Let’s Talk About Rape on TV
Right, before I begin, I’m going to put a big fat Trigger Warning here for discussions or rape and sexual assault. Last chance to bail.
Right, okay, so I was catching up on the new series of Orphan Black last night, and I was enjoying it for being the stridently feminist, utterly ridiculous slice of sci-fi entertainment that I love so much. Then, at the beginning of the second episode, a sexual assault happened. I don’t want to give spoilers as this episode’s pretty recent, but suffice to say that a situation where consensual sex was happening was very quickly turned into one where one party had not agreed to the acts being initiated, and her lack of consent was ignored and caused further violence. The episode cuts to the next day, where the woman has reported her assault to the police and ducks into a cab, never to be seen again.
I’ve had huge, huge problems with the way that television portrays rape and sexual assault for a long time now, because so many shows have no clue as to how to depict them in a respectful way. For example, like the Orphan Black example above, The victim asks if she can have some kind of police protection, voicing her concern that the perpetrators will return and attempt to attack her again, then her violent assault basically is forgotten about so that the characters can focus on how her assault affects their story. The modestly feminist teen show Reign- about Mary, Queen of Scots- did it too, with the writer claiming that having her lead character get violently raped would lead to interesting character development for….Mary’s husband. Vikings has done it, when of their lead cast members was shown violently raping a woman to underline how bad he was. The Walking Dead rounded off last season with a domestic abuse storyline that was there to push forward Rick’s plot. Game of Thrones did it several times in the three seasons that I watched before ragequitting. These are just a few examples, and I’m sure you can think of many more off the top of your head.
And then, of course, you’ve got the other side of portraying rape; when a powerful female character is disempowered through rape or sexually assault. Game of Thrones did this with Cercei (and, more disturbingly, were reluctant to acknowledge that a scene in which a person says “no” to sex was actually rape); Sons of Anarchy did it with Gemma. Elizabeth in The Americans, Robin in Top of the Lake, Clare in House of Cards, even, arguably, Lagertha in Vikings, who is an immensley powerful character, is sexually assaulted. I’ve never quite got my head around why this is such a persistent trope- that when a strong, well-written, powerful female character gets a couple of series in, she’s often the victim of rape or assault. There’s a lot of arguments to be made for the reasons behind it, whether it’s an attempt to soften the hard edges of strong women to make them more palatable and pliable to viewers, that rape presents a shorthand for an interesting, emotional plot that is bizarrely specific to women (and therefore also erasing male assault and rape victims), that it’s a quick way to get across the fact that your show is edgy and adult. Whatever the reason, what I’m trying to say is that television- even television with great female characters- has real trouble depicting sexual assault and rape. Not just because they often seem to be employing it for the wrong reasons, but because they often refuse to acknowledge the effect that kind of event can have on someone’s life- rape, after all, can have a devastating impact on the lives of victims, as well as the nightmare many victims face trying to get justice.
So, television is bad at portraying rape and sexual assault. Television’s not meant to be real, so it’s no big deal, right? The problem is that we, as a society, have no fucking clue how to address rape and sexual assault. Whatever the gender of the victim, tacit victim blaming (what were you wearing? Had you been drinking? Were you leading them on? How much do you masturbate?) is a classic feature of the way we treat survivors of crimes like these. And that’s utter bullshit, and it makes me so angry that I can’t think straight. Every time a show fails to realistically portray rape and the impact it has on it’s victims, it’s missing out on the chance to fix something that the media is catastrophically failing at- whether it’s a Fox News anchor mourning the “poor boys” who had been convicted of the gang rape of an unconscious girl, or a talk show guest explaining the difference between date rape and, y’know, “real” rape. Television is pushing boundaries all over the place, taking on things that the rest of the media wouldn’t go near, and has some of the most grown-up, respectful, and interesting stories and characters you’ll find anywhere in fiction. But writers and directors are still flinching coming out of the gate in the way they portray rape- by othering it, by making it something that wouldn’t happen to someone like you, by refusing to show the impact it has on the lives of survivors. Come on, TV, don’t fail me now- you can do this, and more importantly, you should.