After Maria Schneider Rape Scene Revelation, We Need to Boycott 'Last Tango in Paris' and Bernardo Bertolucci

Last Tango in Paris
Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider star in Bernardo Bertolucci's film 'Last Tango in Paris'. Schneider has recently revealed she felt "a little raped" in the movie's notorious sex scene, which she was not fully informed about in advance. Keystone/Getty

I don't often choose to spend my precious leisure time on fiction that features sexual violence or violence against women. Which is not to say I think books, films and TV programs should never cover those themes. In fact, if a drama aims to reflect the realities of life for a broad range of 'ordinary' characters, then these storylines might seem conspicuous by their absence, because violence is part of far more women's and girls' ordinary lived experience than we sometimes acknowledge.

But for me there is a distinction to be made between the writers and program creators who put time, research and consultation into trying to tell an empathic story, and those that use women's bodies like props and glamorize violence against them.

It's probably not surprising then that I've never watched Last Tango in Paris. Until this week, I knew next to nothing about it except the little that told me it wasn't for me. Yet now it feels uncomfortably close to home.

"I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can't force someone to do something that isn't in the script, but at the time, I didn't know that."

These words from Maria Schneider (in a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail) sound like those of so many rape survivors as they contend with the ingrained social attitude—so pervasive it's next to impossible not to internalize—that women are responsible for men's behaviour towards them. "She / I should've screamed out… should've bitten him… shouldn't have been so drunk... shouldn't have gone back to his apartment"—and on and on the well-worn, victim-blaming excuses for men's violence go.

Like many survivors, Maria Schneider battled with mental health problems for the rest of her too-short life, used drugs as a coping strategy and sometimes wanted to die. And like many sexual violence survivors, she was fierce and strong, an advocate for other women, a warrior. As survivors sometimes do, she confided that she felt "a little raped" by Last Tango director Bernardo Bertolucci and co-star Marlon Brando; but, as sometimes happens, the confidante she chose—in this case, the world—didn't listen, or tell her it wasn't her fault. Nor did the world validate her feelings by acknowledging that her experience of being anally penetrated by a stick of butter without her consent, and sexually humiliated and hurt on camera for the entertainment of others, was "real rape" and she needn't apologize for defining it as such.

So now that the confession of one of her antagonists has been heard by the world, how will we respond? Simply by doggedly pointing out that no penile penetration was involved in the making of the film, as if that makes everything alright?

As I write this, during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, it occurs to me that, rightly, most people would refuse to watch, buy, screen or distribute a film depicting the torture of a dog if they knew the dog was really, intentionally hurt in its creation. But how many people will now show or watch, buy or sell Last Tango in Paris, knowing that it depicts the real sexual violation of a real woman?

We know, from the example of Roman Polanski, if nothing else, that being a self-confessed rapist isn't a barrier to prestigious awards or to A-listers queuing up to be in your films. I'd like to believe that the Twitter reaction to Bertolucci's confession indicates a turning tide, but until we all start actually boycotting instead of glorifying known abusers, we will continue to dishonor the memory of Maria Schneider and to fail all sexual violence survivors.

If we want to end abuse and exploitation in the creative industries, as elsewhere, we need to stop colluding in it, and we need to stop sending the message that men's creative output is more valuable than women's lives.

Katie Russell is a freelance writer with 12 years' experience of working and volunteering in the Rape Crisis movement.