This piece includes spoilers for Luckiest Girl Alive.
When Luckiest Girl Alive was released on Netflix last month, it caused a slew of controversy. The film strives to give a raw and unflinching portrayal of trauma, but many felt it was a little too unflinching.
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Luckiest Girl Alive, based on Jessica Knoll’s 2015 novel of the same name, stars Mila Kunis as Ani Fanelli, a writer whose seemingly perfect life begins to unravel when a true-crime documentary reopens her past.
It’s a fairly vague description and while it does serve to create intrigue, it also fails to mention the fact that Ani’s past involves surviving a horrific school shooting and an even more horrific sexual assault in high school.
Instead, the audience learns about this trauma through flashbacks where we watch as a teenage Ani (portrayed by Chiara Aurelia) is brutally raped by three of her classmates. Her trauma is further compounded when she survives a school shooting only to be accused of being an accomplice by one of the victims. Oh, and that victim is Dean, a popular student who just happens to be one the three guys who assaulted her.
That assault served as the catalyst for Ani’s repressed, internal rage. It also sparked a great deal of backlash on social media. Although there is no nudity on screen, the scene is a graphic and upsetting one in which a teenaged girl is assaulted back-to-back by three different classmates. What’s more, the horror lasts a full 3 minutes.
On Twitter, viewers were especially quick to criticize Netflix for failing to include a “trigger warning” to the content. “Please do not watch ‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ on netflix if you have SA trauma,” one person tweeted. “This movie needed a big big big big big huge trigger warning,” another user wrote. “Luckiest Girl Alive needs a way clearer trigger warning. I was angry during the entire film.”
It’s worth noting that Luckiest Girl Alive is rated R for “violent content, rape, sexual material, language throughout and teen substance use.” In addition, Netflix does display a note at the top of the screen which mentions “sexual violence” and “threat” when the film starts, but in both instances, the warning is small and easily missed.
This controversy has opened up an important discussion on whether or not depicting sexual assault on-screen is necessary or exploitative.
Some believe it’s near impossible for movies about sexual assault to adequately convey the trauma without depicting it. These scenes are uncomfortable and upsetting, and they force the audience to come face to face with that discomfort. While there is some truth to this idea — stories about sexual assault should elicit an emotional reaction from the viewer — it’s not always necessary to show the assault in such a graphic way. Take the 2020 black comedy Promising Young Woman, for example. Billed as a rape-revenge thriller, the film manages to explore the devastating effects of sexual assault without ever showing it. There are plenty of emotional, uncomfortable moments, but the rape itself is never seen on-screen.
According to Valarie L. Harris, a Licensed Therapist who specializes in trauma, when assault is depicted graphically on-screen, “it shifts the focus to the trauma itself and the horrific act rather than focusing on how the person got through it.” Further, she says it is frequently used as a way to shock the audience. Trauma expert David Tzall agrees. “What can get lost is the amount of healing the person may need to go through in order to process the event,” he tells me, adding that on-screen portrayals can trivialize the experience or “make a mockery of the collateral damage it can have to [survivors].” Aside from that, many have argued that rape scenes are gratuitous at best and glamorizing at worst.
When Blonde was released on Netflix in September, it was widely criticized for its portrayal of sexual and domestic violence. While Blonde, a fictionalized biopic about Marilyn Monroe, was condemned in part because of the graphic, near-pornographic depictions of assault, it was largely due to the fact that it was based on a real person. Many viewers and critics found that the movie portrayed Monroe with a lack of empathy, dehumanizing her and exploiting her trauma for entertainment.
Having seen Blonde, it’s a fair assessment. But in the case of Luckiest Girl Alive, that doesn’t quite apply. For one thing, the characters are all fictional and not based on any one person. More importantly, the sexual assault in the story is based heavily on the author’s own personal traumas. Knoll, who also wrote the screenplay, defended the graphic depiction of rape in an interview with Variety, saying, “We’ve done a lot to be sensitive about all of the very sensitive issues that are in the film.” She further noted, “We made the decision to include [the word ‘rape’] in [the rating.] … We also include a resource card at the end.”
Still, the real question is for the audience. Are portrayals of sexual assault helpful for survivors, or are they harmful?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. For some people, it can be validating. It might help them make sense of their experience or feel less alone. But Harris tells me, it’s more likely to be a painful and unwanted reminder. “Seeing [it on-screen] disempowers their survival and empowers the trauma and the abuser,” she says. “Trauma survivors are often plagued by imagery, sounds, smells, feelings, and sensations associated with their trauma. Anything similar to their trauma will run the risk of [re]activating the trauma.”
In other words, films like Luckiest Girl Alive tend to be more triggering than reassuring. And while Knoll has shared that the film gave her “agency,” it’s worth recognizing that she was in a unique position. It’s important for survivors to have control and to be able to take the power back from the trauma they experienced. As the screenwriter, Knoll had that power. Viewers who are unaware or unprepared for the graphic assault scenes, however, do not. Netflix can remedy that by simply adding a trigger warning.
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