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Spring Awakening and the Rape Trope

June 1, 2010

This post is part of the Theatre’s Rape Culture series.

Photo via Paul Kolnik

Tropes are traps that many writers, including myself, typically fall into. They exist as natural bumps in the narrative landscape partially because they are easy to use (i.e. require little imagination) and partially because of their ubiquity. When a certain trope is everywhere, using anything else feels unnatural, or almost illegal—as if the writer is breaking unnecessary rules—and inevitably, the trope is repeated.

This is one way that stereotypes are born.

As noted in many ways throughout this series, rape and sexual violence against women is a typical trope used in popular culture to create character depth, advance the plot, or in some cases, to sell the show.

I still remember arriving in the UK for the first time and flipping through one of those things-to-see-guides for tourists. Here, I found an advert for a Kevin Spacey led play called A Moon for the Misbegotten. I don’t remember the exact text but it was actually along the lines of ‘featuring so and so in a disturbing rape scene’. It’s bad enough when rape is used almost without second thought when attributing characters but to use it as a means to excite the audience?

Take then, Spring Awakening, a perfectly appealing play-turned musical which seemed to, financially wise anyways, have much greater success at connecting with the younger untypically-going theatre crowd then most contemporary plays. Its formula was tried and true—take an old fashioned setting, add some unexpected rock music and presto! You’ve got the Tony award.

But let’s take a closer look at the female characters. One of the protagonists, Wendla, is raped at the end of the first act. Several other characters suffered sexual abuse from their fathers. Another character still hides her feelings of sexual desire from adults in order to please them. Now, in all fairness, the entire play is about sex (it is called Spring Awakening after all) so nearly the entire cast, both male and female, have some sort of sexually related background attached to them. But, the females are the only ones that are made to be the victims of their own sex. Again, rape and sexual trauma are being used to provide supposed emotional depth to characters who otherwise would be seen as one-dimensional in comparison with the males who seem to have a much wider variety of issues to deal with. For a show that prides itself on being contemporary, I just wish it was delivering a different message to audiences than ‘rape is a staple part of growing up for a young woman’.

Edit: there is some discussion in the comments of whether or not Melchior rapes Wendla at the end of Act I, to see the scene in question, click here.

Spring Awakening is far from the first show to exploit rape for the sake of entertainment and it probably won’t be the last. Film, TV, and theatre are constantly reflecting off of one another which, at its very basics, is how popular culture evolves. Popular culture has one of the greatest influences on how people behave, how society spins, and how we look at one another. On Broadway, in the West End, and nearly everywhere a curtain opens and closes, theatre has a rape culture. While there are many companies and performances that work to counteract these attitudes towards the portrayal of men and women, the most effective way to combat is simply for audiences to be aware of what this culture is trying to impress on them. On that note, there’s an Animal Collective song lyric that asks, “Am I all the things that are outside of me?”

So how will you answer?

Kyle Bachan is the Performance Arts Editor here at GAB.

  1. June 1, 2010 10:19 am

    The musical adaptation of Spring Awakening, unlike the original play, doesn’t present that as a rape scene – Wendla consents. I’m not sure it’s helpful to suggest that a scene in which a character says ‘yes’ is unquestionably a rape scene – your general argument is a relevant and necessary one but that claim really detracts from it, for me.

    • June 1, 2010 10:34 am

      Hey clairehennessy,
      The producers of the musical version blocked it with her saying yes to make it appear more consensual, however Wendla had no idea about what sex was at that point (so she didn’t know what she was agreeing to while Melchior did) and was clearing hesitant about going through it with until Melchior pressured her enough.

      I only saw the Toronto adaption of the musical and in that one Wendla was clearly resisting Melchior, and from the expression on her face it was clear that she wasn’t enjoying it at all–but I’m not sure how this is presented in the broadway version.

      She may have said yes, but I definitely don’t think she wanted it so I do classify it as rape.

      There’s a lot of discussion revolving around this that’s articulated better than the above that’s worth checking out:
      Rude Awakening
      Does Melchior rape Wendla in Spring Awakening?

      • June 1, 2010 10:47 am

        To add on to that point, I think it’s way worse what the producers are doing here–pretending that rape is not rape by softening it from the original script. They’re associating rape to sex which, I hope, this series has helped to expose a little.

