On stigma

Asks Alex:

My colleague Jason Kuznicki argues that those who take charity should suffer a social stigma. Underlying this argument is the unspoken assumption that social stigmas are a good thing generally.

I’m not convinced that this assumption is valid, as I’m inherently suspicious of any argument as to what emotional state I should be in at a given time.

Convince me otherwise.

I’m not sure what role Alex is playing in this question when he says “what emotional state I should be in at a given time.”  Is he the stigmatized or the one doing the stigmatizing?  I also don’t know if putting it in terms of emotional state is how I would frame the question.  However, do I think there is value in collective acts of shaming and contempt?  I do indeed.

If I am to be fully honest, I will admit that I am writing this post largely as an excuse to engage in a rant about something I read about not long ago.  As I’ve mentioned in the past, a large part of my soul is inhabited by an elderly British spinster librarian who is convinced the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and who spends her time in a near-constant state of being appalled.  I have decided to call her Millicent.

Millicent wants to bash in some heads with her umbrella over this:

But Rodleen Getsic — who endured unspeakable acts while shooting the film “The Bunny Game” — is no mere scream queen. Ms. Getsic, 37, plays a prostitute abducted by a crazed truck driver (Jeff Renfro), who drugs and strips her and chains her inside his rig. For the rest of the film’s 76-minute running time he sexually assaults her; slaps and spits on her; shaves her head; and drags her, in a grotesque rabbit-shaped hood that gives the film its title, on a leash through the desert. There are other indignities as well, but in the film’s most brutal scene the actress is actually branded on her back. Shooting digitally in black and white in an aggressively shaky style, the camera unflinchingly captures it all, while an assaultive metal soundtrack underscores Ms. Getsic’s screams.

There’s no digital or prosthetic abracadabra at work in “The Bunny Game,” unlike that in “Hostel,” “Saw” and other so-called torture porn films. Adam Rehmeier, the director, said that other than drug and alcohol use, nothing in the film is simulated, and Ms. Getsic has the branding scars to prove it. In a making-of documentary on the DVD, released in July by Autonomy Pictures, Ms. Getsic says, “Part of my soul did die in making this film.” [emphasis added]

Do my horrified eyes deceive me, or does this mean that the other actor actually sexually assaulted her?

There is this to consider:

In an interview Ms. Getsic described her participation in “The Bunny Game” as “more art than film.” She fasted before shooting started and found herself in a meditative state during scenes. And for the more physical demands of the role she drew on a rape and other sexual abuses she endured when she was younger.

What she is telling herself was a “meditative state” this aghast reader calls a “dissociative state.”  I cannot reach any conclusion other than that the filmmaker took a woman who had suffered horrible trauma, exploited the resulting psychological vulnerability, and tortured her for the sake of his ghoulish, monstrous movie.

So what does this have to do with shame?  How does this help us assess the value of stigma?

Because Ms. Getsic consented to be horribly abused in the making of this film, essentially making the director and other actor agents in her own self-mutilation, there is no legal remedy I can see to its existence.  For all its depravity, I do not see how the law prevents films of this kind from being made, so long as some warped parody of “consent” is obtained.

Yet we do not want them made.  We do not want any woman’s pain to be used as a means to a twisted “artistic” end.  We must find a mechanism other than the law for declaring something impermissible.  And that mechanism is stigma.  It is saying to this filmmaker, along with the moral failures and fools who would call what he made “art,” that his work and his viewpoint have no space within our society.  We cannot cast them into prison, but we can cast them out of our communities.  We can refuse to screen their films or take seriously their opinions.

Why?  So we can tell our daughters that, should there ever come an assault on their persons, that we will cherish their dignity and seek to have it restored.  That we have no place in our society for those who would seek to exploit their resulting pain and vulnerability, which we would strive mightily to remedy as best we can.  That those who do otherwise are unwelcome among us, even if what they do falls within the realm of the legally permissible.

Where these lines are drawn and who draws them are open questions.  Is stigma often counterproductive, useless or harmful?  Of course.  Has it been used as a tool of oppression and exploitation?  Of course.  Should it be deployed judiciously?  Of course.  But some acts are shameful, and for them stigma is the only appropriate response.

