In the film, Judith (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is wooed by Harley (Robbie Jones), a super-rich playboy who is obviously the Devil. We know this because Harley drives a red car and runs shirtless regardless of outdoor temperatures. But we really know Harley’s the Devil because Judith’s preacher mama (Ella Joyce, whose pinched facial expressions deserve their own billing) exclaimed, “That’s the Devil!” in an effort to drive Judith into Harley’s arms — I mean, discourage her from further contact with the man.
But I digress.
“HERE ARE ALL OF THINGS THAT JUDITH SAYS IMMEDIATELY BEFORE HARLEY HAS SEX WITH HER IN HIS PRIVATE PLANE: “NO.” “STOP IT.“ “I DON’T WANT TO.” “GET OFF OF ME.“ Judith does not want to have sex with Harley. (There’s another layer of nuance here—one reason Judith doesn’t want to have sex with Harley is that she’s deeply invested in Perry’s beloved gender roles. But THE REASON FOR HER “NO” IS IRRELEVANT. Her spiritual weakness betrays her, Harley can tell she wants it, and she’s punished for that weakness.)
HE DOES NOT STOP. HE JUST TRIES HARDER. He knows what she really wants, no matter what her mouth and body are saying. SHE NEVER SAYS YES. HE SAYS, SMUGLY, “NOW YOU CAN SAY YOU RESISTED.” HE HAS SEX WITH HER ANYWAY. THIS IS A RAPE SCENE. But, in Perry’s universe, Harley is right. She did secretly want it. And that’s the real problem.”
“THIS IDEA—THAT MEN KNOW WHAT WOMEN REALLY WANT, THAT RESISTANCE CAN BE FUCKED OUT OF US (OR CONSENT FUCKED INTO US)—IS DEEPLY NOT OKAY. IT’S NOT OKAY TO TELEGRAPH THIS TO YOUNG MEN OR YOUNG WOMEN OR VICTIMS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE OR POTENTIAL PERPETRATORS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE OR LAWMAKERS OR ANYONE. It’s a paradigm that I was hoping had died out with Pepe LePew. It is frightening.”
Suddenly, Judith is at home on her cell phone, berating Harley for not paying her any attention — while her oblivious husband (Lance Gross in dweeb drag) watches a basketball game in the next room. Harley demands to know if Judith’s husband is better in bed than he — and instead of saying, “Of course, since he’s not a rapist” — Judith flashes back to what passes for steamy lovemaking in a Tyler Perry movie. We’re then made to understand that Judith did indeed consent, or at least, gave in. Harley tells her he’s coming to get her, she invents a flimsy work-related excuse and leaves. Her preacher mama is shocked, but her husband doesn’t even look up from the game.
We next see Judith and Harley in a bathtub surrounded by about eight million candles — he’s the Devil, you know — and the proliferation of burning candles and steam means we’re supposed to imagine that some kind of hell sex happened, creating a whole different kind of fire hazard.
There are obvious differences between Rick Ross’s lyric and Tyler Perry’s film. Harley doesn’t slip a Molly into Judith’s Champagne –he drugs Judith with bad lines. She is fully conscious — so conscious, she says “No!” several times, in fact.
The woman who half-heartedly resists the hunk’s advances until she can no longer deny her own desires and gives in, is, of course, a hackneyed and familiar trope of romance novels and soap operas.
Problem is, we don’t see Judith giving in. We do see her saying “No,” and Harley forcing himself on her. We don’t understand that she eventually acquiesced until the flashbacks.
And this is why Perry deserves some backlash — backlash he won’t get from mainstream media — for this scene.
Perry could have easily made Judith’s consent obvious. A breathless “Yes!” wouldn’t have completely removed the “ick” factor, but would have made Judith’s desires clear. Instead, Perry inexplicably chooses to leave the audience in suspense — briefly — as to whether or not an actual rape occurred, all while promoting the dangerous idea that a woman’s “No” is not really “No,” but merely part of the game of seduction. This scene puts Perry in such fine company as men’s rights advocates who argue that date/acquaintance rape is simply buyer’s remorse, and men who argue — as one man did on Twitter last week — that a man has to push to make sure a woman’s “No” is really “No.”
In real life, people who are sexually assaulted sometimes stop resisting to avoid further physical injury. Relenting, or giving in to what feels inevitable, is hardly the same as consent. As many people have said in the wake of Steubenville, “No Means No” needs to be updated to “Anything Other Than Yes Means No.”
Of course, Perry also is out to punish Judith for turning her back on the Lord. Judith’s downfall is foreshadowed when she starts dressing like Kim Kardashian and drinking alcohol. In this sense, it may not matter to the film’s overall morality message whether Harley rapes or seduces Judith. Either she consented, or she asked for it. Notably, Perry screened this film for 100 pastors prior to its release. They gave him their blessings. That fact may be more troubling than the film itself.
I admit Tyler Perry’s films are not for me. Perry has achieved tremendous success by making films that are not only NOT aimed at people like me, but which are derisive of ambitious, professional black women like me. I’m sure many excuses will be made for how this pivotal “seduction” scene isn’t rape, or how I’m just a hater — the usual response to those who criticize Perry’s movies. Whatever.
Still, if we’re holding entertainers to account for their words and images, we should be consistent. Perry is as responsible for the images he puts on film as Rick Ross is for the words he puts on a record. And both deserve to be called out for promoting a patriarchal view of sex in which a woman’s consent is irrelevant.