Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Women in Horror: M.F.A. (2017)

* spoilers *

Noelle is stagnating in her art in her Masters of Fine Arts program and classmates and teachers alike are critical of her run of the mill efforts. Meanwhile, she meets a classmate she likes and he brutally rapes her at his party. She leaves in a daze and tries to report the assault only to be interrogated like a criminal. Noelle tries to resume her classes as normal, but can't attend classes with her rapist. She confronts him while he acts like he did nothing wrong and he ends up falling to his death. Noelle sees this accidental death as a gateway to making rapists who avoid punishment pay.

M.F.A. is a rape revenge film that takes place at a college, a hotbed of rape, sexual assault, and the suppression of reporting both. This setting is brilliant as this problem has existed for a long time and the college system has seemingly little interest in actually fixing the problem if it means decreased enrollment. Our heroine is Noelle, a struggling artist in an M.F.A. program who often dresses in black hoodies and stays away from people. Noelle's classmate Luke, a particularly pretentious and obnoxious artist, catches her eye and she agrees to go to his party. He seems nice at first, taking her to his room to see some new sculptures of his. Then they start kissing, at first gently and then more and more forceful on his part. He shoves her on the bed and brutally rapes her while she screams, cries, and struggles to fight back. When it's over, he acts as if they had consensual sex and she leaves stunned, reeling from the pain and trauma. People gawk at her, implying that Luke has a reputation of assaulting women. This scene, while horrific and sad to watch, shows how things can go from consensual to coercive quickly and the stark difference between the two to those in the room.

Afterwards, Noelle tells two people about the assault. The first is Skye, her sunny neighbor, who advises her to not say anything, accept it as a bad day, and go on with her life. At first, I was outraged, but she goes on to point out that Noelle will be subject to intense scrutiny and afterwards, he probably won't pay for the crime in any significant way. She has a point since we see this happen on the news time and time again. Skye is the only person in the film who truly has Noelle's wellbeing in mind. Noelle goes to class as normal, but has to leave. The flashes of torture in the art being studied shows the trauma she experiences when he walks into the room, reflecting her mental flashbacks to the event. She goes to the psychologist on campus. The woman is clearly uncomfortable with the situation and her questionnaire takes the tone of an interrogation, asking questions multiple times as if to catch Noelle in a lie or get her to change her story. Of course, the questions include who witnessed the attack, how much did you have to drink, did you say no, and did you make sure he heard you. All infuriating and victim blaming questions designed to make her drop the case that are typically asked by law enforcement and lawyers.

Noelle decides to confront Luke directly and demand an apology. As expected, he acts like she's crazy, insists they had sex, and puts everything on her. They start to fight physically and when he says to stop acting crazy, she pushes him hard and shots "I'm not crazy!" He falls to his death and she quietly leaves. Her vehement rejection of his gaslighting, which transitions into physical abuse, is satisfying to watch. She then researches other rapists who got away with their crimes, leading her to Lindsay, another survivor. When they talk, Lindsay admits she wished she hadn't said anything since she was seen as a slut, a liar, and the attack took away her choice to have children. Her rapists, on the other hand, are completely fine and continuing their college and sports careers unimpeded socially or otherwise. This is yet another woman showing that putting yourself out there and officially accusing a rapist many times goes nowhere and leaves the survivor in an even worse place than she started.

The conversation with Lindsay solidifies Noelle's course of action to seek out and kill rapists who have escaped punishment. In her first intentional murder, Noelle dons a pink wig and a revealing outfit to go to the fraternity party where the football players who raped Lindsay live. She finds one of the rapists, leads him to a room, and roofies him. As he thinks they are going to have sex, she echoes the same things he said to Lindsay, which she knew because the footage of the attack is online. Noelle dispatches rapist after rapist in different ways, choosing to forgo the seduction aspect altogether by the third murder. By the end, she wants them to know why they are dying and hear some of their excuses. Unfortunately, the wider world mourns these men and idealizes them in the media. To the wider public, their bright futures are tragically cut short and the rape allegations have been successfully swept under the rug.

Noelle joins a woman's group on campus to see what can be done in a legitimate way to lessen the threat to women. They appear ridiculous with their bake sales, color changing nail polish to detect roofies, and pat themselves on the back for "raising awareness." This group doesn't have a lot of authority in the first place and they focus on women protecting themselves because the wider world and the university refuses to do it. Noelle points out that all the precautions in the world may still result in rape and the others have no real response to that. Although they have all the good intentions in the world, raising awareness and telling women to avoid getting raped isn't going to challenge the social structure that is the underlying cause. Noelle remains in the group despite her criticism maybe because she feels some obligation to help in a legitimate way even though it's not very effective.

Through her journey researching, finding, and killing rapists, Noelle finds that the sexual assault rates for the college are at zero and sees the system that seeks to suppress reporting to keep the college looking welcoming including that awful psychologist she later threatens. During her snooping, she finds that Skye was raped and was actually relaying her own story earlier in the film. Noelle decides to conceal everything from her and pursue her rapist without her knowledge. Not only is this a huge betrayal to her only friend, but when he's attacked, the police go right to Skye. Despite her best intentions, Noelle is hurting the survivors because they are once again confronted with their past, those memories, and interrogated for the crime when the two we see in the film have successfully moved on. Is she doing more harm than good? The trauma doesn't die with their rapists. Noelle violently rejects a classmate she was perfectly happy kissing when he touched her in the way her rapist touched her and a flashback hit her to show that her trauma remains even though she's happy and successful. This question is never really asked in rape revenge films because it's usually one woman's experience only. M.F.A. widens the lens and shows how it affects other survivors.

Noelle never loses her humanity, always having sympathy for fellow survivors and keeping real relationships with her teachers, classmates, and few friends. In many other rape revenge films, the survivor goes too far somehow, kills too many people or becomes even more monstrous than her attackers in some way. The end of the film has Noelle giving a speech on exposing the truth even if it makes others uncomfortable. She is arrested right afterwards, since her latest victim survived and woke up. Noelle isn't broken and stands by her actions. The ending shows that this isn't a fantasy film. It takes place in the real world where friends die and her crimes are found out in the end. However, she did what she thought was right and what she could to try to change the status quo.

M.F.A. is written by Leah McKendrick and directed by Natalia Leite and it shows. The rape scenes are horrific and never titillating and they flash back like they might for survivors with PTSD. Noelle and Skye are fully realized, flawed people with a wonderful friendship. No female nudity is shown during the assaults. The film poses real questions about rape culture on college campuses and in the world at large. It examines why women choose not to persecute their attackers and why survivors seem to be more on trial than the accused rapist. Last year, Christine Blasey Ford's name and character were dragged through the mud so extremely that she wasn't even able to live in her home due to threats while her rapist now sits in the highest court in the country. M.F.A. shows how something has to fundamentally change in our society to refocus these issues, support survivors, and stop these attacks from happening in the first place.

My rating: 4.5/5 fishmuffins

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