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Russ-

    I haven’t seen “Bunny Game” and was otherwise completely unfamiliar with Getsic before reading this post. According to Wikipedia (now with free grain of salt!) she was the co-writer and co-producer of the film. That seems to put her participation in it in a different light than is offered here. I realize your post is not specifically about “Bunny Game”, but I wonder if your interpretation of it might be denying Ms. Getsic of her agency in a different way. By viewing her only as a victim of trauma, both before and now, we deny her the completeness and complexity of her being. Perhaps this experience truly was cathartic for her, truly did help her get to a better place. Or maybe it had nothing to do with that. Maybe it was simply something she wanted to partake in that had little to do with her prior experiences outside them serving as a place of certain artistic inspiration.

    I don’t know any of this to be true. But it does always give me pause when it seems as if women’s (it always seems to be women) choices are being further curtailed, especially if that is the result of a previously-inflicted trauma. Would you object to a woman’s participation in this movie if she had lived a completely trauma-free life? If so, why? If not, why should Ms. Getsic’s history of trauma further limit her ability to consent freely to participating?

    Please trust that I offer this objection in good faith and do not believe you support the further victimization of women. I just wonder if you’ve considered it from this perspective. Please also note that my response here is wholly informed by what is written here and a quick glimpse at Ms. Getsic’s Wiki page; if there is more to the story I am unaware of, I’m happy to revisit what I’ve offered.

    • 1) I would probably take exception to this film having been created this way under any circumstances. I have a serious objection to the needless infliction of pain. I have some qualms with the “torture porn” genre as a whole, but can console myself that the depredations depicted are simulated. Even without her backstory of trauma, I would have been likely to condemn the making of this film.

      2) I am not entirely mollified by Ms. Getsic’s other credits on the film. If she “improvised” her own tortured dialogue, that alone could get her a writing credit. As for co-producer? I dunno.

      3) Would I rob her of her agency by forbidding her participation? No. She is a free woman, and I would not restrict her freedom thusly. However, my reservations persist. This seems as much an act of self-mutilation, a grown-up, high-profile version of the cutting I see many teenagers do.

      4) Whatever Ms. Getsic’s motivations, they do nothing to absolve the director or the other actor of their culpability.

      • Fair enough. I certainly do not advocate the making of such films. I will confess to a certain morbid fascination, but have a fairly low threshold for folks that hold that particular fascination (I had to avert my eyes during “Hostel” and haven’t seen it since, though I did insist on seeing it).

        I should also confess that my response here was probably somewhat informed by a recent dialogue on another blog with a writer I previously had a lot of respect for who insisted that a woman who did pornography, had fake breasts, and appeared on “Top Chef Masters” and made a number of sexual innuendos about food must have “had something happen to her when she was young” to make her act that way. It was the type of faux-sympathy for female abuse victims that is anything but productive or constructive. It was nauseating. You are certainly not him and are not staking out a position anywhere near his, but I think I still had a bit of that sour taste in my mouth when I wrote here.

        I would join you in condemning “Bunny Mask” and many of the people involved in it. I just might go in a different direction with to what extent Ms. Getsic’s history should be a consideration in the type or intensity of condemnation, for her and for others.

        I wonder this, though: Suppose this experience proved cathartic for Ms. Getsic. Suppose it somehow served as healing for her prior traumas. Would this mitigate your response? Consider both the possibility that this was a deliberate intention of Getsic and the others which was successful -and- the possibility that it was not intended but came out incidentally. I realize I’m going way out onto the Hypothetical Peninsula so humor me only as much as you are willing.

        • Do all women who engage in seemingly exploitative entertainments or behaviors have a history of trauma, and is it appropriate to speculate one in all circumstances? No. BUT, if one knows that the woman you’re considering for your potentially exploitative entertainment DOES INDEED have such a history, then I think one should be very careful about proceeding and also about questioning one’s motivations for “working” with her.

          Was this experience “healing” for Ms. Getsic? I dunno. I guess I’d have to take her word for it. Is that sufficient justification for creating films that depict the real life torture of women for entertainment or gratification? Nope.

