It's Always Gerald's Game
TW: discussions of rape, consent and child abuse.
Spoilers: Gerald’s Game
It took me a while to watch Gerald’s Game. I read the book before I was old enough to fully understand the sexual themes yet it affected me to the point that I avoided the film for a few months after it appeared on Netflix. Fantastical elements aside, this adaptation presents an important issue that is rarely reflected in media: the coercion, power and abuse that takes place within relationships.
Gerald’s Game follows a married couple - Gerald and Jessie – who take a trip to a remote cabin. Gerald instigates a sex game and handcuffs Jessie to the bed before having a heart attack and leaving her stranded. The narrative follows Jessie’s struggle to escape whilst trying to survive dehydration, a starving wild dog, a sinister stalker and her memories of trauma.
Dialogues around sexual violence focus on the issue of consent, often as a way of determining victim credibility. The judicial system and society in general demand proof that victims express non-consent to sexual activity through clear physical resistance, and that this resistance is corroborated by visible injury or witnesses (Estrich, 1987). More recent discussions around consent have suggested that sexual violence is a miscommunication between men and women; this puts the onus on victims to be ‘clearer’ and more assertive in order to avoid violence, and also assumes that women always have the power and autonomy to be able to say no (Coy, Kelly, Vera-Gray & Kanyeredzi, 2015). Such understandings overlook key factors behind rape – power, control and gender inequality – and make it an issue of sex rather than of violence.
Media representations of rape victims tend to be in line with several stereotypes: the resisting virgin, the sexualised party-girl, the malicious ‘false accuser’ and the avenging rape-revenge heroine. These extreme tropes present problematic images of women and perpetuate troubling myths about rape: that ‘real’ victims are young, white and innocent; that ‘bad’ girls are asking for it or motivated by revenge; that rape always involves physical force and is a crime of opportunity and/or impulse, and that rape prevention should focus on victim behaviour more than on perpetrators or wider, societal factors.
|Poster for rape-revenge classic I Spit on Your Grave (1978)|
Representation matters. The media has a huge influence on public understanding of the causes, realities and impact of crimes such as rape (Projanksy, 2001). Belief in rape myths contributes to the poor treatment of victims, reduced reporting rates for sexual violence and social acceptance of violence against women (Jordan, 2004). Therefore, it is important that the media include more progressive depictions of victimisation, which challenge rather than perpetuate these myths and stereotypes.
Sexual violence is often shown as extremely violent and committed by strangers. Gerald’s Game presents a form of sexual violence that is common yet rarely discussed: intimate partner rape. Rape in marriage was not considered a crime in the UK until 1991 (1989 in Scotland) and almost 30 years later, very few men who rape their spouses face investigation or charges. Jessie and Gerald’s marriage is shown as reasonably happy despite their problems with intimacy, which makes the escalation to violence quite shocking. They are also an older couple (the actors were 45 and 60 respectively). These elements of intimate partner violence – the apparent ‘normality’ of relationships and that it can affect any age - rarely appear in media.
At first, Gerald’s suggestion of a sex game seems like an attempt to repair their marriage. Yet the activity is all on his terms with little regard for Jessie’s wants: he brings the cuffs to the cabin without her knowledge and takes Viagra without asking if she is interested in sex, showing that her consent is irrelevant to his plans. He tells her that the cuffs are the ‘real deal’ and will not break, which seems unnecessary for consensual sexual activity.
It is upsetting to see such a visible indicator of non-consent as a woman chained to a bed, but the handcuffs are only part of Gerald’s domination over Jessie. After he cuffs her, she makes her feelings very clear through what she says (“that really hurt”, “I don’t like this”, “stop”, “uncuff me” and “no”), how she says it, her avoidant eye contact and escalating body language, all of which Gerald wilfully. This is not an issue of miscommunication, as he deliberately justifies and thus dismisses each element of her resistance as part of ‘the game’ - his rape fantasy. When she resists and breaks through his fantasy, he uses guilt and emotional manipulation to maintain control; he is angry, petulant and accuses her of not wanting to rebuild the relationship. He also refuses to uncuff her and retains his power and control even after his death.
None of this should be unfamiliar. Rape isn’t a black and white, hold-them-down-screaming act of impulse. It is insidious, often planned and carefully executed by perpetrators. It is the deliberate misreading or ignoring of communication, both verbal and physical, and the exploitation of social norms. It is foot-in-the-door coercion; if she lets me do this, she will let me do that or at least not be in a position to stop it. If she lets me do this, then no one will believe that she didn’t let me do that or that she didn’t want it. It is control over the other person through emotional manipulation and exploitation of power (such as through gender, age or social status), more so than through physical force or violence.
During the film, we learn that Jessie was sexually abused as a child by her father (another common yet under-represented form of male violence). This experience is similarly nuanced; her father manipulates her trust and anxieties to separate her from her family during a beach trip. His nickname for her – ‘Mouse’ – highlights her shy and obedient nature which he exploits. Her objectifies her and minimises her existence other than through his ownership as her father.
From the ‘real rape’ perspective that is inherent in rape myths, Jessie’s experience would not be seen as violent: she is married to the perpetrator, she consented to go to the cabin and bought lingerie for the occasion, and she allowed herself to be cuffed to the bed. Similarly, her childhood abuse is shown as distressingly mundane and she defines it as less damaging than the subsequent silencing. Yet these experiences are also clearly depicted as non-consensual, degrading and abusive.
