‘The Little Hours’: Indie Comedy Uses Rape As a Punchline

This review contains spoilers for The Little Hours, released June 30th, 2017.

After reading favorable reviews on social media, I went into Jeff Baena’s latest film, The Little Hours, with decently high expectations. Based on short stories from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, the film follows nuns Fernanda (Aubrey Plaza), Genevra (Kate Micucci), and Alessandra (Alison Brie) in their lives at a 14th-century Italian convent. They are disrupted from their routine of harassing the gardener, narc-ing on one another, and avoiding chores by the arrival of Massetto (Dave Franco), an escaped servant brought to the convent by Father Tommasso (John C. Reilly) to work. The three sex-starved nuns quickly try to seduce Massetto—and sometimes each other—and this is where things become extremely uncomfortable.

While Alison Brie’s Alessandra is a spoiled and occasionally insufferable rich girl (think Helen from Bridesmaids) and Kate Micucci’s Genevra is alternately deserving of contempt and pity, it was Aubrey Plaza’s character, Fernanda, that ruined this film for me. Much like Plaza’s previous roles, Fernanda hinges on Plaza’s ability to spout abuse in a flat and unaffected tone. The unfunny and repetitive joke of her characterization would have been tolerable had Fernanda’s verbal abuse not escalated to physical threats, attempted murder, and rape.

In the first wholly uncomfortable scene, Fernanda invites her “childhood friend,” Marta (Jemima Kirke), into the convent after dark. She and Marta proceed to steal sacramental wine and get both Alessandra and Genevra drunk. With Alessandra passed out, Marta and Fernanda begin to make out in front of Genevra. When Fernanda starts to feel her up, Genevra says “No,” and that she does not feel good. Fernanda leads the sick Genevra to her room, where she then climbs into bed with Genevra, touching and kissing her even while Genevra repeatedly pleads “No.”

The next day, when the newly-smitten Genevra tries to talk to Fernanda about it, Fernanda brushes her off, instead focusing on how she and Marta can seduce Massetto. One improvised makeover later, the mischievous childhood friends break into the tool shed where the supposedly deaf and mute Massetto is working. Fernanda holds a knife to his throat while Marta undresses him. Following Marta’s instruction, Fernanda kisses and eventually rapes him, even as Massetto shakes his head and gestures “No.” Later on in the film, as Alessandra and Massetto attempt to consummate their love affair, Genevra takes a page from Fernanda’s book—accidentally drinking belladonna and smearing blood on her face—in an attempt to court Massetto. Drugged and deranged-looking, Genevra’s “seduction” of Massetto takes on an admittedly hilarious tone, but is ruined by the fact that her actions still amount to an attempted rape.

After seeing the film, I scoured the internet for reviews, expecting to find dozens of call-outs regarding the problematic nature of this “nunsploitation” film. What I found instead was a film with a 76% on Rotten Tomatoes and largely positive reviews praising the “simple sex farce” for its ‘“Handmaid’s Tale”-like subversiveness.’ Because apparently women going after what they truly want is deemed feminist, subversive, and “superheroic,” even at the expense of a man’s bodily autonomy and security. Even the negative reviews by professional film critics on Rotten Tomatoes (21 “rotten” reviews out of 86 total) never used the terms “sexual assault” or “rape.” In fact, the only two reviews I could find even mentioning the terms were found in the forgotten undergrowth of the internet: on a Sundance review from Screen Zealots and in a blog post from Lainey Gossip.

It seems contradictory that these three women—three advocates of female empowerment, women’s rights, and counteracting outdated female sexual stereotypes—should agree to star in a film that essentially uses rape to inspire laughs. In this day and age, when one out of every six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape, it is at the forefront of feminist, social, and political discussion. While men such as Bill Cosby and R. Kelly can get away with assaulting multiple women and suffering little to no consequences for their actions, more women are speaking out. Men and women alike are backing a crusade against rape culture in media and news sources such as The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Huffington Post.

It’s heartening to see public support for female survivors of sexual assault, but we can’t forget that men suffer from sexual assault as well. The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (or RAINN) reported that as of 2016, 1 out of every 33 men in the United States has been sexually assaulted. Statistics fluctuate annually, but the fact that the majority of rapes go unreported (only 344 out of 1,000 are reported as of 2016) remains consistent each year. While the percentage of female survivors who report are low, the numbers of males who report are even lower.

Often when women publicly report their assaults, society creates a victim-blaming narrative around them. Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be physically and sexually powerful. Men are supposed to want sex. Men who are raped don’t get blamed so much as they get told they “can’t be victims” or “got lucky” (as detailed in Mika Doyle’s awesome article “Male Rape Is No Joke—But Pop Culture Often Treats It That Way”). This narrative is obvious in critical reception to The Little Hours. Even in negative reviews, the rape of Massetto is considered “get[ting] freaky,” reinforcing the societal notion that male victims of sexual assault do not deserve the same attention or care as that of female victims.

This uninformed viewpoint results in social stigma that can become downright dangerous. In a 2014 Slate article by Hanna Rosin, she reported that the National Crime Victimization Survey found that 38% of rape and sexual violence was perpetrated against men. This represents a spike from between 5 - 14% in years past, and while analysts still work to explain the increase, these numbers, combined with findings of underreporting, show that rape is both a male and female problem.

While the statistics may tell us all we need to know about the myriad ways male rape victims are silenced, The Little Hours provides an acute representation of the double-standard our society holds regarding sexual assault. Were it a man silencing a woman with a kiss and touching her to the tune of her clear, unenthusiastic “No,” the media would have jumped all over Jeff Baena’s latest film. When it is a hunky man, however, or a bi-curious woman, the non-consensual relations are deemed “little more than dorm-room experimentation.”

For the feminism of today—one that demands the political, economic, and social equality of all people—to be not only effective, but taken seriously, consumers of popular culture must unlearn their double-standards. They must strive to be equally critical of the way men and women are treated in media. As researcher Lara Stemple sees it, “Feminism has fought long and hard to fight rape myths—that if a woman gets raped it’s somehow her fault, that she welcomed it in some way. But the same conversation needs to happen for men. By portraying sexual violence against men as aberrant, we prevent justice and compound the shame.”

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