Friday, February 27, 2015

Myth-Logic and a Lady Librarian in The Rockford Files

I’ve been working my way through The Rockford Files on Netflix. As many of you know the show originally aired in the later 1970s and is about a private investigator, Jim Rockford, who lives in a trailer at the beach in Malibu. Rockford’s basically a good guy who has to bend the rules to make ends meet.

I’m coming to the end of the run and yesterday watched an episode entitled “The Return of the Black Shadow”. The episode is more focused on one of Rockford’s friends and associates, John Cooper, than on Rockford himself. Cooper has a sister Gail, who is a librarian, and Rockford has agreed to take her on a date (deep sea fishing). The date gets hijacked by a motorcycle gang that gang rapes Gail and beats Rockford up.

The question that’s on my mind is: Why is it that it’s a librarian who is raped? If you are going to tell a half-way interesting story about rape, the victim has to be something other than a rape victim, no? But why not an interior decorator, a lawyer, a psychiatrist, an engineer, or a model, all of whom have appeared in episodes of the show and many of them were dated by Rockford?

Obviously, this isn’t a question about the real world, it’s a question about story craft, about myth-logic.

When the episode opens Rockford and Gail are driving along in his car having a conversation, an awkward conversation. She’s thanking Rockford for taking her out; she knows he’s only doing this as a favor to her brother, John; and Rockford’s protesting that, no, he’s taking her out because he wants to and she’s a nice woman; and she’s telling him about a major cataloguing project she’s working on, physics; and he’s laughing at her jokes and; on the whole, they’re managing to put a pleasant face on an awkward situation. As they’re driving along they’re passed by a gang of bikers, The Rattlers, who hassle them a bit as they pass around them.

When the bikers have finally passed them Gail mentions that her brother, John, had been a biker in his youth; he belonged to The Black Shadows. But he grew out of it and went to law school. They continue driving.

When they stop for gas, the bikers show up at the gas station and start hassling Rockford. One of them gets in his car (Rockford had stepped out for some reason which I forget) and starts hassling Gail. The net result is that they take her up into the hills and rape her; Rockford follows and gets beaten up; and the police arrive just in time.

When brother John finds out he is, of course, very angry. He decides that he’s not going to leave things to the police. He gets his bike out, puts on his old Black Shadow clothes, and manages to work his way into the gang that did it. And so forth. The gang’s caught and, at the end, Gail seems to have recovered, at least physically.

And I’m still wondering: why a librarian? Maybe no reason at all, maybe that’s merely a contingent fact about the character. However, the maiden librarian IS a minor stock figure and Gail fits the bill.

But it’s not simply about the characteristics of the rape victim that I’m puzzled about. That is, there’s more to the puzzle than that. There’s her relationships to the other characters. She’s John Cooper’s brother, who is, in turn, Jim Rockford’s friend and occasional business associate. It’s because Rockford is his friend, that Cooper is able to get him to take Gail out on a date. And it is because Gail is his sister that he’s motivated to go after the gang that did it. And it’s because he had once been a biker that he’s able to infiltrate the gang and thereby bring about their capture.

It all fits together in a nice neat pattern. But what’s the pattern about? Well, it’s about sex and relationships. But what’s the logic, the myth-logic? If Lévi-Strauss were analyzing this as a myth, what would he be looking for?

Well, for one thing, he’d consider the rest of the story.

The lead Rattler, Willie Green, is somewhat older than the rest of them. It turns out that a bunch of Rattlers from the old days had pooled their money and formed a catering company, Billybob Catering. When they find out what Willie’s been up to they order him to stop, fearing that his current violence would lead the police to them sooner or later. Willie, of course, refuses, and plans to crash the Billybob company picnic with his new associates. Since Cooper’s infiltrated the gang by this time he’s able to inform Rockford, who in turn informs the police. No sooner do the Rattlers start busting up the company picnic than the police arrive and save the day.

There’s a lot of symmetry going on here. The Rattlers rape a woman at the beginning of the show – well, a quarter of the way in – and they crash a family picnic at the end. The Rattlers are no good for women and families. John Cooper was once a biker and is now a lawyer. A group of citizens were once Rattlers and are now respectable businessmen. Whatever’s going on in this story, that connection between past and present is part of it, an outlaw past and a legit present.

But what does that have to do with a lady librarian? Is an intellectual woman cast as the rape victim because she’s an outsider to the conventional friends and family circle? That’s the sort of thing that’s on my mind, but I don’t know quite how to argue it. What makes that kind of argument tricky is that Rockford himself is something of an outsider. He’s an ex-convict, though he received a full-pardon, and he’s working in a profession that is itself cast in a marginal role in American fiction, though Rockford himself is basically a good guy. He’s got a good friend in the police department, but is nonetheless otherwise in conflict with the department.