          • That is a fair response. As you imply, art does not happen in a black box. There are ramifications of it. This has been talked about enough elsewhere on these pages so no need to rehash it here. There is plenty of “ickiness” associated with this film. And I’m far from a spinster librarian… In fact, I openly mock my spinster wife. (Her ideal number of cats? “All of them.” WTF?)

  2. “It is saying to this filmmaker, along with the moral failures and fools who would call what he made “art,” that his work and his viewpoint have no space within our society.”

    Without in any way condoning the film (which sounds grotesque and stigma-worthy), in what way is it not art?

    • Well, you’ve just assigned me the unenviable task of trying to prove a negative. In what way is it art?

      If pressed, I suppose my best answer is that it is neither beautiful, nor does it convey any particular truth. (Certainly not one that hasn’t already been expressed in other similarly grisly entertainments that did not resort to genuinely torturing their actresses.) It contains neither sweetness nor light. It debases rather that elevates, mutilates rather than heals, desecrates rather than edifies. It is not pleasant, salubrious or courageous. It is merely foul, and unapologetic in its ugliness.

      • I’ve got a much looser definition of art than you (in a nutshell: intended to be witnessed and interpreted? Congratulations, you’re an artist!). Otherwise, you end up having to deal with a bunch of messy edge cases like Manos: The Hands of Fate or John Cage’s 4’33”. Art doesn’t need to be elevating, edifying, or have any other particular property. It just has to be intended as such.

        • Hmmmm. First of all, anything that yielded such a classic MST3K episode has some good in it.

          And I think John Cage’s 4’33” is one of the greatest jokes ever perpetrated on a credulous critical audience.

          I suppose by your definition this counts as “art.” That it is devoid of merit remains.

          • I have two different kinds of deconstruction. The first is a purifying fire that removes the dross from the gold. You wipe off the grime and accumulated debris and find, underneath, stuff that you never new (or had forgotten) was there.

            The other just screams “burn baby burn” and burns up the gold, the container, even the forge. It exists to point out that everything turns to its component parts under the firey gaze of the critic.

            I put 4’33” in the same category as, yes I’m bringing him up again, Duchamp.

            It’s not that he’s doing something poorly. He’s doing something very well… he’s deconstructing something until it’s ash.

          • In general, I’m with Dan on definition of art, but a little stricter. Romney’s nomination acceptance speech was intended to be witnessed and interpreted, and so was our LeagueCast last night night, but those weren’t art. SOmething meant to be witnessed and interpreted in an aesthetic way or like other works of art are.

            There are bad works of art with no truth or beauty.

            Other than that, I am a spinster librarian who is only prevented from owning too many cats by having too many children and agree with Russell here.

          • Nothing so romantic.

            If I were going to go anywhere with the thought, I’d talk about the philosophy that’s going to replace Christianity after Christianity withers away and how it’s going to be a lot more Duchamp and Cage than Zarathustra.

  3. while this is really not my bag, i think millicent’s reaction is part of the reason why people create extreme works in the first place.

      • better is kinda beside the point, though. i do completely agree with you on the role of shame and social repulsion. without punishment there is no civilization and all that jazz. but i disagree about intense/peak/edge/antinomian/totally messed up/etc experiences, even if i have no urge to witness this particular manifestation.

        and not knowing anything about her, maybe you’re right and she really didn’t have control or agency, and just thought she did. delusion is pretty common. but i think it’s perhaps a similar error to assume as much, even in the face of this bag of icky gross, in light of her rather strong assertion otherwise.

        not all art uplifts. some of it seeks to drown you. (happiness and irreversible come to mind; great films i will never, ever watch again.)

        • I detested “Happiness.”

          There isn’t money on earth to get me to sit through “Irreversible.” (It has the distinction of one of the few movies to unsettle my brother, who is made of sterner stuff than me.)

          • After reading the wikipedia pages about both movies, I’m not really understanding what the point of making the second was, and I’m pretty sure that the guy who made the first movie will eventually need to be institutionalized.