  2. June 1, 2010 10:50 am

    Ok, for any readers interested in seeing this for yourself, I’ve found what I believe to be a cam from the broadway version (this is exactly the same as what I saw in Toronto)–I didn’t think she said yes anywhere in the scene, and she doesn’t here either (but even if she did say yes, she is clearly fighting this guy off her):

    • June 1, 2010 11:54 am

      She pushes him away, then draws him to her again. And she does say yes. Take a look at the script if it’s not evident to you from that performance. You can argue about the context and her knowledge, but honestly, as her resistance is coming from a place of guilt and repression rather than not wanting to have sex with Melchior, that scene works for me and I suspect works for a lot of people as a positive moment for her, giving into the desire she’s not ‘supposed’ to feel. My point is that it’s a really tricky scene to point to as evidence of ‘sensationalised rape in theatre’, without even mentioning that actually, it isn’t that clear-cut for many people who are familiar with the musical. Discussing it in the context of your above comment “… I think it’s way worse what the producers are doing here–pretending that rape is not rape by softening it from the original script. ” would make much more sense.

      • emclears permalink
        June 1, 2010 12:09 pm

        exactly…note that she says “we are not supposed to do this” NOT “i don’t want to do this”…if you watch this scene alone it is taken out of context but when considered with the entire storyline, Wendla feels that she is not supposed to feel desire or lust because she and the others have been taught that religion is everything and they should not be interested in sex. She resists at first not because she doesn’t want to have sex but because she feels that she is betraying what she has been taught. The other lyrics explain this: In “I Believe” the idea is that they hope god will forgive them for their sins (in this case, sex) and in “The Guilty Ones” they lament over the fact that they are guilty of going against what they have been taught. Still “My Junk” makes it pretty clear that she does in fact want to be with Melchior.

      • June 1, 2010 8:15 pm

        Clairehennessy, I can concede to your point then this scene as rape isn’t as clear-cut as I thought it was. For me and the people I was with, we left the theatre thinking that that scene was rape and didn’t think there would be debate that it wasn’t rape. But obviously, from these comments that is not the case with everyone.

        I still disagree with emclears’ argument though. Part of the argument is can you be raped by someone you love or want to be with? Also, while I can agree that this musical is about experimentation and not sticking to the values that you are brought up with (breaking free etc) I still have a problem with your statement here: “She resists at first not because she doesn’t want to have sex but because she feels that she is betraying what she has been taught.” She is resisting his attempts to have sex with her–why does it matter what her reasons for resisting are? Rape is rape.

        Also, knowing that in the original play, the scene was rape, I still feel like all the producers are doing is softening/masking what is really there. Does knowing that the original scene was more overtly rape change the way one should be interpreting what is happening? Maybe, maybe not.

        Disregarding the play, however, I still believe that when someone is resisting/not wanting to have sex, regardless of the reason, it is rape. I understand why you disagree emclears, but I still don’t feel that the argument that she is resisting because of her guilt for her sins (or whatever her parents have engrained into her) justifies his unwanted advances.

  3. emclears permalink
    June 1, 2010 11:04 am

    I’m sorry but I have to agree with clairehennessy. While it’s true that at the point in the story that the sex scene occurs Wendla does not know much about sex this does not mean that she was raped. I am a big fan of the Spring Awakening musical and have read a lot of background about the pre-Broadway workshops. The scene in the play that the musical is based on is a rape scene. The directors for the musical considered having it a rape scene in the show and in early workshops had actress Lea Michele scream at the end of the scene-indicating that it was a rape. BUT, the directors ultimately decided against that because they did not want to portray it as a rape, and took the scream out.

    • June 1, 2010 11:13 am

      Hi emclears,
      I understand that the broadway producers didn’t want to portray the scene as rape so they softened it (which is actually what the Observe and Report producers did with their rape scene), but I am still certain that this is rape.

      As in one of the monologues I posted yesterday called ‘the definition of rape’, just because the victim isn’t screaming doesn’t mean it isn’t rape.

      This girl did not want to have sex with the guy, it doesn’t matter what the producers think they were doing–what happened here is rape.

      • Julissa Bermudez permalink
        June 9, 2010 11:57 am

        To me she wanted him to touch her and she let him do so. I don’t see it as rape. I take greater issue with the actual play and not the musical. In the play she is raped, no doubt about it, but in a later scene she can’t help but smile thinking about what happened to her. She doesn’t know what it was, but knows she is somehow more grown up. I think the producers of Spring Awakening consciously made Wendla give consent to make it more about her sexuality.

  4. emclears permalink
    June 1, 2010 11:40 am

    Thanks for your response but I am going to have to respectfully agree to disagree on this.

  5. June 2, 2010 8:51 am

    Thanks for posting the link to the video from the Broadway production. It’s interesting to think about how rape culture has evolved alongside campaigns like “no means no” whose purpose was to emphasize consent. The producers of “Spring Awakening” consciously or subconsciously relied on the public’s acceptance of that campaign and added the line “yes” to this scene to get around the rape issue. But comprehension must always accompany consent.

