Lady Gaga Delivers Powerful Performance at Oscars to Confront Sexual Assault Epidemic; So Why Would She Help to Legitimize Sexual Violence on "American Horror Story"?

Written by PTC | Published February 29, 2016

2016 Oscars

The annual broadcast of the Academy Awards is one of the most highly anticipated televised events of the year. In what is usually the second-most-watched broadcast every year (second only to the Super Bowl), viewers tune-in to see a lavish Hollywood spectacle celebrating achievements in cinema. Each year, the Oscars pay tribute to the most dazzling, sometimes gut-wrenching performances captured on film the previous year. All of it speaks to the power of media to evoke a powerful emotional response in the viewer.

As members of the Academy (of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) know well, these movies are important because they can educate and empower the public about social causes. They are important because of the power they have to engage and perhaps change the culture; because they stimulate dialogue on important issues; and because they can challenge and change attitudes and perceptions. This year, for example, The Big Short sought to expose corruption and shady-dealings in the financial industry; and Spotlight turned its spotlight on efforts to cover-up accusations of sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

donate_todayOne of the most gripping performances of last night’s telecast of the 88th Annual Academy Awards was Lady Gaga’s performance of "Till It Happens to You," nominated for Best Original Song from the Documentary Film "The Hunting Ground," which explores sexual assault on college campuses. On stage with Lady Gaga during the performance were survivors of sexual assault; and shots of the enraptured audience after the performance revealed how powerfully they were moved.

It was, indeed, a masterful performance of a song that deals with a deeply painful subject matter. But in the lavish praise of Lady Gaga’s performance, not a sentence was written about the blatant double-standard on display.

This television season, Lady Gaga starred in Ryan Murphy’s "American Horror Story: Hotel," which not only featured scenes of horrifically violent sexual assault; Gaga herself was involved in some of those scenes.

In the words of one television critic, "Since debuting in 2011, no show has more aggressively dared its audience to turn away lest they witness unspeakable acts of human debasement, sexual perversion, and gratuitous violence." (Jordan Crucchiola, Wired, October 8, 2015).

One scene included:

  • A faceless man wearing a large metal strap-on sex toy that looks like a drill bit emerges from the shadows. He grabs Gabriel, flips him on his stomach, pulls down his pants and repeatedly rapes him anally. The faceless creature rapes Gabriel to death.
CAUTION: The video clip, below, from American Horror Story has extremely graphic sexual and violent content. Please make sure no children are present within viewing distance.

There are laudable efforts, such as the performance by Lady Gaga at the Oscars, going on across the country to raise awareness and reverse the tide of sexual assault on college and university campuses. However, these efforts are undermined by TV programs such as seen in this clip below, that continue to use themes of rape and sexual assault for "entertainment.”

Other Scenes included:

  • The Countess (played by Lady Gaga) and Donovan engage in a foursome with another couple, swapping partners and having sex with one another. When both the Countess and Donovan are on top of their respective partners, they produce knives and slash the couples’ jugulars. Blood fountains out of the couple’s throats and gushes across their bodies and spurts over the bed. The Countess and Donovan drink the blood, the Countess burying her face in the man’s spouting throat wound. Sated from their sex and blood feast, the Countess and Donovan and recline in bed amid the corpses.
  • Detectives arrive at the scene of a crime. Inside the hotel room, a naked man and woman are on the bed in a coital position. A huge spear impales the woman’s torso. Her hands have been nailed to the headboard. The still-living man’s eyes and tongue are found in the ashtray next to them. His empty eye sockets and blood-filled mouth are shown in close-up. The detectives determine that the man’s genitalia have been glued to the woman’s.
  • Scarlett walks into room where the corpses of two men hang from wires by their arms, their stomachs sliced open and their entrails hanging out.

There are vital, urgent and laudable efforts going on across the country to raise awareness and reverse the tide of sexual assault on campus; but those efforts are undermined by television and movies that continue to use themes of rape and sexual assault for "entertainment."

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A growing body of research has documented the desensitization effect that exposure to this kind of media messaging can have on the viewer. Sexually violent content in movies has been found to increase acceptance of violence against women, increased acceptance of rape myths and victim blaming. Other studies have found that repetitive exposure to movies that include sexual violence against women is associated with men’s increased enjoyment of the content.

That is to say, when television treats the victimization, sexualization and exploitation as nothing of consequence, people are more inclined to think it’s nothing of consequence. Girls who are exposed to these messages are more willing to accept harassment and abuse; men are more apt to believe such behavior is acceptable.

I cannot applaud Lady Gaga loudly enough for helping to shed light on the epidemic of college sexual assault. And surely she understands how powerful her message was. It left my wife and me with tearful eyes and chills, just as it did to many in the Dolby Theater audience. But it also left me dumbfounded, even angry, that this very same gifted performer would use another powerful TV platform to legitimize sexual violence on "American Horror Story."

As I have said so frequently about Hollywood, they must think that if a standard is good then a double-standard is twice as good. How very disappointing.

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