What I know about being born with a penis: you are expected to want to use it. If you’re born and raised as male, you are conditioned by the world to expect yourself to want sex, and to want it under almost any circumstance. However, every individual has their own individual sex drive. For male-raised individuals who possess a lower sex drive, such as myself (I identify as non-binary, for what it’s worth), there is an internal conflict between the sexual personality we expect ourselves to have, and our true sexual personality. The result of this conflict can be immense shame, confusion, and unpleasant experiences.
In Midsommar, Ari Aster’s sophomore effort, he depicts the slow collapse of a relationship between the couple of Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor). Christian’s truly awful at providing any emotional support to Dani after a devastating family tragedy. The list of his mistakes is quite lengthy: he plans a trip to Sweden with his buddies without telling her; he forgets her birthday; in general, he’s checked out of the relationship. In an early scene, his friends tell him he should end it, and they’re probably right. He isn’t happy, she knows he isn’t happy, and so she isn’t happy either. As in many relationships, it isn’t happiness holding them together. Christian resists the thought of splitting, however. They try to sweeten the idea by dangling the freedom to hook up with new women, but he doesn’t seem too interested. At the least, sex doesn’t seem to be the problem within the relationship.
Once they arrive at the Harga commune, the distance between Dani and Christian grows. He seems to be relatively unperturbed by the sacrificial ceremonies they witness, which for her trigger dark memories of her own family’s deaths. Not helping matters is that Maja, a member of the commune, has identified Christian as her sperm donor of choice. She takes actions that she believes will lure him to her. She places a “love rune” under his bed, and laces one of his meals and drinks with her pubic hair and menstrual blood, respectively. To the film’s audience, this might not hold much weight, and seem harmless, unbelievable, and almost whimsical. Her intent, however, is not harmless. Maja fully believes that these actions will force Christian into wanting her.
In addition to Maja’s actions, other members of the commune nudge Christian toward mating with Maja. Pele, a friend of both Christian and Dani, jokes with Christian that Maja has taken a fancy to him. Grandmother Siv, in a less subtle fashion, asks Christian if he’s open to mating with Maja. Christian is bewildered, and uncomfortable, though it is worth noting that the audience does not hear his response to this question. Instead, he casually remarks that he believes he ate one of Maja’s pubic hairs. The normalcy of this moment creates a lighthearted air around the situation, of which I ask: should there be? On the surface, it is an absurd event, so it does lend itself to comedy. Sifting through it a bit deeper, the fact is that Maja laced Christian’s meal with substances she believed would make him more susceptible to her desires.
After this conversation with Siv, Christian watches the dancing competition to determine May Queen, and is offered a drink by a commune woman. He asks what it does, to which she roughly replies, “It, um, brings down your walls, and makes you more open to the experience.” Initially, Christian does not drink. He glances at Maja, reconsiders, and drinks. Pele, sitting next to him, glances at the empty glass with a knowing smile. It is the smile of a predator who knows the prey has entered the trap, a fraternity brother watching a young woman unknowingly down a spiked cup.
Dani wins the May Queen dance, which is followed by a grand banquet. Christian, feeling the effects of the drugged tea he drank, is entirely out of sorts. He desperately asks an elder, “What’s going on?” The only response he gets is a loud clap in the face, which further distorts his reality. He watches Maja depart the table, and she seems to beckon him onward. He resists. Once Dani is forced to depart to bless the commune’s harvest, the mass of commune members seems to will Christian to follow the trail of flowers behind Maja. It’s a walk I think a lot of people have walked: back from a party, up a staircase, into a bedroom.
The audience next sees Christian clothed in a commune robe, intoxicated and confused. Two elders order him to inhale a mysterious smoke, “for [his] vitality.” Entering the room, he finds a group of nude women standing, swaying, and chanting, while Maja lies naked on the floor. She spreads her legs, and he slowly approaches. He is cautious, and tentative. He doesn’t seem enthusiastic. In short, he seems to be doing it because he feels he has no other choice.
I recognized something in his eyes. I recognized a resignation to having sex as something that should be done, and to just get through. When one of the other women went behind him, and forcibly pushed him by the ass to go as deep as possible into Maja, I thought of a moment in my past. An ex-partner, ignoring my drunken requests to stop, continued to touch my genitals in an attempt to get me hard. I remember when they touched me, it almost felt like an electric shock. The next morning, I apologized over and over to her for letting her down. I felt like a malfunction. Watching this scene, I felt this hurt come back to me. What magnified the pain, however, was the laughter of the audience members around me. They could have been laughs of discomfort. They could have been laughs from interpreting Christian’s confused looks as “Well, this is some weird sex,” as opposed to “Where am I? What am I doing?”
The reality is that this is a rape. It isn’t a sex scene—it’s a rape. Christian is drugged, coerced, and pressured into having sex with Maja. Another person physically forces him to perform to the group’s satisfaction. The discussion around the scene has not once mentioned it as a rape. Vanity Fair: “Midsommar’s Wild Sex Scene is the Craziest Thing You’ll See All Summer.” The Daily Beast: “‘Midsommar’: Inside the Craziest Movie Sex Scene of the Year.” This highlights that as a society, we don’t view male-bodied victims of non-penetrative sexual violence as valid, and maybe even as possible. If the gender roles in that scene were reversed, the scene would not be discussed as a sex scene, but as a rape scene. And that’s how it should be. Aster has stated in interviews that this moment is an intentional subversion of the trope within horror movies of sexual violence toward women. And it’s a statistical fact that sexual violence is far more often perpetrated by men. But male victims of non-penetrative sexual violence do exist, and male-raised people are victims of sexual expectations placed on them by society. It’s possible Aster is offering up a metaphor for the destructive nature of society’s sexual pressure on men, and we are missing it. The aftermath of the scene can also serve as a wider metaphor for the treatment of (predominantly female) victims in society. Dani witnesses the rape and believes it to be him cheating consensually, and the commune silences Christian so he cannot tell her otherwise.
I would like to be clear: outside of the extended psychological manipulation and eventual rape, Christian sucks. He’s a shitty, unsupportive partner who doesn’t look out for Dani and neglects her in a time of great need. But he still was raped, and it’s irresponsible to ignore this fact. It perpetuates a societal invalidation of male victims of sexual violence. It overlooks the nuances of the relationship many male-raised people have with sex as a result of years of conditioning. I’ve had sex I regret because I felt that I would disappoint a partner, and that they would think I was incomplete. Even now, writing this, I still fear that I am.
By Gregory Marie
Image from A24