Onscreen sexual violence has become as monotonous as it is ubiquitous. In a 2006 essay, film critic David Edelstein coined the phrase “torture porn,” describing horror movies like Hostel, Saw, and Wolf Creek as “so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether.” And there is no shortage of up-to-date examples. Some TV shows, like True Detective and Sundance’s terrific Rectify, are premised upon the rape and murder of a young woman, while you can catch a weekly parade of victims of sexual abuse marching through Law & Order: SVU, now in its seventeenth season. These scenes are so routine that it’s easy to forget how little they actually show us about the experience of domestic violence and sexual abuse.
But two productions this year that feature stories of kidnapping and sexual abuse feel different. In Room—the film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel, directed by Lenny Abrahamson—a young woman, “Ma,” (Brie Larson) is kidnapped and held in a garden shed for seven years. After two years she gives birth to a son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), for whom the “Room” of the title is a sanctuary, not a cell, and the only home he’s ever known. And the Netflix original series Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which unleashed its first season in March, stars Ellie Kemper as the plucky survivor of a doomsday cult whose leader kept her and several other women captive in a bunker for years. Unlike True Detective, Rectify, and so many others, these stories are primarily about their female leads and their attempts to move beyond their ordeals.
From the first paragraph of Room, something isn’t right. “Today I’m five,” the book begins. “I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.” The book is entirely narrated by Jack, who doesn’t understand that there is a world beyond Room. Within the first few pages, however, the reader understands that Ma gave birth to Jack on the rug (or “Rug,” as Jack calls it) beneath them; that Jack sleeps in the wardrobe; and that there’s a man called Old Nick whom Jack’s mother doesn’t want her son to ever see.
Jack’s narrative voice is exuberant, full of bundled-up energy and enthusiasm for his tiny world. He introduces us to his beloved objects, like Meltedy Spoon (a spoon with a melted plastic handle, his favorite) and Eggsnake (a coiled-up snake made of eggshells and stored under the bed). The reader has to infer from Jack’s happy-go-lucky chronicle what’s really going on in Room. “After nap we do Scream every day but not Saturdays or Sundays,” he narrates. “We clear our throats and climb up on Table to be nearer Skylight…then we open wide our teeth and shout holler howl yowl shriek screech scream the loudest possible.” To Jack, Scream is simply a weekday routine; to the reader, it’s obviously a desperate cry for help.
For the most part, the events of the film are also told through Jack’s point of view. When Old Nick—Ma’s captor—comes for his nightly visits, we see him through the slats in the wardrobe door, where Jack is hidden. We hear Old Nick talking to Ma, and then the talking stops, and we hear the bed creak. Again, we understand what’s happening, even as our protagonist does not.
When—spoiler alert!—Jack and Ma finally escape halfway through the book and film, Room becomes a story about their gradual recovery, first in a hospital, then in the house where Ma grew up and where her mother now lives with her second husband. Jack’s confrontations with the fears and delights of the world outside Room are a constant reminder of where he was born—and of the quiet accommodation with pain that he and his mother endured in Room, and will continue to endure as they work through their trauma. “Ice cream hurts,” Jack whispers at the kitchen table, mid-brain-freeze. The scene points to all that Jack has missed during his first five years, and yet his innocence and sense of wonder soften the blow of his and Ma’s ordeal. And it doesn’t hurt that he is an adorable child.
How can there be anything adorable about a story about abduction and rape? Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, the creators of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, seem determined to find a way. Kimmy and her fellow captives—dubbed the “Indiana Mole Women” by local media—were captured and imprisoned in a bunker for 15 years by a crazy reverend, who led them to believe their female stupidity caused an apocalypse that destroyed the world, and they are the sole survivors. Kimmy never talks about sexual abuse in detail, but indicates that sexual violence was a part of the experience. When she and her fellow captives are rescued, they land naturally on the Today Show, where Matt Lauer asks them what’s next. The women all want to go back to their hometown of Durnsville, Indiana, but Kimmy decides to stay in New York. “I have to get my life back,” she says. “Everybody in Durnsville is always gonna look at me like I’m a victim and that’s not what I am.”
As played by Ellie Kemper, Kimmy is almost like an adult version of Jack, full of wonder for the world she was told for so many years was nothing but a nuclear wasteland. On her first day on her own in New York City, Kimmy finds joy in everything: the automatic faucet and dryer in a public bathroom, a man jogging on the street, a ride on the subway (“Whee!”). But getting her life back is not as easy as she thinks. She’s beset by nightmares, and she sleepwalks—her roommate, Titus (Tituss Burgess), wakes up one morning to find Kimmy choking him in his bed. Kimmy is marked by trauma, and yet the fact that Kimmy Schmidt is a half-hour comedy means that its most unsettling moments serve as fodder for laughs. “Yes, there was weird sex stuff in the bunker!” Kimmy blurts out to Titus, who was about to ask an unrelated question.
In the pilot episode, Titus, an aspiring Broadway star who poses for pictures in an Iron Man costume in Times Square, tries to convince Kimmy to go back to Indiana. She refuses. “You can either curl up in a ball and die,” she tells him, “or you can stand up and say we’re different! We’re the strong ones, and you can’t break us!” Then Titus and Kimmy hold hands in the middle of Times Square and sing “The Circle of Life” at the top of their lungs, shimmying to the beat of their own music while car horns honk and tourists rush past. When they’re finished, no one claps, but they hold their hands up high in the air.
“People love hearing terrible details of news tragedies,” Titus informs Kimmy in the third episode, because “it’s titillating, like a horror movie.” But Room and Kimmy Schmidt resist the impulse to bear all. These productions are the opposite of torture porn. They refuse to provide thrills by showing us the suffering of their female leads at the hands of their captors. All of that is intimated, hinted at by the obscured view of a child watching through the slats of a closet door or an ill-timed confession that doubles as a joke.
Their closest non-fiction counterparts can be found in the memoirs of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus, and Michelle Knight, the three Cleveland women who were kidnapped by a school bus driver named Ariel Castro between 2002 and 2004 and held as prisoners in his house for the next decade. Their accounts of this nightmare, Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland, written by Berry and DeJesus, with Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan, and Finding Me: A Decade of Darkness, A Life Reclaimed, by Knight, with Michelle Burford, furnish all the horrendous details that Room and Kimmy Schmidt spare their viewers. All three women suffered repeated, agonizing rapes; Knight became pregnant five times, and each time Castro starved and beat her until she miscarried. Berry gave birth to a daughter, Jocelyn, in 2006, on Christmas Day. In the preface to Hope, Berry and DeJesus write that Jocelyn “made a dark place brighter, and in many ways helped save us.”
Unlike Room and Kimmy Schmidt,these memoirs are truly hard to stomach. But they differ significantly from the filmed rape and abuse scenes because they are told by the women who have actually experienced this abuse; they are allowed to shape the narrative. Room and Kimmy Schmidt prove—one through drama, the other through comedy—that it is possible to create mainstream entertainment that deals with violence against women, without making it exploitative or completely sanitized. There’s no doubt that Kimmy and Ma have suffered immensely, and there’s no question that they were sexually abused. And yet by refusing to make a show of their pain, Room and Kimmy Schmidt insist that these women are not the sum of their traumas.
In the preface to their memoir, Berry and DeJesus write, “We have written here about terrible things that we never wanted to think about again. But our story is not just about rape and chains, lies and misery. That was Ariel Castro’s world. Our story is about overcoming all that.”