How ’12 Years a Slave’ Exposes Early Rape Culture

The sexual violence against the enslaved woman Patsy reminds us that slavery lays in the DNA of rape culture

By Akiba Solomon Oct 28, 2013

I saw "12 Years a Slave" a day ago and was struck by the antebellum rendering of what we now call rape culture. The main victim of this form of brutality is Patsy (expertly played by Lupita Nyong’o), an enslaved African woman who regularly out-picks the others and becomes the obsesession of Epps (Michael Fassbender), the white man who acts as her master.

Patsy is brutalized in a variety of ways. Epps regularly creeps into her quarters and forces her to have sex with him. Because he advertises his warped obsession, Epps’ jealous wife tosses heavy objects at Patsy’s head in the ultimate display of victim-blaming. When Patsy–whom Epps deprives of soap–takes a day trip to another plantation to retreive a bar, Epps forces Solomon Northup (Chewitel Ejiofor), an enslaved black man who is her friend, to whip her. When Northup can’t bring himself to whip her to Epps’ satisfaction, Epps takes over, whipping Patsy nearly to death. Patsy is so plagued by the continued degredation that at one point she begs Northup to kill her. 

Based on the eponymous narrative by Solomon Northup,"12 Years a Slave" has rightfully received accolades for its unflinching look at the brutality of slavery. Although the kidnapped freedman Northup is the main character, the film also does an excellent job of exposing the gendered sexual violence at the very foundation of enslavement. Patsy isn’t the only victim of rape culture, either. In their brief scenes Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye)–both objects of the affection of their masters–intimate a complex interplay between sexual coersion and agency in a corrupt system that gives them zero options. "The Accused,"* the 1988 Jodie Foster film, dramatized victim-blaming in gang rape. "12 Years a Slave" crystalizes in images and in sound what it is to be owned and exploited.

That’s why after watching this film, I find it difficult to think about modern rape culture without thinking about what happened to women like Patsy. Although we don’t often discuss it, we carry this legacy in our cultural DNA. For me, to think about rape culture is to think about enslaved African women who bore the brunt of this horror. It’s a dimension that belongs in the modern conversation just as surely as alcohol and victim-blaming, slut-shaming and aquaintence rape do. 


*Post has been updated to reflect the correct name of "The Accused"