed dark, full of brute force and bodily mutilation, he sought not to revel in such imagery but “to paint violence in its true colors and to let it reveal for itself how terrible it is.”
In The Art of Cruelty, her investigation of our relationship to representations of violence, Maggie Nelson rejects Evenson’s defense of his work. “Not only are humor and aesthetic delight crucial aspects of Evenson’s genius, but it is foolhardy to take any artist at face value when he or she purports to use violence in only a moral way,” Nelson writes. “To be frank, I don’t believe such a thing is possible—not because of any failure on the part of the artist, but because of the unmanageable natures of violence, sadism, and voyeurism themselves.”
Depictions of violence and the debate around them only grow more unmanageable. In the disclaimer that was added to the second season of the Netflix teen drama 13 Reasons Why, and in showrunner Brian Yorkey’s statement about the brutal scene of male-on-male sexual violence featured in that season’s finale, we find an expansion of Haneke’s suggestion that there is moral value to showing violence “as it really is.” In the disclaimer, 13 Reasons Why cast members introduce themselves, then take turns issuing a mission statement for the show, which they describe as “a fictional series that tackles tough, real-world issues,” including sexual assault and suicide. “By shedding light on these difficult topics, we hope our show can help viewers start a conversation.”
Defending his decision to depict in explicit terms a male character’s rape by three classmates, Yorkey emphasized the sense of social and moral responsibility that guides the show, and his commitment “to telling truthful stories about things that young people go through in as unflinching a way as we can.” Yorkey cited his research into the prevalence of assaults exactly like the one depicted, and suggested that those people complaining about the scene are compounding the problem he seeks to address—that of the shame and stigma attached to sexual assault, which contributes to underreporting. “We believe that talking about it is so much better than silence.”
The problem with presenting images of violence and abuse in the name of “shedding light” and “starting a conversation” is that it effectively turns them into extra-narrative events. No matter the intention, to show a thing—a woman running naked on the beach, an exploding building, or an anal rape—for its own sake is the definition of gratuitous. Many of the objections to the rape scene invoked its specious place in the larger arc of the show. It was not just hard to watch, viewers complained, but a cheap way to take a character—the victim—from newfound mental stability to the brink of madness in time for the end credits. Though a disclaimer warned that the episode contains “graphic depictions of sexual assault and drug abuse” and “is intended for mature audiences,” Yorkey sold his viewers short on sophistication. What storytellers must learn, often over and over, audiences understand by the time they master the alphabet: In narrative, a situation without a story is a form of chaos—sometimes benign, and sometimes not.
“We can force ourselves to look, squirming a little, at a great painting of the flaying of Marysas,” Susan Sontag writes in The Volcano Lover, her historical novel set in late eighteenth century Europe, “or look with equanimity, especially if we’re not women, at a lively rendering of the rape of the Sabine women.” A canonical painting both depicts a thing and is aboutthe thing it depicts, a doubling that helps ease a viewer’s gaze onto scenes she would surely turn away from in real life.
The casualties of the Naples uprising that Sontag describes see themselves “as future citizens of the world of history painting, of the didactic art of the significant moment”:
This is the way we suffer, surmount suffering, die…When they were about to die, they made themselves brave by thinking (and they were not wrong) that they were becoming an image. An image, even of the most lamentable events, should also give hope. Even the most horrifying stories can be told in a way that does not make us despair.
The Tale, documentarian Jennifer Fox’s debut feature film, has as its putative center perhaps the canonical subject: the seduction of an innocent young girl. It is Fox’s own story, an opening disclaimer informs us, as if to establish the stakes, the context within which we might consider what follows. The Tale has received attention for its depiction, over several scenes, of the thirteen-year-old protagonist’s violation by her forty-year-old running coach, Bill (Jason Ritter). An end credit notes that an adult body double was used for all such scenes, which are less explicit than harrowing in their effect. Indeed, although Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse) vomits after every encounter with Bill, who grooms her for abuse, together with her riding instructor Mrs. G (played by Elizabeth Debicki in a tricky, mesmerizing turn), the viewer may suffer more intensely in anticipation of and through these scenes than Jenny is shown to in the event.
