'Luckiest Girl Alive': Mila Kunis film divides fans with rape scene – USA TODAY

Spoiler alert! The following post discusses important plot points of the new movie “Luckiest Girl Alive” so beware if you haven’t seen it yet. 
Mila Kunis’ new movie is No. 1 on Netflix. But it’s dividing viewers with a controversial scene. 
“Luckiest Girl Alive,” based on author Jessica Knoll’s 2015 book of the same name, follows Ani FaNelli (Kunis), a seemingly perfect and put-together New Yorker whose trauma – of enduring a gang rape at 14 and surviving a high school shooting –begins to unravel. Throughout her life she’s been victim-blamed by her own mother, slut-shamed by her classmates, and forced to bear the responsibility of her own assault, in silence.
Kunis’ latest movie garnered widespread support for its sobering depiction of rape trauma, which Knoll wrote based on her own experience. However, critics questioned the necessity of not one, but three graphic rape scenes. 
“Do not watch Luckiest Girl Alive. The scenes are way too triggering,” user @MimieLaushi warned.
“I felt uncomfortable in some part of the film and rightly so because we should feel uncomfortable blaming victims for what happened,” another user @lalakaris wrote. 
Enacting rape onscreen has long been up for debate: “Game of Thrones” and more recently, Netflix’s “Blonde” have both faced backlash for what many have called “exploitative” depictions of sexual violence. But if the goal is to accurately portray a survivor’s experience, can these scenes be of educational value?
Karyn Riddle, a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researches the effects of viewing violent media. After watching the film herself, she says the scenes “did not seem gratuitous.”
“We know graphic violence captures people’s attentions. They cause strong emotional reactions,” Riddle says. However, “the storylines do not have to be graphic to get their point across. It’s not required that a rape scene be graphic to learn a positive lesson.”
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Unlike some of the criticized moments from HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” Ani’s sexual assault is a pivotal plot point, as she learns to process years of suppressed trauma. Knoll, who executive produced the movie and enlisted the assistance of Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) for the scenes, said the intention was to show it “was really bad,” with no need to “minimize” her experience.
But even with good intentions, experts questioned the need for multiple, disturbing rape scenes lasting approximately three minutes total. Simply watching an act of sexual violence onscreen can be enough to “trigger” neurological trauma responses, research has shown.
As the executive director of Rape Recovery Center, Sonya Martinez-Ortiz echoes these concerns. “Scenes like this can trigger a trauma response … because your body system is noting there is a perceived threat or fear. Whether it’s actual or perceived doesn’t matter, because our body may respond as if it’s an actual threat, and so people may experience a range of traumatic responses.”
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The rape scenes in “Luckiest Girl Alive” are hard to watch. But that may be the point: Seeing sexual assault is supposed to make you uncomfortable and outraged.
On Twitter, many viewers have acknowledged that the film was “a very triggering but extremely necessary story.” More so than statistics, visual imagery can help evoke empathy for the victim and the long-lasting impact of rape, says Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who researches sexual violence.
“Seeing somebody who has gone through something traumatic – and how that has impacted their life – can make it more personal,” Jeglic says. “Because when you see how it affects somebody, it allows you to humanize them, and then the problem becomes more real.”
However, intent is important. If the goal of including a graphic rape scene is to educate, safety precautions, like consulting with psychologists or coordinating with anti-sexual violence organizations, are necessary to avoid “using ‘education’ as a license to include graphic portrayals,” Riddle says. 
Many films and shows exploit graphic nudity and rape for shock value. “Luckiest Girl Alive” is not one of those films, experts say. 
“The story was told from the perspective of Ani. We’re not in the mind of the rapist, and only in the mind of her. Her suffering was very clear, and for me that made the scene less exploitative,” Riddle says.
With that being said, a three-minute scene showing a gang rape is not mandatory to get the message across, Jeglic says.
“They could have shown less, and we could still talk about how the rape affected her and her life… It is likely that the same results of education can be obtained without showing the graphic details of a sexually violent act, but rather how it impacted the individual.”
At the start of the film, there is a warning that notes the film is for those 18 years and older due to “violent content, rape, sexual material” as well as themes of substance abuse. But some feel a clearer trigger warning, with more detail and in a larger font, would have been helpful. 
The research about the efficacy of trigger warnings is mixed. Some studies have found them to have the opposite effect in attracting more viewers (like the temptation of a “forbidden fruit,” says Riddle). But for most vulnerable survivors, a warning could help them protect themselves from re-experiencing trauma.
And when it comes to sexual assault awareness, “We need to move beyond just consuming media to address the topic and have conversations about prevention,” Martinez-Ortiz says. 
“The media is only one piece. We need have these conversations in our communities, in our families, in the classroom.”
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, RAINN offers support through the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE & online.rainn.org). 

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