Rape of the Sabine Women – a short debate.

Traditionally dated back to 750 BC the Rape of the Sabine women was a rather troublesome event when the citizens of the newly founded Rome decided to get themselves a wife via alternative means. The went to visit their next door neighbours the Sabine’s and stole all their women. This event has been represented multiple times in the work of countless artists and the most famous versions are of course the rather incredible sculpture by Giambologna located at the Loggia die Lanzi in Florence and the multiple  renditions that Peter Paul Rubens did.

.Giambologna. Rape of the Sabine Women                Rubens: Rape of the Sabine Women

I myself have always been fond of Picasso’s envisioning. The mass of twisted limbs, screaming horses, displayed breasts and giant sword wielding attackers seems to me to truly give a visceral image of what the whole event would have been like. No fair damsel clutching her breasts in panic as you often see in the works of the old masters – just unnamed, undistinguishable flesh coated in blood, sweat, lust and fear (and semen no doubt featured in there somewhere also).

Piscasso: Rape of Sabine Women

The debate on how you represent awful traumatic events is something that multiple authors have debated on over the years. Jacques Derrida, Toni Morrison, Marita Sturken, Paul Fussell, Paula Gunn Allen, Tessa Morris-Suzuki are just a few names from a long list of people. Holocaust studies, rape studies, women’s studies, post-colonial studies, Imperial studies, war studies…the list goes on of disciplines that, at their heart, hold a traumatic event at their core. The question of representation is a complex one and it is fair to say no artist, filmmaker, author, photopgrapher has ever got to 100% accurate.

The way you represent an event is at the heart of the current book I am writing on the visual culture of modern day bride-kidnapping. Bride kidnapping has its roots throughout global culture; from the poetry of the ancient Greeks to the literature of Frances Burney; from the plains of the American Wild West to the mountains of China. What I find rather upsetting is that the most notable film examples that people cite when I mention the topic are the comedy musical Seven Bride for Seven Brothers and Borat. Take Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, as the song goes, “and though they may be sobbin’ for a while, We gonna make them sobbin’ women smile!” Why would you not want a suitor who has captured you, taken you to a remote farm with a group of other captive women and then caused an avalanche to prevent your family rescuing you? I think this video from Borat also says it all (poor copy so apologies but it is via youtube). What fun, what laugher…oh, wait.

What I find problematic is how both these examples use the narrative of the kidnapped bride for comedic value and then presents as narratives of ‘alternative behaviours’ whilst actually upholding patriarchal notions of gender. For me in both the cases above comedy used against the female participants and seeks only to enforce the gender status quo rather than offer anytime of subversive laughter. Don’t get me wrong – I think that Sacha Baron Cohen is a clever man who manages to make some very salient political points in his work – I am just not sure this is a fine example of it.  As this project moves into the final stages I will post more on this topic but I would like to leave with the following clip…then go away and read a definition of stockholm syndrome….




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