That Fox is not interested in sensationalizing images of her own abuse is unsurprising. Part of the shock of The Tale, and the better portion of its triumph, is the extent to which the filmmaker declines to engage with the norms of the master narrative her experience happens to fit. Rather than adopt or even subvert the familiar beats of that story—sexual exploitation as a morality tale of titillating folly—she sets them aside entirely. Hers is not an exercise in confession, formal reclamation, or “raising awareness.” It is a work of storytelling above all. The framing of what happened to Jenny is flexible, expansive, interested in complication; the perspective is enigmatic, deeply personal, at once singular and manifold, insular and diffuse.
It is through the forty-eight-year-old Jennifer (Laura Dern) that Jenny’s story is told. Though it hinges on Jenny’s abusive relationship with Mrs. G and Bill, The Tale is ultimately a story about context, agency, and memory. When the film opens, Jennifer, a professor and documentarian with a loving fiancé named Martin (Common), appears at once comfortable and bold, settled in her life and willing to take chances. When her mother (Ellen Burstyn) discovers a story her daughter wrote about Bill and Mrs. G at thirteen, her demand for a reckoning forces Jennifer to reconsider a version of herself and her experiences long squared away in her mind. Initially, she describes Bill as her first boyfriend and Mrs. G as “an incredible woman.” It was a private, transformative event—enriching, empowering, and hers alone. Why all this fuss over an affair that Jenny had participated in by choice?
It was the seventies, after all; shit happened. In Jennifer’s initial recollections of that summer, we see a teenaged Jenny (Jessica Sarah Flaum) lost in a chaotic household of young children and harried parents. “Why are you telling this story, Jenny?” Dern asks in voice-over. Jenny replies by addressing the camera: “I always wanted to have a story to tell, but nothing ever happened to me before.”
When her mother shows Jennifer a photo of herself at thirteen, Jennifer’s version of what happened to her that summer begins to fissure: She appears much younger than the image she had held in her mind; she is in fact a different child altogether. Nélisse, who replaces Flaum in subsequent flashbacks, would have been twelve or thirteen during shooting. What she shares with all of The Tale’s versions of its protagonist is the sense of self-possession Jennifer has embedded into the story of who she was. We never quite see Jenny as other characters describe her: puny, fragile, insecure. She doesn’t hesitate, or show fear; she talks back to Jennifer, her adult counterpart, refusing her doubts. Numerous times she describes herself as in control, making decisions, taking life into her own hands—even as Fox depicts Jenny slipping into a trap. Consent requires agency, something Bill recognizes that Jenny badly wants and wants to believe she already has. He encourages and profits from the delusion that one person can grant agency to another, facilitate her maturity, bring her into her own adult, reconciled self.
The delusion endures. The process by which a child becomes a self-determined individual is fraught and ephemeral, the parameters unstable. To look back on that process is to tell a story; to draw a line between one’s selves is to stand mouth-deep in a river that runs both ways. With camera cues that attempt to mimic this fluid, insidious process of remembering, and the choral interplay between Jennifer and her memories of herself and particularly of the inscrutable Mrs. G, Fox achieves a blended, unsettled perspective that is itself at the heart of the story she tells.
In this, The Tale recalls the title story of Alice Munro’s The Lives of Girls and Women, in which the thirteen-year-old Del, another budding storyteller, is drawn to an adult family friend, Mr. Chamberlain—or rather to the idea of a Mr. Chamberlain, someone who might see Del as a woman, and through whose eyes she might venture to see herself. He makes Del feel “endangered and desired,” which may or may not be how a woman is meant to feel. Munro describes the ensuing abuse without melodrama or moral freight, focusing tightly on Del’s experience of Mr. Chamberlain’s violations, “brutal as lightning,” and forging from a sort of combined voice—that of the past and present narrator—a balance of perspective and immediacy, clarity and confusion. This man who had “assumed without any trouble at all that there was treachery in me, as well as criminal sensuality, waiting to be used… Could he have hit upon my true self?” Perhaps worst of all for Del, she was not able to make “what Mr. Chamberlain had done into a funny, though horrifying, story. I did not know what to do with it.”
Jenny wrote her horrifying story, called it fiction, and received an A. We see her show fear only when Jennifer threatens to dismantle the tale, remove its tenuous protections. No one wants to be the victim in her own story. Fox makes of her fragmented protagonist something much more: an intricate, borderless puzzle; a human being. Having demonstrated the power and persuasion of story, for better and worse, Fox offers no moral, no answers, and no closure. The Tale depicts horror and suffering in the way Sontag describes, leaving the viewer not in despair but approaching a strange sort of hope. Which is to say it seeks the contours of tragedy, in its truest form.