Lady Gaga has decided to ditch the cross-dressing, the meat suits, and her other famously scene-stealing sartorial choices for her latest music video in the name of supporting campus rape victims.
The Grammy-winning singer and advocate lends only her voice to the “Til It Happens to You” PSA, which premiered Friday at midnight and immediately sent shockwaves through the internet for its grisly and graphic depiction of rape. Gaga co-wrote the song with Academy Award-winning songwriter Diane Warren.
Campus rape and sexual assault has become such a polarizing topic that it can be difficult to read any article, watch any video, or take in any artistic work on the subject without wondering “what is the agenda?”
When you’re entrenched in the back-and-forth of “yes means yes” laws and the (extremely valid) concerns over due process for the accused, it’s easy to lose sight of the viciousness, terror, and humanity at the micro-level of a rape attack.
Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” PSA yanks the viewer into the terrifying reality of rape and its aftermath.
The video is both chilling and beautiful. The overall effect is as much, if not more, a credit to acclaimed director Catherine Hardwicke.
Shot entirely in black-and-white, the PSA video follows three different narratives of campus rape: a woman (played by Nikki Reed, who co-wrote Thirteen with Hardwicke and starred in it, as well as Twilight) raped by a man who’s ostensibly her friend in her dorm room; two friends who are roofied at a house party; and a queer woman who is attacked in a dormitory bathroom.
The scenes are a punch to the gut: A woman passed out cold with her underwear pulled down to her ankles, another trying to fight off a “pal” twice her size as he forces himself on her, the bottles of toiletries that crash and scatter as a woman is slammed forward against a counter—and then her tears as she is taken from behind.
The brutality of these snapshot scenes are remarkably moving in the scariest and most sickening way possible.
Rape may be one of the hardest human acts to emotionally capture in scripted film, but these were reminiscent of the terrifyingly power of Jodie Foster’s famous scene in The Accused.
Though perhaps best known for Twilight, Hardwicke’s keen ability to sensitively capture sensitive, traumatic experiences facing young women is well-documented in her 2003 film, Thirteen. She brings that same cinematic storytelling power to “Til It Happens to You.”
The emphasis in the lyrics of Gaga’s song and the stories in the PSA is about the aftermath of a rape.
Scenes of the rape victims lying listless and distraught are accompanied by flashes of human flesh and phrases like “I’m worthless,” “Sometimes I hate myself,” “Believe Me.”
Over these moments, Gaga mournfully wails:
Till your world burns and crashes Till you’re at the end, the end of your rope Till you’re standing in my shoes I don't wanna hear a thing or two from you, from you, from you
The music combined with the imagery is gripping and a potent reminder that for many rape victims, the days, weeks, and months after a rape can be just as, if not more, painful than the attack itself.
However, the video ends on an optimistic note with all the women being comforted by their friends and, in some cases, literally being pulled up by them and brought to smiles. They all walk down a college dorm hallway, flanked by their peers supporting them.
The final shot is of a woman standing alone in shadow in the background. You are left feeling emotionally slapped in the face with the gravity of campus rape, while feeling the urge to find a way to help these victims.
Yet, there is something deeply disappointing about this PSA: It suggests that being a good friend is sufficient therapy and recourse after a rape, but the scene I yearned to see was these women going to the police and reporting their attacks.
The problem with this undeniably powerful video is that it reinforces the separation of dealing with the emotional and the legal ramifications of rape—and specifically our failure to teach women how to deal with the latter.
While the PSA directs people to the National Sexual Assault Hotline, and while it provides a beautiful message of empowerment by showing the victims finding sufficient support from their peers who listen to them, this is a fairytale, Hollywood ending to a serious crime that demands a police investigation.
That being said, as the song makes loud and clear, those of us who have not been sexually assaulted have the responsibility to listen to victims and let them tell their stories.
But there is a problem in how infrequently we stress to victims of sexual assault that they must go to police for their sake, for their recourse. The silence on this grows deafening the more we are side-tracked on “yes means yes” laws and trigger warnings—topics which in and of itself are valuable to discuss but pointless if we’re not explicitly teaching victims that they must go to the proper authorities.
Gaga and Hardwicke deserve props for creating such a powerful, visceral, and aesthetically striking PSA. They’ve brought a tremendous amount of attention to rape and sexual assault. Yet, attention alone is inadequate balm for the victims of rape.