Fifty Shades of Grey, The Path, and Pop Culture’s Consent Problem

by thethreepennyguignol

I don’t think it’s out-there to say that pop culture has something of a problem with consent. I’ve been thinking about this particular subject recently, after I published a Fifty Shades Darker recap in which the leading man raped the leading lady- because a lot of the conversations I had surrounding that scene pointed to the fact that, while she initially said no, when he carried on, she relented and they ended up having sex.

And speaking of things Hugh Dancy has been or will be in (seamless transition), I’ve been catching up on cult-based drama show The Path. In the second episode, it contained two sex scenes where one participant said, explicitly, no-spoilers ahead, obviously. In the first, Aaron Paul’s character, who plays the ostensibly sympathetic protagonist, pins his wife up against the fridge during a heated discussion. She asks him to get off her, says “no” explicitly, twice when he begins sexual activity with her, but when he continues pushing, they end up having sex anyway. The second involves a recent addition to the cult, finally free from years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father, going down on Hugh Dancy’s character after he told her not to, told her to stop. Both scenes are pretty uncomfortable to watch, obviously.

So, why does this matter? Lots of movies, books, and TV shows deal with rape and sexual assault. Yeah, that’s true- I’ve written a lot about it in the past, as it’s a pretty sticky subject. But what connected these two things- The Path and Fifty Shades Darker- in my head was their inability to label what happened to these characters as what it is. The Path breezed through the next episode with not a reference to what happened, and not an implication that any of it might not have constituted consensual sex. Fifty Shades, with it’s violently terrible attitude towards consent, still portrays the “romance” between it’s leading characters as beautiful and perfect. Game of Thrones had a similar issue, when the Alex Graves, the director of the episode with the Cercei-Jamie rape scene, skirted around actually calling it rape, even after she said no. Which, make no mistake, is assualt and rape. When someone says no, it’s the obligation of their partner to cease sexual activity. Pressuring someone into sex isn’t a valid way of getting consent. That’s just a fact.

So, why does it matter that pop culture has a problem with calling a spade a spade when it comes to sexual assault and rape? The thing is, it comes across in the examples I quoted above, and many more drifting around the pop culture universe, that the people behind the scenes do not actually see these acts as non-consensual. There’s an implication that the victim simply must have wanted it, because otherwise, they’d have been kicking and screaming and fighting off their partner. But not all rape is a stranger dragging their victim down a darkened alley-it happens when someone says no, and their partner keeps going. It’s what leads so many people to defend Fifty Shades Darker as romance, even though there is sexual and assault and rape right there on the pages for all to see.

I’ve written about why yes means yes is such an important idea to propogate when it comes to consent, and these shows depict precisely why- because we’re all too happy to view sex that comes after someone has said “no” as consensual. And incidences like this- where rape and sexual assault are depicted as part of being in a relationship, or a person’s gender invalidates their “no” because they surely must have wanted it anyway- that back up this insidious idea. Which is why I’d be much more impressed (and happier in general) if pop culture where to stop treating rape as if it’s some show-ruining, controversial topic-if handled well, rape can bring a lot to a show’s storyline and character development. But avoiding the topic while still clearly depicting it in your media? It’s lazy, it’s dumb, and it backs up a nasty culture that already has questionable ideas about consent.