Doggett, Coates, and the “Perfect” Rape Victim
So, I recently finished up the latest season of Orange is the New Black (yeah, yeah, I know, slow on the uptake). I thought it was pretty good overall, but one subplot in particular seems to have caught the eye of a lot of reviewers and viewers alike is the one revolving around Tiffany Doggett and Charlie Coates.
To catch up those who might not have seen the series (which, you know, stop reading this instant and go watch it because it’s pretty much one of the best shows of the decade), in season three, Coates (a prison guard) and Doggett (an inmate) formed a relationship – that culminated with Coates raping her in the back of a prison van, the most recent in a long line of men close to Doggett who had violated her in such a way. The scene and story as a whole was praised for it’s focus on Doggett, particularly as she came to terms with what he had done and spelled out in no uncertain terms that he assaulted her and that she felt violated by it.
The most recent season, however, had their plot take a side-step. In the midst of a prison riot, Doggett not only aided Coates in getting away from a collection of inmates thirsty for guard-blood, but she sought him out and engaged him in physical intimacy, with the last we saw of the two of them being a shot of them cuddling on the sofa together as the chaos of the riot carried on elsewhere. For a lot of people, quite understandably, seeing a rape victim willingly seeking out their rapist and treating them with what seems to be love and affection is…difficult.
And I get that. Because rape is, so often in fiction, a cut-and-dried act; it’s unforgivable, life-altering, the kind of thing you could never, ever forgive someone for. How could you? Why would you want to? Rape is depicted in cut-and-dry ways in pop culture, because it is a cut-and-dry act, and I think that’s why a lot of people were so put off by the way the Coates-Doggett plot unfolded. But what happens when rape isn’t as cut-and-dry as it seems to be?
Well, not to say that rape isn’t a heinous act. But the way people react to it isn’t as simple as to instantly loathe the person who did it. Many rapists are known to the victim – many victims are in relationships with their rapists, romantic or otherwise. Often, the rape is not the only interaction that the victim will have with the rapist, and there can be a lot of emotions tied up with that person that go beyond anger, violation, or anything else that the rape might instill; maybe love, affection, security, fondness. And those feelings are not negated by the assault, but rather become tied up with it. And, as far as I’m aware, Orange is the New Black is the first show to really explore that fact.
I understand why people are uncomfortable with this storyline, because it’s not the one we’ve been fed by other media – the one that defines what a rape victim should be and how they should act, the “ideal” victim of an assault. But in reality, there just isn’t one. To suggest that this plot is unrealistic is to suggest that people who react to their rapists with anything other than disdain, anger, and even violence are somehow doing it wrong. It invalidates the experiences of people who remained in relationships with their rapists, who perhaps took a while to realize they’d been assaulted, who still had positive emotions and memories tied up with the person who did that to them. It says that victims of rape are one thing and one thing only, and ignores those people who don’t fit into the narrative – and that’s a pretty large section of that demographic to be dismissing. Similarly, by characterizing Coates as a normal guy it picks at the notion that someone who commits rape is obviously evil, and that rapists can seem like otherwise decent people as opposed to the cartoon villains they’re so often depicted as.
For me, the Doggett/Coates plot is important because it doesn’t lighten to impact of rape but does explore the nuances of what being a survivor of rape actually means. And yes, that makes for some uncomfortable, odd viewing – but it opens up the stories we tell about rape into something more nuanced than simply “sexual assault is a bad thing and therefore everything surrounding it is unarguably negative”. And any way that we can open up the way we treat rape, consent, and the people affected by it is a good thing.
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