Tess: a sober message for freshers

Art & Lit Stage

It’s that time again when students embark on university life. A new throng of freshers will descend upon the Oxford nightclubs. That first week will be a wonderful blur of neon glow sticks and foam parties. For most, it will be the longest time you have ever spent from home and you will discover the joys of drinking. A lot.

This summer, I reread Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy and was struck, for the first time, by the role alcohol plays in the novel. We first meet Tess when her alcoholic father gatecrashes a party and embarrasses her in front of her friends. His alcoholism impoverishes the family. Alec rapes Tess, in part, by plying her with alcohol. The young, innocent Tess is seduced when she is incapable of truly consenting. She is drunk, exhausted and vulnerable. For Hardy, this seduction is still a terrible violation. Isn’t that idea a loaded assertion today?

Plenty of men target drunk women. This “laddish” behaviour is often lauded rather than rebuked. Sharking is about pursuing someone, generally a woman, who is off her face, someone who is “easy” because they can’t even see straight.

There is something deeply unsettling about this drinking-sex culture. I am certainly not urging anyone never to get drunk and I am also not telling people that they shouldn’t shag whom they please. Yet, sometimes the two combined make a deadly cocktail.

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What disturbs me is that when lines have been crossed, alcohol is continually used to condone the aggressor and undermine the credibility of the victim. And yet Hardy, writing over a hundred years ago, ardently insisted that Tess is a pure and virtuous woman in the true sense of the word, that she is Alec’s victim. There is no doubt in Hardy’s mind that purity has nothing to do with sexual innocence and that Tess should not be blamed for Alec’s offence.

Today, groups like SlutWalk have emerged in response to a victim-blaming culture, where women who are promiscuous or like to go out and get drunk are somehow less deserving of our sympathy and “asking for it.”

I can’t stand it. I just can’t comprehend how someone I am very close to recently commented on the awful acid-attack story by saying, “What were two young, Western girls doing in Zanzibar? What do they expect?”

For my short film, I decided to take that climactic scene from the end of Phase The First, where Alec rapes Tess and set it in the present. I hope that our adaptation will present the novel and the characters in a refreshing way that young students, both men and women, can relate to.

Because Alec, or Alex in our short film, is neither a monster nor a pantomime villain. He is a young man, confused and insecure much like his novel counterpart who briefly turns to religion, but finds no spiritual fulfillment. Alex takes advantage of an opportunity that seemingly presents itself to him. He probably wouldn’t even call himself a rapist.

The Maiden is certainly not a campaign video. It’s a fictional drama, though I do hope we succeed in inviting our viewers to question cultural attitudes and, perhaps, think twice before hitting on the young fresher who is stumbling around the cheese floor in Bridge, her eyes completely glazed over.

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We should all show the same care and responsibility towards that girl as Hardy does towards Tess. Freshers’ week is coming. Let’s make it a good one.

The Maiden is a short film based on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, being produced largely by Oxford alumni. Its Kickstarter project finishes tomorrow at 13.58. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1287612927/the-maiden-a-short-film

PHOTOS/ Jessica Benhamou (stills from forthcoming film, see above.)