          • in some ways into the void (his film after irreversible) was far harder to sit through than irreversible, which is one of the saddest and most painful things i’ve ever seen on film. into the void does actually end on a note of hopefulness, or at least a sense of human endurance. irreversible does not. it doesn’t make it less of an amazing film, just an experience i have no desire to repeat. the narrative’s chronological reversal is brilliantly done, though.

            todd solondz’s whole thing is discomfort and everyday acts of sadism, mostly between families. i’ve not seen the followup to happiness (life during wartime) but welcome to the dollhouse is probably the least bleak thing he’s ever done. which is not saying much. (i haven’t seen pallindromes, though)

            gary oldman’s directorial debut nil by mouth comes to mind as well. very good, very unpleasant.

          • Into the Void ended up being overlong and repetitive, but I still feel like people should see it. Definitely like nothing else out there.

            Haven’t seen Irreversible, just haven’t been in the mood for what I understand (not just from you) is a difficult experience.

            Liked Dollhouse, hated Happiness.

  4. This is one of those moments when all I can say is… What. The. Fuck.

    Sorry, but there it is. A normal human brain wouldn’t come up with this idea. Which is fine, to some extent, my brain is abnormal and I might come up with an idea like this. But then acting on it?

    The fact that the director, or the actor playing the assailant, can live with himself after making this thing indicates something deeply broken.

    • Perhaps of interest:


      First Amendment left intact
      Refusing to remove another form of expression from the protection of the First Amendment, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled 8-1 that the government lacks the power to outlaw expressions of animal cruelty, when that is done in videotapes and other commercial media. The Court noted that it had previously withdrawn “a few historic categories” of speech from the First Amendment’s shield, but concluded that “depictions of animal cruelty should not be added to the list.” The decision nullified a 1999 federal law passed by Congress in an attempt to curb animal cruelty by forbidding its depiction. That law, the Court said, sweeps too broadly.

      The Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., stressed that it was not restricting the power of government to punish actual acts of animal cruelty, and it noted that such prohibitions have “a long history in American law” and now are on the books in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. But it said there was no similar history behind Congress’s attempt to ban video or other portrayals of acts of cruelty to living creatures.

      • I was probably really drunk at the time. Did I say something that sounded awesomely cogent or was I blathering?

        • Quite cogent. It was all about things people are… um…”into,” and which ones are weird but probably OK, and which ones are just cracked.

          • Oh, yes, now I know to which conversation you were referring. Yeah, I feel quite the parallel there.

  5. I have no intention of seeing this (Not My Thing) but my general reaction is ‘meh’.

    People are into tattooing, and branding/piercing/body modifications, and BDSM simulated rape scenes (and, filming pornographic movies of same), and weirdest of all, Art.

    She wrote or helped write the script, she is an adult who knew what she was getting into, I have no doubt she signed contracts agreeing to the acts performed, and I would frankly be shocked if there was no pre-arranged ‘safe word’ she could use, if she felt things were moving beyond her comfort levels or pre-agreed scenarios.

    That she and the director (and the NYT) have an interest in making it seem more dangerous than it probably was, is doubtless (“My soul died” is somebody’s idea of great copy – and anyway, who’s to say the part that died, isn’t the part that was afraid all the time?)

    Regarding her ‘meditative/disassociative’ state, I am told by tattooing enthusiasts that something similar can happen to them during an extended session, and it’s probably not all that dissimilar from ‘runner’s high’ (getting off on endorphins); doubtless at least some BDSM enthusiasts are seeking same.

    I also doubt she’s the first artist or actor to ‘fast before her scenes’ or claim that the experience of making her art or film was ‘meditative’. She just sounds like a Method actor to me.

    Again, Not My Thing.

    But in the absence of evidence of obvious coercion, I see no reason to shame anyone involved.

    Hopefully this viewpoint doesn’t stigmatize Glyph.

    • Not at all. I appreciate your take. Perhaps the whole thing was calculated to elicit a reaction like mine, and I’m merely playing into their hands by responding this way.

    • +1. yes, some people who have been raped subsequently fantasize about it. This is substantially more public than most… but exhibitionism is another fetish…

    • It’s wayyyyyyyyyyyy too far along a continuum to be my thing either, but it doesn’t bother me in the abstract. There are other masochistic exhibitionist performance artists whose actions do move and instruct me, even as I shudder.

