Does Hollywood condition audiences to consider certain kinds of non-consensual sex as harmless? In 1987 they did. And audiences bought it hook, line, and sinker. Would you?
The film Overboard stars Kurt Russell as a down-and-out redneck handyman and Goldie Hawn as a wealthy heiress in a what in 1987 passed as a romantic comedy. Here’s the plot synopsis from Wikipedia:
Wealthy heiress Joanna Stayton (Goldie Hawn) is accustomed to living the life of the idle rich with her husband Grant Stayton III (Edward Herrmann). When their yacht gets stuck in the rural hamlet of Elk Cove, Oregon for repairs, Joanna passes the time by hiring carpenter Dean Proffitt (Kurt Russell) to remodel her closet. Dean puts up with Joanna’s demanding attitude, only to have her refuse to pay him because she dislikes the type of wood he used. When he demands payment, she shoves him overboard along with his tools. That night, Joanna falls overboard while searching for her wedding ring on deck, develops amnesia, is rescued by a garbage scow, and is taken to the local hospital…Dean, a widower living in redneck clutter with four young sons, decides to seek his revenge and remedy his own domestic problems by taking advantage of the situation. He goes to the hospital, tells Joanna that her name is Annie and has a small birthmark on her behind. She is also his wife and the mother of his four unruly sons, and brings her home.
At first, Joanna has difficulty with Dean’s boys and the heavy load of chores, cooking raw food, laundry in a tub, animal care, housekeeping, and only able to sleep on the couch. She soon adapts to her new life as a housewife and begins to fall in love with Dean and his children. Dean is secretly working two jobs and Joanna handles the boys school issues, family issues and money challenges with considerable wisdom and grace. Seeing Dean struggle, she uses her untapped knowledge of things like the Seven Wonders of the World to draw up plans for a miniature golf course based on their shared designs. Although Dean has also fallen in love with Joanna, he fails to come clean with her being used as a mom in fear that she would leave them…
Meanwhile, giving in to the pressure of Joanna’s inquisitive mother, Grant reluctantly returns to Elk Cove to retrieve his wife. Joanna’s memory returns to her upon seeing him and she is shocked and hurt when she realizes that Dean has been using her for months.
This is a scene from the film. Watch this clip until the 3:15 mark. (subtitles included).
Was that rape? Would you want it to be?
Her memory is so impaired that she can’t remember how old she is. He doesn’t know of course, and simply lies and tells her “29”. In another scene in the film, Dean doctors some wedding photos of him and Joanna/Annie to convince her that they are married. Dean has a friend help him by “reminiscing” with Annie about how they dated in high school before Dean came along. He has his kids lie to her.
Obviously this is just a dumb movie and the plot is contrivance on top of contrivance, but consider the situation, and the message it delivers. Can she consent under these circumstances? Would you consider this situation rape? Or perhaps something of a lesser offense, like “sex under false pretenses”?
Is there even such a thing? Should there be? Notice also the implicit message about transactional nature of sex communicated in this 2 minute scene. Note the surprise gift of the new washing machine right after she awakes, and the cavalier assessment of her “ass” by one of the boys immediately after. Renumeration, followed by objectification.
Here is the scene where her memory suddenly comes back (just hit play, the clip will jump to the relevant part):
She flatly states, “You tricked me. You used me.”
Even though I’m talking about a film from 25 years ago, I think the question is relevant because it serves as an example of the kinds of narratives that Gen-Xers were exposed to in their teen years and may not have completely sloughed off (see also, Animal House, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, etc.). This foundation of pop-culture stories and images might help to explain the difficulty feminists have in constructing workable narratives today about non-violent rape that are accepted by the general public. If “sex under false pretenses” is only a way to dissemble about rape, and if the media a mere generation ago treated this “grey area” as the basis of countless gags and jokes–something that the characters who fell prey to it never treated seriously–how do you make the culture consider them serious?