by Isaac Gustafsson Wood, University of Southampton, UK
‘Rape. Rape. Rape. That’s a rape. This is what raping people is. You’re a raper. You’ve raped me. That’s a rape’, Dale (Charlie Day) screams as he is shown pictures of his limp and unconscious nude body entangled in sexually suggestive positions with his boss Julia (Jennifer Aniston). With a shocked face, Dale finds the words to express his feelings, getting louder and more confident in his ability to recognise what has happened to him as rape. Despite his certainty that he has been raped, Dale is continually undermined by his friends as they refuse to see a problem simply because Julia is sexually attractive. Rape in the comedy Horrible Bosses (2011) is portrayed as a contentious subject to be debated among the characters; who decides what rape is, is up for grabs.
Julia’s incessant sexual harassment of Dale often includes her own nudity, the camera lingering over her semi-clad body. The feeling of violation is for Dale alone and the audience are invited to participate in a voyeuristic fantasy where they can enjoy looking at her without being subject to abuse. Crucially, Julia is played by Jennifer Aniston, whose body is the one the audience gazes upon. In a scene of workplace harassment between Julia and Dale, a pan from high-heeled clad feet to expectant face flaunts Aniston’s barely covered body, concealed only by a pair of knickers and an unbuttoned white doctor’s coat. The lingering attention paid to her body is for the audience’s enjoyment and for Dale’s discomfort. It is continually declared that Julia is attractive, which, according to Dale’s friends, lessens the severity of the harassment. Saying that his predicament ‘doesn’t sound that bad’ and ‘you’ll never get any sympathy from us’, Dale’s friends cannot understand his lack of desire and why he does not sleep with her. Their perception is that every man should want to have sex with Julia all the time. As Julia’s sexual attractiveness is the reason for this, the idea is extended beyond the character and the film so the audience can participate in sexual fantasy narratives that feature Jennifer Aniston.
From Julia’s perspective, what she did to the unconscious Dale was not rape and, according to Dale’s friends, even if he had been raped, he should not be upset about it. Dale’s lone voice is almost inconsequential. The pervasive understanding is that Julia does not have the ability to rape, either because Dale should consent to all sexual liaisons with her, or, that he should not be upset for being taken advantage of when unconscious. This places the problem onto Dale, who, if he shared the mind-set of his friends, would not and could not have been raped. Dale’s viewpoint is not valued since his (lack of) consent is not as important as others’ perception of what he should consent to.
Catherine MacKinnon considers how consent is interpreted from a legal standpoint. She argues that the law does not view rape from a victim’s point-of-view but instead considers how the rapist interprets consent.  Perceptions of consent overwhelm a victim’s declaration since a myriad of people must interpret what consent is, including the police, judges, members of the jury and lawyers. MacKinnon says that by law, if the rapist believes it was consensual, it was not rape.  The victim’s account becomes irrelevant as it is only of importance if it is believed.
Feeding into the idea that consent is for the rapist to decide upon, Horrible Bosses offers a narrative from Julia’s perspective, best exemplified by her retort to Dale’s rape allegations as she says ‘just relax there Jodie Foster, your dick wasn’t even hard’. The flaccidity of Dale’s penis is the deciding factor that means she does not believe a rape took place, despite Dale remarking that finding this out made no difference to his feelings of violation. Again, Dale’s feelings and account are irrelevant. Mentioning Jodie Foster is crucial in how the film frames rape and how important perception is to the acknowledgement of it. The reference is to Foster’s role in The Accused (Jonathan Kaplan, 1988) where her character Sarah is gang raped in a bar while jeering bystanders cheer on the rapists. The Accused explores how the legal system values interpretation of consent more highly than a victim’s experience. Despite Sarah knowing she has been raped, the rapists, lawyers and spectators of the rape at the bar do not agree and try to undermine her experience. As an audience viewing The Accused, we know Sarah has been raped and the film plays with our frustration at the courts’ disbelief. The Accused ends triumphantly, with Sarah being acknowledged as a rape survivor, locating consent as something for her to give, not for others to interpret. The film exposes the incompetency of a system that focuses on the interpretation of consent as the way to decide if rape took place.
Contrarily, Horrible Bosses entices the audience to participate in doubting Dale, extending disbelief about whether a rape took place and if female-on-male rape can ever occur. Horrible Bosses portrays female-on-male rape as uncertain and non-existent. The argument disqualified in The Accused is that Sarah was ‘asking for it’. In Horrible Bosses the prevailing attitude is that Dale should be asking for it, grateful at any opportunity to have sex with such a beautiful woman. As the audience are encouraged to participate in a sexual fantasy with Jennifer Aniston’s body as subject, the film urges us to dismiss Dale. Intentional or otherwise, Horrible Bosses positions itself within a debate about perceptions of consent. As to whether someone as attractive as Jennifer Aniston can even be accused of rape, Horrible Bosses encourages its viewers to decide. In a film that has the potential to add to an emerging discourse, the reliance on gendered stereotypes and myths leaves female-on-male rape as elusive as ever.
 Catherine A. MacKinnon. 1997. ‘Rape: On Coercion and Consent’. In Lori Gruan and George E. Panichas eds. Sex, Morality, and the Law. London: Routledge, 424.
Isaac Gustafsson Wood is a PhD student at the University of Southampton funded by the Vice-Chancellors’ Award. His research concerns representations of male rape in Hollywood comedy films. He has published on the influence of the heroic rapist narrative in Jim Carrey films.
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