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On Last Tango in Paris, And Why Consent Matters

The 1972 movie Last Tango in Paris was unexpectedly in the headlines this month — and not for good reasons. An interview with the film’s director Bernardo Bertolucci resurfaced in which he revealed an aspect about the infamous rape scene in the movie that has caused an uproar — and brings up an important point about consent.

In the movie, Marlon Brando simulated a rape of actress Maria Schneider using butter. Ms. Schneider knew that they would be acting out a rape scene — but not that butter would be used. According to Bertolucci, that was by design: he and Brando decided not to tell her what they were doing because he “…wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.” Ms. Schneider, who died in 2011, had previously stated that she was humiliated, angry and “felt a little raped.” Bertolucci has responded to the outcry by stating that Schneider knew about the rape scene, and that the only misunderstanding was about the use of butter.

This justification completely misses the mark. Ms. Schneider may have consented to acting out a rape scene; she did not consent to having butter put into her genitals. That was sexual assault. This is a critical part about consent that often is overlooked: consent to sexual activity of a particular kind does not mean that a person consents to all sexual activity. Consent has to be specific —and ongoing. That is why it is so important to have a continuing conversation with your partner, and to never assume consent to other types of sexual activity. For example, just because a person consents to kissing someone else does not mean that they consent to having sex. And of course, a person can always change their mind; consent is not an irrevocable contract. You can review the basics of consent here.

This incident also highlights the way in which women are often treated as commodities in Hollywood; Bertolucci and Brando seemed to care more about an “authentic” scene than they did about Ms. Schneider’s safety and well-being. While it is hard to imagine something similar happening in 2016, women in the film and television industry are still not treated equally. They are often subjected to sexual harassment, assault and the expectation that they will perform sexual favors in order to land a role. Actresses from Thandie Newton to Chloe Sevigny to Ashley Judd have all spoken publicly about being sexually harassed or exploited by powerful players in Hollywood. While their abuse may not have been screened for studio audiences, their experiences make it clear that women in the entertainment industry are far from equal — or safe.

So what can we do? The first step is to become a conscious consumer of media; refuse to buy, watch or support any television shows, movies, books, websites or magazines that objectify or exploit women. You can also speak out about these issues; do not remain silent! Sign up to have a speaker from Blackburn Center talk to your school, company, organization or community group. Finally, get involved! Donate to Blackburn Center, volunteer or participate in our annual Walk A Mile In Her Shoes event. We may not be able to change what happened to Maria Schneider — but we can make it clear that we will not support any media or people that glorifies sexual assault!

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