This is a follow-up to my previous post about “The Return of the Black Shadow”, an episode of The Rockford Files. If you’ve not read that one, you may want to do so.
This episode is about a brutal gang rape. The victim, Gail Cooper, is the sister of one of Jim Rockford’s friends and associates, John Cooper. What had me puzzled is whether or not the fact that she was a librarian merely contingent, or whether it was part of a pattern. If so, what’s the pattern? The pattern, if there is one, would have more to do with how stories are constructed than with the way the world works.
I’ve decided that it’s part of a pattern, a pattern of the sort I characterize as myth-logic. My primary sense of myth logic comes from the work of the French anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss. And he emphasizes the importance of binary logic, of contrasts. The world, of course, is full of binary contrasts. The trick is to figure out which ones are at work in any given situation.
“Animal” and the Librarian
Let’s start at the point where Rockford and Ms. Cooper have stopped for gas. A motorcycle gang pulls into the gas station and Rockford is talking with the attendant. One of the bikers gets into the driver’s seat of Rockford’s car, thereby trapping Gail in the passenger’s seat. He’s big and fat and is known as “Animal.”
That’s our contrast right there, between “Animal” and the librarian. That is, the rape victim was set as an intellectual woman so as to afford maximum contrast to a brutish man known as “Animal.” As a shy intellectual she needs help getting a date – Rockford’s taking her out as a favor to his friend – and that also makes her maximally different from her rapists,
There’s another small detail that now falls into place. Where were they going on their date? Deep-sea fishing. And that’s just odd. There’s nothing strange about Rockford going deep-sea fishing; we know he likes to fish. But it’s strange that he wants to take Gail Cooper deep-sea fishing. Why would he agree to go out with her in the first place and then decide to do something so out-of-character for her–something she remarks on–for their date? He’s taken many women out to dinner; why not this one? Remember, this is not about what makes sense for real people, but about myth-logic. The “real” Jim Rockford wouldn’t do anything so stupid. But there are over-riding considerations in this story.
The point of taking her on such a strange date is simply the strangeness of the juxtaposition. Here she is talking about her project at work, which involves cataloging physics books, and she makes a remark about something totally different, deep-sea fishing. It just makes the situation seem even stranger and more awkward.
Not only is it awkward for Rockford and Gail, but it’s awkward for us, the audience. “It does not compute.” We’re at the edge of Brechtian distancing, not in the avant-garde theatre, but in mainstream American TV.
And why not? Rape is a very strange and uncomfortable thing. Distance is just what’s needed to make it a subject for mainstream TV.
And it’s a Most Unusual Rape
And the rape we see is a very unusual kind of rape, a gang rape where the victim has no prior relationship with any of the rapists. This rape information webpage reports
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.
Furthermore, “More than 50% of all rape/sexual assault incidents were reported by victims to have occurred within 1 mile of their home or at their home.” These figure, of course, are contemporary, while The Rockford Files aired over thirty years ago. On the face of it, though, I see no reason to believe that the nature of rape has changed drastically in over that time period.
The gang rape of a complete stranger, then, is unusual. Furthermore in this case there can be no question about consent, the issue which has become so problematic in the current discussion of rape on college campuses. The rape depicted in this episode of The Rockford Files is unambiguously rape.
In fact, it’s kind of a Super-rape. It’s unusual in that there is no relationship between victim and perpetrators, which removes it from the likely experience of audience members. That’s a distancing effect. But that same distancing makes the violent character of the act inescapable and unmistakable. The fact that it is a gang rape further removes the act from the realm of interpersonal relationships.
At the Same Time, Intimacy
And now things get interesting. It turns out that Gails lawyer brother had been a biker early in his life–we learn this in the car conversation before the rape. That is, her brother is not so very different from the men who rape her; or, if you will, they are not so very different from him.
And it turns out that this particular biker gang is associated with a legitimate business, a catering business. The business is run by men who’d dissolved the gang years ago and used gang money to start the business. One of their buddies, however, got restless and decided to start the gang up, recruiting a whole new set of members. When the business owners discover what their old buddy had done they put pressure on him to stop. He, of course, wants nothing to do with them.
He learns that the catering company is planning a family picnic for their employees. He gets the gang to crash the picnic. They’re caught by the police because this that and the other, which I explain in my first post. The point is that THIS crime IS between known associates. The business owners know the gang leader and, of course, he knows them. He is deliberately targeting them. This party-crashing, then, has one of the chief characteristics of typical rapes, though it is not itself a rape.
What do we have? We have a closely linked pair of crimes. One of them is a rape, but not a typical rape. The other isn’t rape, but it has a key feature that is typical of many rapes.
The brother of the rape victim is a lawyer, but was once a biker, like the perpetrators. The perpetrators are associated with men who aren’t bikers, but once were.
It’s all there, rape and acquaintance, legit and outlaw, but it’s not assembled in the ordinary way. It’s myth-logic.