The whole show is a subtle balancing act. It’s basically a comic whodunit cast on the sunny-side of the shadows. But there’s something going on in this episode that I can’t quite figure out.

Oh well.

BTW, David Chase, who came to fame through The Sopranos, did a lot of work on this show, getting production and writing credits on many episodes.


  1. The differences between "book smarts and street smarts" apply to women with the librarian trope. Also, there is a Joan Rivers quip that "No man ever put his hand up a woman's skirt to get a library card." Just a beginning . . .

  2. I'm not sure what either of those gets me, Sally. On street smarts, it's not clear what street smarts would have gotten her. Before anyone could do anything she found herself trapped in a parked car that was surrounded by bikers who'd decided they were going to rape her. Rockford was trapped too, and he has plenty of street smarts. He ended up getting beaten so badly he was in the hospital. The only way he could have prevented that was to just let the bikers do what they wanted and make no attempt to help her.

    On the second, that simply points out that she's a woman and, as such, vulnerable to a man who decides he wants to rape her for whatever reason. In this case, it's clear the bikers had decided they wanted to cause trouble and Rockford and his date were unlucky enough to get in the way.

    I'm trying to remember whether any other episodes of the show involved rape. I've been rewatching the series from the beginning and I don't recall any. One of the recurring characters is a prostitute who's also Rockford's friend. I believe she gets badly beaten in (at least) one episode, but not raped. This may have been the only rape in the whole series, which was not particularly focused on assaults of various kinds. Nor, for that matter, do I think there were many rape episodes on TV in 70s. And for the show to center, not only on a rape, but on a gang rape, that's a big deal.

    Is the fact that the victim was a librarian interested in physics, is that just plain old American anti-intellectualism? It doesn't feel like it. Maybe the idea was simply to make her as different as possible from the men who raped her.

  3. So, let's push that a little farther. Why make it a gang rape instead of an ordinary one-on-one rape? This website tells me that

    Approximately 2/3 of rapes were committed by someone known to the victim.
    73% of sexual assaults were perpetrated by a non-stranger.
    38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance.
    28% are an intimate.
    7% are a relative.

    So, the rape in this episode is not at all typical. On the contrary, it's unusual. Why do that, why depict an unusual kind of rape? It's as though, yes, we're dealing with rape, but it's not anything you need to be concerned about because what you're watching on TV is unusual. In a way, we've got a kind of SuperRape that functions to deny ordinary rape.

    This is beginning to make sense, that is, a kind of myth-logic sense.

  4. Excellent extra details you provide about the context. What I'm aware of is that the writer is the one who chose to make this woman a librarian. And choose out of presumably limited myth-logic about women. That she's a librarian doesn't have to make any sense to the story. And a "SuperRape" as you call it really does bring this to the level of a man/men determined to "educate" this woman. I don't know the details of the story line, but the gang involvement sounds like it is meant to make her an outcast even Rockford wouldn't deal with. Something like that. And, yes, the anti-intellectualism of America does cast women as needing "educated." But, you're definitely on to something. Keep pushing the boundaries.

  5. I suggest: (1) Gail is what some feminists have described as the Ideal Victim. In rape mythology, a rape victim should be sexually conservative, not prone to alcohol or drug consumption, modestly dressed, you get the idea... The popular mythology tends to (or tended to in the 1970s) ascribe these demure kind of traits to librarians. (2) She was a friends' sister, therefore not dispensable / "one of THOSE women". In short I see the construction of the Gail character as just good old rape culture in action, although the interaction you describe with Rockford himself is pretty good (and I remember in the 1970s as a young woman, myself, thinking that feminism had made much greater inroads than it had, based on such friendly conversations. See culture, rape, above.)

  6. Any analysis of why rape culture constructed the ideal victim in that way? What about the construction of the typical rapist?

  7. Just off the mark I'd say that it is related to women as property, first and foremost; then secondly the "damn whores and God's Police" dichotomy which we find in (all? Most?) cultures. The "typical rapist" is constructed as someone not known to the victim, jumping out of bushes or materialising in dark underpasses, which as we now know is quite atypical.

  8. Ah, "God's Police", and this victim is a librarian, who 'polices' books, makes sure they're in the right category. And that's part of her small talk w/ Rockford, talking about a cataloguing project she's working on. Thanks, Helen.

  9. Both of you are just scratching the surface.