      Thinking about it, every example of something I personally find shameful is either also illegal, or involves deep personal betrayal. It’s possible that there are personal betrayals involved in the making of this film, which wouldn’t change things, but I wouldn’t assume it a priori, and I don’t find any of your evidence convincing. The other people involved may have a sincere interest in the actress’ well being… the long-term effects of their actions may be positive. I’ve had to put myself through some pretty horrifying things to make past miseries okay, and while it’s an awfully giant step from here to there… my past miseries were also not all that bad, relatively speaking.

      So I feel sympathetic, curious, and gut-level repulsed…. but I’d be more repulsed by loud public shaming of her work. Even quiet public shaming (though, weirdly enough, not blog posts about the possibility of such shaming – I must be too fond of Millicent for any of her opinions to bother me). That said, the public opprobrium may well be a large part of what she was aiming for.

      • I suppose part of my (or, since I’m so fond of her myself, Millicent’s) reaction to this film is my baseline revulsion for the genre. I try not to wax judgmental about other people’s entertainments, but I find the whole concept of watching brutal torture for fun immensely problematic. Suffering for its own sake bugs me, and I just can’t grok the appeal of seeing anyone be horribly maimed and mangled. (I realize I’m probably way too far on the other end of the spectrum. During the scenes in “Independence Day” when New York City was getting destroyed, my own inescapable thoughts were “Think of all those poor people who’ve just been killed.” So, y’know, I’m a bit of a soft touch in these matters.) I’m sure others could mount a compelling defense of the genre, but it lacks any redemptive features in my eyes.

        But at least “Hostel” and its ilk are 100% pretend. Start branding and slapping and sexually assaulting a woman for real, the reasons for which still elude me entirely, and I can’t justify its existence at all. And, perhaps paternalistically, I still feel like the filmmaker and other actor are more culpable than she is. Maybe it strips her of her agency to say so, but that’s just my persistent feeling.

        • Milli- I mean, Russell 🙂 – she is not being ‘sexually assaulted for real’, IMO. She wrote or co-wrote the script, and as I said, I would bet a large sum that there were contractual agreements, and most likely an escape clause in the form of a safe word. If she consented beforehand to clear terms and those terms were kept, it’s not assault, no matter what it might look like to an observer.

          • I know, I know. Consent and all that. (You can toss rape fantasies into the pile of things that give Millicent the howling fantods.) I’m likely to be reacting just exactly as the filmmakers (Ms. Getsic included) intended.

            But I read the original article days before I posted about it, and it had been bothering me since, so I can’t help having felt disturbed by the film, and still very unsure about how to feel regarding the treatment and involvement of Ms. Getsic.

          • Yeah, I don’t know what I’d do if ever with someone that wanted to play out rape fantasies. I don’t know that I could do that, even if it was something they really wanted. But I don’t see anything wrong with people who do, provided all parties are clear on what they are getting into, with consenting and trustworthy partners, and give themselves an out in the form of a safe word or the like (and that safe word is acted upon immediately if it comes up…game’s over and the lights come up, in the blink of an eye).

            But most of us have probably gone some little way along that ‘power imbalance dynamic’ fantasy dealio at some point in our erotic lives, and just because some people like to go WAY farther than we do…well, I like bicycling, but some people like motorcycle racing with nitrous tanks.

          • Glyph,
            fairly certain about 50% of American women have some sort of “swept off their feet” rape fantasy.

  6. I completely disagree that recipients of government programs should be stigmatized.

    But stigma does have value. The clearest example I can think of is smoking, where stigma has been very successfully deployed. Several decades ago (maybe even more recently; but not within my memory) smoking was “cool”. Now, there’s a general social opprobrium around it; even anti-smoking laws seem to be moving from health preservation to deliberately isolating smokers (ie: no smoking in bus shelters, or anywhere near doors). Places where you’re allowed to smoke are limited. And far less people are smoking.

    There are other behaviours that have gotten this treatment even more strongly. It’s not (typically; although people who couch it in academic-ese seem more able to get away with it, judging from The Bell Curve) acceptable to be openly racist. There’s a major stigma associated with drunk driving. Stigma’s a useful way of making a behaviour more rare, through making it unacceptable.

    There are questions about what are and aren’t good circumstances for using stigma (some see it as useful for anti-obesity, similar to the anti-smoking stigma, while others see that as cruel and discriminatory), but it does seem to have its uses.

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