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'Luckiest Girl Alive' Is An Empowered Survivor Story — Despite Netflix's Cruel Rape Bait-And-Switch

Photo: Netflix
actresses from Luckiest Girl Alive

(Note: Spoilers for the Netflix film Luckiest Girl Alive to follow)

It's hard for me to write about sexual violence. But I want to write about the Netflix film Luckiest Girl Alive anyway. It's important.

As I sit down to type, my heart is racing and my chest feels clenched tight. I'm fighting the urge to close the computer. There's a tingling in my legs, as if my muscles know something my mind doesn't. I imagine my sympathetic nervous system is something like Whoopi Goldberg's character in Ghost, warning, "You're in danger, girl." 

But I'm not in danger. I'm just touching a sensitive subject. Even if, in this case, the subject is a movie about rape.

When you've survived sexual violence or harassment of any form, like so many of us have, you're almost always aware of that warning voice. Fortunately, as time passes (especially if you've done work around it) you can acknowledge it and gently ask it to stand down. But you know it's unlikely to become fully quiet. 

After all, that voice is there to keep you safe. It doesn't know that the source of your trauma might be in jail or dead or 4000 miles or many years away. It just knows that its job is to steer you clear of what harmed or traumatized you before. And so you respect it. You thank it. You try to release it. 

And you try to write and talk about sexual violence in a way that ultimately serves survivors. At least I do.

RELATED: 6 Comments That Truly Hurt Sexual Assault Survivors

Netflix's use of bait-and-switch marketing turned rape into a shocking plot twist

Netflix, unfortunately, seemed to have forgotten the responsibility that media portraying rape has toward its viewers — and especially the people being portrayed for entertainment — when writing the original teaser attached to Luckiest Girl Alive.

In the film, Mila Kunis plays a rape victim coming to terms with how the violence committed against her as a teen shaped her entire life, her career, her relationships — and even who she believes herself to be.

Ultimately, Luckiest Girl Alive is an empowering film. In fact, I can't remember seeing a film that dives so deeply and compassionately into the long-lasting effects of surviving sexual violence. Spoiler alert: Ani emerges triumphant.

Even better, Kunis doesn't play Ani like she's trying to win an Oscar, she plays her with respect: respect for her strength, her tenacity and, ultimately, her vulnerability. There's so little melodrama in this mystery-drama that it was easy, in parts, to forget that Kunis was acting. 

Chiara Aurelia, who plays young Ani, is also incredible.

And yet, somehow, Netflix disregarded survivors in how they decided to market the film in its early days. 

RELATED: No, Being Raped Doesn't 'Ruin' Your Life — And Here's How We Should Talk About It Instead

For at least the first few days after the film was released, the teaser attached made no mention of sexual assault at all. It said that the film is about a young woman coming to terms with the trauma of a school shooting she survived after a documentary filmmaker reaches out to her.

While it does appear Netflix has updated this description, the tiny content note by the maturity rating at the very beginning of the film is short and, for whatever reason, isn't always displayed when the film is restarted. If you missed it and try to rewind, it may be gone. 

Netflix teased a movie about a school shooting and true-crime documentaries, but that crime is almost a side-note

Ultimately, this is a film about rape.

Those of us who watched it in its first week on the site were wholly unprepared for the excruciatingly graphic rape scenes that would come later in the film and for the fact the movie would turn out to be almost entirely about surviving sexual assault.

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Regardless, I loved this film.

Luckiest Girl Alive succeeds where many TV shows and movies fail in representing the ways in which sexual assault is dismissed when it's perpetrated by "important" men and boys.

Ani's rape was dismissed by everyone who was supposed to protect and support her: her mom, her school, her friends and the system at large. Everyone wishes Ani would just be quiet and not ruin the future of these promising young men — except one kind teacher who is a beacon of hope. It is a lovely and grounding reminder that not all men are bad

But those of us who watched the film in the first few days after its release were slapped across the face with Ani's rape. There is no indication that Ani was raped until at least 15 minutes into the film, well after a viewer is hooked. 

In a film that is very much about what happens when your rape is minimized by the people around you (see the commentary from the author of the book the movie is based on, Jessica Knoll, below) Netflix failed its early viewers by disrespecting the people who will most identify with Ani.

They seem to have assumed we would just be OK with them sneaking sexual assault into a film they marketed differently. But the scenes are excruciating in their details ... and the main scene is long. 

Portraying rape for entertainment is controversial, even when done with respect

Beyond the issue of creating a bait-and-switch description of a film about rape, the question of whether the portrayal of the rape in Luckiest Girl Alive is gratuitous or overly graphic remains.

When we see what happened to young Ani, the rape is as graphic as it possibly could be for a film with an R-rating (as described in the next sentence). Her legs are forced apart, she begs her attackers to stop, she yells "ouch" again and again and sobs before dissociating. She is shown tormented and battered, with blood pouring from her crotch. 