Gerald’s Game shows us a rare kind of monster: the ‘real’ rapist. In reality, sexual violence rarely involves strangers or people who are mentally ill or ‘deviant’: whether we want to accept it or not, rapists are people we know. They are trusted friends, family members and partners and subsequently in the best position to coerce and control. The ‘stranger-danger’ myth is damaging as it redirects our vigilance to threat outside our homes and relationships.
Gerald and Jessie seem like a fairly typical couple yet their interactions are rife with micro-aggressions and misogyny. Gerald regularly demeans Jessie’s feelings or opinions, blames her for his sexual impotency and suggests that she is the reason they did not have children. He makes sexist jokes with clients (“what is a woman? A life-support system for a cunt”) and berates her response. He shows little compassion for the starving dog they encounter and there is suggestion that the extravagance of their trip – the paid-off gardener and house keeper, the Kobe steak in the fridge – are arranged by him as part of his coercion. He is a callous, entitled man with little value for his partner or for women in general - which are many of the elements which underlie sexual violence – yet he is not shown as a monster.
We see that Jessie’s father also used emotional manipulation. He uses guilt to get her to sit on his lap (“I just miss my little girl”) and uses the eclipse as an opportunity to abuse her. He expresses shame and remorse as a means of ensuring her silence, and exploits the fractured relationship she has with her mother to isolate her from her family. Victims of abuse are often asked why they did not speak out sooner and this is a good example of the strategies that perpetrators use to ensure their silence or reduce their victims’ credibility.
A ‘Real’ Victim
Gerald’s Game could have easily been a nasty, exploitative depiction of men’s control over women but Stephen King and Mike Flanagan give us a complex and inspiring victim-survivor in Jessie. Initially, she acts in accordance with the gender stereotypes that we expect from women in film; she is submissive to Gerald, speaks quietly and unassertively, smiles, wears pale dresses, is kind to animals. She tells him that she bought the lingerie for his benefit, suggesting that his sexual needs are priority. Her initial resistance to the handcuffs is in line with the way that women are often socialised to resist: she reacts with politeness, laughing off the situation and appealing to his empathy.
When her requests are ignored, she becomes more determined and uses verbal, emotional and physical force. After his death, she kicks into survival mode and her resourceful manifests as an assertive version of herself who identifies the elements within her immediate control: the phone, the water, the shelf, using the tag from her dress as a straw. Jessie is capable despite her limited options yet still expresses fear and distress; she isn’t reduced to a cold, detached heroine or a crying, pliant victim. Gerald blames her for what his death (for feeding the dog, not playing along) and tells her that she married a man like her father, which is a common way that society blames victims of abuse, yet she retains her resolves to escape. Her character is allowed both emotional and rational responses to her predicament, which culminates in her tearing open her hand to slip through the cuffs. Although she imagines and talks to people who are not there, Jessie has not ‘lost her mind’ as Gerald tells her; these dissociative moments are her way of remaining grounded enough to process and problem-solve the situation.
In the aftermath of her escape, we see Jessie as recovering but still affected by nightmares and missing memories. She sets up a foundation and uses her experience to support other survivors. She is no longer silenced - she has the final narration - and communes with her younger self with love and compassion. We see her reject the victim-blaming messages and put responsibility back on her husband and father: "his shackles were silence, and his were comfort". In the final scenes, she confronts a representation of her abusers (the ‘man made of moonlight’) with defiance before walking confidently into her future: “you’re so much smaller than I remember”. This complex version of Jessie – as a wounded victim and healing survivor – expresses the duality of victimisation and recovery. It is a more hopeful message than the black and white stereotypes we are used to seeing and expect to see.
|"You're so much smaller than I remember"|
Gerald’s Game is an upsetting but incredibly powerful exploration of the subtle realities of coercion and violence. It is refreshing to see a woman who has experienced multiple victimisations in her life, yet is a resourceful fighter rather than reduced to a damaged cog in the cycle of abuse (see The Kid’s Aren’t Alright). Even though the story is named after Gerald – perhaps as an illustration that consent and rape are predominantly determined, defined and practiced by men - Jessie defeats her abusers and emerges victorious. Horror is most effective when it forces us to relate to it on some level and while Gerald’s Game depicts sexual violence in uncomfortably realistic terms, it also shows us the resourceful, hopeful woman who survives it.
Coy, M., Kelly, L., Vera-Gray, F. & Kanyeredzi, A. (2015) From ‘no means no’ to ‘an enthusiastic yes’: Changing the Discourse on Sexual Consent Through Sex and Relationships Education.
Estrich, S. (1987) Real Rape, Harvard University Press: London, UK
Jordan, J. (2004) The Word of a Woman? Police, Rape and Belief. Palgrave Macmillan: UK.
Projanksy, S (2001) Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture, New York University Press: USA.
Randall, M. & Haskell, L. (1995) Sexual Violence in Women’s Lives, Violence Against Women, 1, 1, 6-31.
 62% of children who are abused also report being abused as adults (Randall & Haskell, 1995). Therefore, it is especially important to see positive depictions of people who have experienced repeated victimisation.
 I use the term victim-survivor here as Jessie reflects many of the different ways that women cope with and resist sexual violence and characteristics that are often attached to victims and/or survivors.