I, like so many other folks, enjoyed The Woman King, a fictional war movie featuring lots of fierce Black women with great muscles and abs running around with glowing skin while killing local enemies and European colonizers.
As an adoptee, I connected with Nawi, the abandoned daughter who eventually reunites with her hero biological mother.
As an educator, I connected with Izogie, who is the funny, empathetic, and nurturing mentor of young girls training to become Agojie warriors.
As a best friend, I connected with Amenza for her ride-or-die loyalty, spiritual counsel, and keeper of secrets.
But while I am a die-hard Viola Davis fan because she is a brilliant actress and a real-life adoptive mother, I struggled a little with her character, General Nanisca, leader of the Agojie. Not because of one of her classic runny nose performances, but because her character seemed driven by a history of sexual trauma that was written into the script by its two white female writers. And I had to ask why The Woman King deploys one of the most powerful, laziest, and most consistent tropes in modern American cinema for woman-centered movies: sexual violation.
Nanisca is tied down and raped repeatedly by her male captors. Fortunately, this unfolds in a series of quick suggestive flashbacks instead of a more explicit, harrowing, and graphic scene like the rape of Lucky in the Amazon Prime series Them. When the rapes result in pregnancy, Nanisca is forced to hide her condition and give birth in secret with the help of Amenza, who gives the child away. Nanisca later discovers that her young protégé training to become one of her warriors is Nawi, the daughter born of that brutal rape.
On one hand, I understand why that sexual violence is central to the film’s plot. How else would we get Nawi, the mother-daughter reunion, the powerful emotional reveal, a glimpse into the devastating toll of rape on both characters and the chance at healing and redemption?
But was it necessary to make a rape scene a plot device so central to Nanisca’s drive to excel as kick-ass warrior royalty?
Must Black women be victims of violation or degradation for them to be motivated as patriots and heroes?
Please know that I’m not trying to gaslight anybody or be insensitive to survivors of sexual assault and rape. Gender-based violence is real. It is an enduring fact of life and a common aspect of war.
But as I watched The Woman King, I was reminded how often women characters in general, regardless of race or ethnicity, are defined and driven by various forms of abuse at the hands of men. Why do we keep seeing this in women-led or women-centered action-adventure movies? What does it mean that sexual violation figures so prominently in the development of their characters?
This trope is so consistent it feels like the filmmakers are trying to normalize portrayals of sexual violence as the core motivators for women to become fighters and avengers.
Not only that, but far too often when this sexual violence is presented as entertainment, the scenes are so visually graphic, pornified and traumatizing—or retraumatizing—to viewers that it seems we’re being conditioned to accept it as a defining plot motivator.
Again: this is not limited to the portrayals of Black women onscreen.
In her Jezebel piece about the portrayals of sexual violence in the “Game of Thrones,” Kylie Cheung notes that rape and abuse are plot devices used to make female characters “interesting” or strong, and “reductively, lazily write off the trauma of sexual violence as ‘character development’—as something to be grateful for.”
As Melissa McEwan writes in Bitch Flicks, “’The Rape Turns Ladies Into Superheroes Trope’ is lazy storytelling, but, more than that, it’s wrong … Survivors are not ‘broken,’ but sexual violence can be injurious, and to pretend instead that it magically imbues women with superhuman strength and ability is to pretend that a broken leg turns a fella into LeBron James, rather than a dude with a cast who needs to heal like the mortal that he is.”
McEwan also noted how often “rape [is] being used as shorthand for character development, especially for female characters … To credit sexual violence with the creation of heroes robs them of their agency. And, worse yet, it gives the credit to rapists.”
Male action stars and superheroes are shown to have diverse forces motivating their stories. Superman is driven by enjoying the thrill and speed of what he does—not because an uncle touched his genitals when he was a kid. Batman is not shaped by somebody violating him—he was terrified by seeing his parents murdered and never wants to see anyone go through that kind of trauma.
Why can’t women characters be driven by similarly nuanced and complex plot lines instead of themes surrounding sexual assault, sterilization, or childbirth? Even in Marvel’s Black Widow, the badass adventurous protagonist is forcibly sterilized as part of her indoctrination—another violation of womanhood as a character development device.
As Jill Gutowitz states in Glamour, compared to sheroes, “male heroes and protagonists … are often driven by something as simple as love … The psyches of characters like James Bond, Bruce Wayne, Han Solo, John McClane, or Walter White are explained by the death of their parents … Sometimes men are motivated by betrayal, like Ethan Hunt from Brian De Palma’s “Mission Impossible,” or the eponymous Jason Bourne. Male characters are often hard and tough, but for a woman to be illustrated the same way, unfortunately, the sexual assault explainer comes into play quite often.”
This doesn’t happen to men! When The Woman King shows a eunuch who was castrated, it’s treated like a throwaway line. Plus, he’s depicted as queer when historically most eunuchs were not queer.
My question is: Why did the writers of The Woman King make rape so central to the plot of this otherwise engaging and empowering film? By doing so, they turned it into a rape revenge tale. They turned the portrayal of this strong woman driven by duty and loyalty to her king and her pledge to defend her ruler and community at all costs into a personal revenge fantasy of a survivor who is haunted and conflicted by guilt around the child she carried from a sexual assault. They took a real-life character and gutted her—turned her ideology into a demon. Was this really necessary to make the character viable and the story powerfully entertaining?
This is another example of how women characters aren’t allowed to be shaped by sincere reflection, passion, love, or personal beliefs. The Woman King can’t be driven by philosophical considerations. She can’t just be a passionate patriot. No, her outstanding drive and achievements can only be attributed to being the victim of a horrific gang rape even though I’m sure her origins story is so much more colorful and complex.
These writers could have sought another way to tell the story, to craft Nanisca’s motivation. Maybe she was once married, and her husband was killed in war or captured and sold into slavery. Perhaps her baby was taken from her, and she was forced to keep this tragedy a secret as she took her pledge to become a Dahomey warrior. There are many possibilities that offer more nuanced and humane possibilities than falling back on the rape trope.
One reason this dynamic is so frustrating is that are so few movies centered around Black women. I looked up films with Black women leads from the early 2000s to 2020—there are many in dramas or rom coms, but not action stories.
That’s part of the power and appeal of The Woman King, and one reason it’s doing well at the box office. And the project is reportedly mostly women-driven: Davis and her husband are co-producers through their company, JuVee Productions, along with director Gina Prince-Bythewood and the two women writers.
So why did this rape trope have to happen? While sexual violence is a regular part of war, men are also raped during war. Men are taken as concubines. Hollywood has a popular norm about wars that producers and writers select to showcase. But we don’t see these tropes and they’re not normalized as motivation for male characters to transform from regular folks to superheroes, are they?
Now more than ever, we need conscious storytelling that dares to break out of the standard tropes to portray as much nuance, complexity, and humanity as possible—especially with Black characters from all parts of the globe. After all, we’re the ones typically regarded as sub-human, insensate, and so strong, not only by other races but, unfortunately, sometimes by our own skinfolk.
We can raise awareness and help audiences feel empowered when we broaden onscreen characters’ backstories and motivations. The power of representation for marginalized folks can’t be over-emphasized, and stories that showcase greater possibilities than we’re typically shown in mainstream art and pop culture can help us envision more creative visions for ourselves.
Dr. Stacey Patton is an award-winning journalist and author of “Spare The Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America” and the forthcoming “Strung Up: The Lynching of Black Children In Jim Crow America.”
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