It's excruciating and made even moreso by the knowledge that this is happening to a child. 

Some critics argue that it shouldn't be portrayed so realistically on-screen — or even portrayed at all

I respect those who believe rape should not be shown on TV and in movies. I do agree it is overused and even abused.

After all, some studies indicate that repeated exposure to sexual violence in the media desensitizes young men to these types of crimes. A fantastic article in Vanity Fair tackles the subject of rape as plot device, specifically in the TV series The Handmaid's Tale, and cites two of these studies, noting:

"In one study, young men who viewed rape scenes were subsequently found to be more comfortable with violence against women. In another study focused on the effects of sexual violence in feature films, male university students were found to be more attracted to sexual aggression."

While it's hard to accurately measure psychological factors like this, it's worth paying attention to the potential dangers of using rape as a plot device. 

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Luckiest Girl Alive, however, doesn't use the rape as a plot device.

The rape is the center of the film. It is the reason for the film. It is the defining event.

It is the thing that our hero has to survive.

And while the filmmakers could've avoided the horror of the rape and still made an astounding film, there is a reason for the brutally realistic portrayal: to remind us that our character was, indeed, a victim.

That rape scene is designed to haunt us so that we are outraged and devastated along with Ani when she is blamed and shamed for having been drunk in a house full of boys.

We saw it, we know what happened.

When the headmaster of her school notes that the rape would need to be reported to the colleges where the boys are applying, we are expected to remember what we saw happen to young Ani. When her mom tells Ani that she isn't the girl she believed her to be, we are reminded of exactly who is to blame for what happened — and it's not Ani.  

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Portraying rape in media can serve survivors' reality 

In some ways, Luckiest Girl Alive reminds me of Gaspar Noé's horrifying told-in-reverse 2002 film, Irreversible, about a brutal beating and rape on a Paris subway platform that changes the lives of the people associated with the victim.

Irreversible opens with the victim's friends beating to death the man they believe raped her. It features a graphic rape scene in the middle of the film, and ends at the beginning — before the rape ever happened — with an idyllic shot of the victim peacefully reclining in a city park. It is dark and horrifying, and isn't hopeful at all.

Most people I know who've seen Irreversible walked away extremely upset. But that was Noé's point. It is not hopeful, it was never meant to be.

While I agree that rape as a plot device is over-used in TV and films today (Game of Thrones, I'm looking at you — but you are far from alone), there are times when I believe viewers should be asked to look straight at the crime so we can feel the impact of what happens when someone makes a choice to harm us. Not just to face the brutality of the crime itself — but also the cruelty of asking victims to "get over it" or have sympathy for the people who chose to attack them.

RELATED: Victim Vs. Survivor — Why The Words You Choose To Use Matter

As I mentioned earlier, lots of people who survive trauma carry it all day, every day.

We develop systems to manage these feelings, like purposefully seeking out spoilers and plot synopses for films and TV shows that we even slightly suspect might have a triggering event in them. Some of us even have secret networks of women we ask for plot points ahead of time, so we can know whether we want to take the risk of consuming specific media. 

Some may see this as an argument in favor of the "trigger warnings" of the early 2010s, but that is not the point I want to make.

While I find content notes and trigger warnings helpful in cases where there will be an unexpected mention or portrayal of commonly triggering or traumatic content to be overall helpful, I think we are strong enough to manage our reactions without them in most cases. 

But using rape as a sneak attack on the viewer disrespects the people this film is most supposed to represent: victims and survivors. 

And this film deserved better.

RELATED: I Was A Jeffrey Epstein Rape Victim And Survivor. This Is My Story.

Fortunately, Netflix appears to have listened to us early viewers, and the description of the film now reads: "A writer's perfectly-crafted New York City life starts to unravel when a true-crime documentary forces her to face her harrowing high school history."

Because of the non-specific trauma that is teased, survivors and victims will likely Google ahead so they know what they're getting into. They may watch for the tiny content note attached to the maturity rating at the beginning of the film. 

Ultimately, this should be a lesson to all networks, streaming services and anyone who decides to make media either about or including sexual assault: If you're going to use trauma to create entertainment or even art, you need to respect the people upon whose backs you are standing. 

Victims aren't your literary device, we aren't your plot point. Rape and sexual assault should never serve as titillation — shocking or otherwise.

When producing content that includes commonly triggering traumatic material, Netflix and other content providers should consult survivor advocates and victims' networks for feedback on all aspects of creation, content and promotion — including trailers, teasers, marketing materials and even one-line descriptions.

At this point, it's the least they can do.

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Joanna Schroeder is a writer and media critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Vox, The Boston Globe and more. She is co-author of  Confronting Conspiracy Theories and Organized Bigotry at Home published by The Western States Center. She shares more on Twitter.

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