  6. J. Hien permalink
    June 11, 2010 3:35 pm

    “To me she wanted him to touch her and she let him do so. I don’t see it as rape. I take greater issue with the actual play and not the musical. In the play she is raped, no doubt about it, but in a later scene she can’t help but smile thinking about what happened to her. She doesn’t know what it was, but knows she is somehow more grown up. I think the producers of Spring Awakening consciously made Wendla give consent to make it more about her sexuality.”
    I agree with the above comment. Wendla did look like she liked it. She also didn’t put up much of a fight in the play.

  7. June 13, 2010 10:04 am

    Ok, so I’m starting to find some of these comments kind of disturbing.

    In the play she is raped, no doubt about it, but in a later scene she can’t help but smile thinking about what happened to her.

    So what does that mean, rape justified?

    J. Hien, you say she doesn’t put up much of a fight BUT she is still putting up a fight. Just because he pressures and pressures and pressures and then she eventually gives in doesn’t make it consensual.

    And let’s for argument sake say that she did want to have sex with him and her resistance was purely out of guilt. The fact of the matter is, Wendla does NOT know what sex is at this point in the play (she finds out at the end of the play) while Melchior clearly does know what could happen. So you all can say she was agreeing but she clearly does not know what she is agreeing to. Hence, non-consensual.

  8. Weekend permalink
    June 16, 2010 7:35 am

    I can’t beleive that all of these comments are acutely focused on the interpretation of Kyle’s example without even commenting on his actual intent and criticism of the exploitation of rape and sexual abuse in the visual arts industry. Thats not to say that they aren’t pretty interesting. Maybe you should write an entire seperate article on what the nature of sex between a man and women focusing. (its funny that the male writer is calling it rape while some of the women who have posted are calling it consent)

    Some generic narrative formulas are cleverly veiled with social criticism.

    • Julissa Bermudez permalink
      June 17, 2010 6:20 pm

      I can understand how there was no informed consent, but you can want sex without knowing what sex is. Melchior and Wendla aside the musical also had two other rape victims, Martha and Ilse.

      • June 23, 2010 1:20 am

        “I can understand how there was no informed consent, but you can want sex without knowing what sex is.”

        Yes, but if one party knows what is happening and the other doesn’t, it’s rape. How can you consent to something in which you know nothing about? We’re not talking about two children fumbling- we’re talking about one child who has studied sex (consider his teaching of Moritz the details on sex) and another who doesn’t even know where babies pop out of, forget about how they’re made.

        When I saw the play, it didn’t register as a rape scene until later- I say this as a feminist from an early age, who has worked with rape survivors. Afterwards, talking to my boyfriend who saw it with me, he was dismayed at the rape scene for the same reason that the author was- that is was presented as a “soft” rape- eventually she said yes, right? I think for him, the scene resonated with childhood experiences that he’s been working through as an adult.

        I bought the soundtrack after seeing the show, and the lines from “Whispering” were the final straw, so to speak, for me to really feel the abuse that happened, but was glossed over (things go by so fast when you’re watching the actual musical!).

        “Had a sweetheart on his knees.
        So faithful and adoring.
        And he touched me. And I let him love me.
        So let that be my story.”

        The last two sentences always get me. She didn’t know what was going on- how could she, it had never even been hinted at what sex was- and she let him do what he wanted, because he was supposed to know what was going on, she trusted him to protect her and he didn’t. She resigned herself to it because she didn’t know any better.

        As others pointed out, she does struggle, and it doesn’t matter her reasons. He straight up asks her, “we’re not suppose to- what? love?” She has no idea what he is talking about and he continues; he responds with “please” to every “no” “don’t” & “wait”; telling her not to be scared, “just be.” The “yes” at the end just “proves” if you badger a girl long enough, she’ll “consent” to anything. Watching the clip- he waits for her “yes” only for actual penetration. He forcefully kisses her, gropes her breasts and seemingly massages her vagina before even bothering to ask if he can continue.

        Now, do rapists always know what they’re doing is bad? That’s a good question to think of. If you’ve been taught a certain thing all your life, does that make you a monster for not knowing what you’re doing is wrong? Or does it only become unforgivable when you realize what you did was wrong and you don’t change? Does that apply to this situation? Those are questions I’d like to discuss.

  9. June 23, 2010 11:04 pm

    Thank you for the comment, em. The questions you’ve raised about Melchior’s status as a monster are similar to that of a recent story in Australia—about a rapist who claims he didn’t realize the severity of rape.

    As the author of this article states though, ignorance of the act doesn’t make a rape something other than a rape (or justify it).


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