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“Compliance” and Cultural Acceptance of Violence Against Women

By Meghann McCluskey, CCASA Blogger


Nursing a cold this weekend, I cuddled on the couch and watched Netflix with abandon. When I came across Compliance – a 2012 film by Craig Zobel – my interest was piqued, mostly because of my affinity for Ann Dowd. I settled deeper into the couch to watch, and 90 minutes later was left grappling with a heavy mix of emotions – disgust, disbelief, and undeniable outrage.


Compliance recounts an incident based on true events in which a manager of a fast food restaurant receives a telephone call from an alleged police officer one busy Friday evening. This caller – who in the film refers to himself as “Officer Daniels” – indicates that a female cashier in the restaurant brazenly stole money from an unsuspecting customer. To bolster his claim, Officer Daniels explains that he is presently with the victimized customer, and he insists that he has security footage documenting the theft. As the film unfolds, Officer Daniels succeeds in goading the restaurant manager Sandra into conducting a strip search of the supposedly larcenous employee Becky. The strip search fails to yield the missing money, and Officer Daniels then uses increasingly complex forms of manipulation to convince other individuals to exploit and ultimately sexually assault Becky while she is being held in the restaurant’s back room. Viewers of the film understand early on that Becky is innocent and Officer Daniels is a total fraud, and we cringe as his deception reaches unfathomable depths. To say that it’s difficult to witness Becky’s humiliation and degradation throughout the film would be a considerable understatement.


After Compliance was released at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012, it was heralded for its keen ability to reflect “the human tendency to cave in to authority.” For many, Compliance – along with the real life events upon which it is based – illustrates the shocking lengths people sometimes go to in an effort to remain obedient. Numerous film critics made allusions to the notorious Milgram experiment in the early 60s in which research subjects willingly administered what they thought were injurious voltages of electricity to other subjects. I agree that Compliance offers a scary reminder of the ease with which human beings often comply blindly in the face of power. But to present the film exclusively as a commentary on the dangers of acquiescence neglects an important analysis of the ways in which society’s permissive views of violence against women facilitate this acquiescence.


In Compliance, Becky is a young woman presumably earning minimum wage in a fast food restaurant. Early on in the film she worries that she might lose her job and laments that she can’t afford to be out of work. Like many survivors of sexual assault, Becky lacks the social credibility that offenders find desirable; she’s not likely to be believed if she comes into contact with law enforcement. The predatory caller in the film intentionally selects Becky as his victim because of her minimal social credibility, and it is also this dearth of credibility that enables Sandra to suspect Becky when the initial accusations of theft are made. Sandra and other restaurant employees – encouraged by the unscrupulous caller to assume Becky’s guilt – are then asked to punish Becky in a dehumanizing fashion. This association between punishment and sexual violence has a substantial and problematic history. Even today, many survivors who disclose their sexual assaults encounter some version of the “she must have done something to deserve it” trope. Becky’s maltreatment reflects society’s enduring mistrust and objectification of women – a volatile combination that facilitates misogynistic attacks. If “Officer Daniels” had selected a male employee or a supervisor as his target, would fellow employees have agreed to proceed with the caller’s absurd requests? The actors in Compliance may symbolize the extremes of obedience, but their willingness to obey is absolutely rooted in their immersion in rape culture.


The true story behind Compliance is also rife with examples of culturally condoned violence against women. Compliance ends with the unnerving statement that over 70 similar incidents occurred in over 30 states. In 2006, a Florida jury spent just 40 minutes in deliberation and ultimately acquitted a man named David Stewart of all charges in Kentucky’s Bullitt County McDonald’s strip search case. This acquittal came in spite of the fact that a calling card used to place a similar menacing call in Idaho was found in Stewart’s home. Reports of analogous hoax calls in other states also stopped following Stewart’s arrest. Whether or not Stewart committed these horrific crimes, the jury’s hasty acquittal mirrors the outcome of countless sexual assault cases brought to trial in this country. Just like the actors in Compliance and the real people they represent, jurors are often seeped in a culture that blames women for the violence they endure and minimizes the actions of perpetrators. Compliance may tell an alarming tale about subservience in the face of authority, but it also offers an alarming look at the influence of rape culture in fostering social obedience.

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