Blink and you might miss the tiny content advisory at the start of Netflix’s latest drama Luckiest Girl Alive. Consider this a proper trigger warning. Since releasing it on Friday, the streamer has been criticised for exposing viewers to brutal scenes of sexual violence in a film marketed as a #GirlBoss thriller. The trailer – cascading piano keys give way to skittering strings, as a magazine editor wanders around New York City in a Gucci belt – does little to foreshadow the barbarity of what’s to come. But watch the film and you’ll see that’s not the only problem.
Starring Mila Kunis, the film is an adaptation of the bestselling novel of the same name by Jessica Knoll and tells the story of high-flying journalist Ani Fanelli, who was involved in one of the deadliest school shootings in US history. Since then, the 28-year-old has been trying to reinvent herself as a successful career woman in New York City with a wealthy fiancé. But all this is put at risk when a documentarian starts probing into Ani’s past and it’s revealed that she was subjected to cruel bullying at school by some of the victims in the shooting. And, most horrifyingly, that she was gang raped.
We are shown these violations in their entirety; nothing is implied or suggested. Ani is raped by three of her classmates, including her boyfriend, Liam. The third and final rape is the hardest to watch – Ani has noticed that she is bleeding and, after trying to get some water, is thrown onto the bed by Dean, the school bully. He rapes her while Ani screams, shouting “no” and “stop” repeatedly until she eventually manages to push Dean off of her and escape.
It’s a devastating moment, particularly given how unexpected it is for those who haven’t read Knoll’s book. Hence why it’s all the more surprising there was not a suitable trigger warning, and sexual assault survivors have been vocal in their criticism. The streaming service does briefly mention that Luckiest Girl Alive features “sexual violence” and “threat” at the top of the screen as the film starts – but many viewers have said this is not enough given the brutality of the rape scenes.
“I was not prepared at all,” says Ciara Charteris, co-founder of I Am Arla, an online platform for trauma survivors. “It goes against the work that I do, not just as a survivor but as a human to be able to make an active choice about whether I’m going to engage in traumatic on-screen incidents or not.” After sharing her thoughts on social media, Charteris was inundated with responses from fellow survivors who found the film equally difficult to watch.
“It is vital that viewers can make an informed choice about watching a film that could impact their health and wellbeing,” says Jayne Butler, CEO of the charity Rape Crisis. “Any representation of sexual violence in the media, but in particular depictions, can be extremely traumatising for victims and survivors – many of whom are still coping with the negative impacts of their experiences.”
Trigger warnings aside, this is a complicated film to criticise for several reasons. The first is that Knoll herself was gang-raped by three classmates at a high school party and has spoken about how the book was inspired by her own experiences. She also wrote the screenplay for the adaptation. With Knoll’s own voice and experiences, the film had every chance of being a compelling and important piece of cinema, one that had unique potential to educate people about sexual violence and the physical and psychological complexities that often surround it. The effect could have been to elicit greater empathy for survivors where there is often so little, particularly among lawmakers in a country where just 1 per cent of rapes recorded by police in 2021 resulted in a charge that year, let alone a conviction. A noble cause.
And yet the film somehow misses the mark. While there are moments of nuance – we see how Ani is victim-blamed and the way that the rape has affected her sex life as an adult – they are arguably overshadowed by the school shooting, and the way the narrative builds towards this scene, which comes towards the end of the film. “If you were someone watching that film without a survivor’s experience, my fear is that with so much drama and trauma, you don’t create space for the conversation you’ve made the film in order to have. The importance of what this movie is saying gets lost in the overarching noise of an aggressive and over-saturated film,” says Charteris.
What’s more, the sexual assault scenes are so horrible that it feeds into the misleading and stereotypical idea that rape is always physically violent. That it is black and white, when the reality is often grey, leaving many survivors haunted by the question of whether or not their experience “counts” as rape. Ani’s rape, however, is presented to us as fact. The violence is certainly harrowing but it isn’t reflective of a reality in which sexual violence is often characterised by ambiguity. One in which survivors are left questioning their recollection of events for years, or possibly their entire lives. Because maybe, unlike Ani, they couldn’t recognise what was happening straight away. Maybe they didn’t kick and scream. Maybe they didn’t say “no”.
None of that should invalidate what has happened to them. But in the eyes of people without any degree of understanding around sexual violence – which is more than you’d think – it probably will. And if we’re to ever make any modicum of difference in a world in which one in four women have been raped or sexually assaulted, these are the people popular culture needs to consider when it depicts rape.
Even in 2022, five years since #MeToo, there have been very few depictions of sexual violence that handle the subject matter with the sensitivity and complexity it requires. Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You stands almost entirely alone as a piece of art that perfectly captures the myriad forms with which sexual violence can take place – and in doing so, elicits the difficult but vital conversations needed to challenge viewers and bring about change.
To some, Luckiest Girl Alive will undoubtedly provide solace and help to show viewers just how long-lasting the psychological effects of rape can be. But in a world where four in 10 people believe survivors who flirt are partially responsible for being raped, the bleak reality is that it is simply not enough to change anyone’s perception about sexual violence. At least not in the way it needs to in order to prevent it from happening. Rather, scenes as graphic as these could serve only to reinforce problematic myths around rape and isolate survivors whose experience don’t fit a very small and specific mould. Not to mention the effect of seeing them so unexpectedly, at the start of what you thought was just another fun Mila Kunis film.
The Independent has approached Netflix for comment.
Rape Crisis offers support for those affected by rape and sexual abuse. You can call them on 0808 802 9999 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, and 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland, or visit their website: www.rapecrisis.org.uk. If you are in the US, you can call Rainn on 800-656-HOPE (4673)