*This article may contain spoilers.
Decent conversation is a tricky skill. Even the climate and sports have become unwieldy topics. In order to have a good time at a party, we sidestep disturbing, shameful statistics, like the sheer number of Black Lives shattered in the past 10 years alone, the alarming frequency of a well-armed white man opening fire on a crowd in the past five, or the regular occurrence of sexual violence annually. We choose instead to dilate the relatively benign field of media and art.
But what happens when the unplesantries crop up in entertainment? From my meager plinth in the sea of social media, my millennial viewpoint is that—lately—rape on television has been trending steadily.
My understanding of rape is that it is a rather inconvenient truth. A display of power and violence we have never quite erased from our repertoire. Overwhelmingly, rape victims tend to be female. Regardless of her place in the world or her shade of skin, everyone has to consider that at some point in her life, she will either be raped, or not.
Rape is unarguably a problem in the modern world. Date rape, spousal rape, statutory, prison, even “gray” rape—the circumstances leading to the disturbing climax are never quite the same, but the end of the story is always a traumatic violation that takes many people years to overcome. In 2011, the Center for Disease Control reported that 1 in 5 American women will be raped at some point in her life. The study also illustrates that 1 in 71 men will be the victim of rape at some point in his life. Of the 293,000 rapes that will take place this year, a little under a third will be reported.
Rape was a fact of life before even the dark ages when coastlines and foothills were pillaged for violent collections of property and progeny. Recall a mid-seventh century BC Grecian urn. That unravished bride of quietness certainly carries more than a few myths where King Zeus chooses an earthly form to ravish a particularly beautiful woman. Ancient mosaics and marble sculptures, the works of Ovid, Homer, Yeats, Titian, Rubens, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo all offer interpretations of Zeus’ rape of women like Europa. Even Cezanne and Cy Twombly have pieces depicting Leda and the swan.
The incidence of rape is difficult to quantify because it is reported so infrequently. The issue of whether or not someone who has been raped chooses to come forward and point to an attacker is complicated by the fact that, despite the advent of rape kits and DNA testing, very few rapists are ever charged, tried, or convicted. Furthermore, the laws of sexual assault are a briar patch of legalese. For some reason, rape investigations are regularly delayed and drawn out. By the time they reach a courtroom, the statute of limitations has expired, and the alleged attacker is no longer liable to face prosecution.
Social media is certainly aware of Jameis Winston, a football player who was accused of raping a student at Florida State University in 2012. A year after the rape case was reported, he was awarded the 2013 Heisman Trophy. A trial to determine whether or not he is guilty of rape is potentially set for 2017. Just last month, he was named quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’m intrigued by Winston’s professional success, considering that just last March, the NFL very deliberately slapped Ray Rice on the wrist with a year-long suspension for his very aggravated assault on his very unconscious wife in an elevator that happened to have a security camera. Rice appealed the decision and was reinstated, so it’s not inconceivable that the organisation would choose to ignore Winston’s potential as a rapist, favouring his potential as an athlete.
Rape would certainly not be such a relevant topic on social media if it weren’t for the Bill Cosby imbroglio. The most recent cover of New York Magazine for the week of 26 July gathers 35 brave women who have gone public to say they were all sexually assaulted by the man who brought one of the most influential father figures since Atticus Finch into countless American living rooms. Read the accounts and understand why so many of the women have reasons for not speaking out against one of the most powerful figures in the world of broadcast television.
With social media’s powerful impact on the national news circuit, as well as our general dialogue, it is worthwhile to examine the intersection of broadcast television and rape.
If I’m being honest, I understood rape on television as a relatively rare event. Ironically, I remembered an old episode of the Cosby Show spinoff, A Different World, titled “No Means No” (season 2, episode 20). But really, televised rape wasn’t something with which I took umbrage until the infamous fifth-season episode of the wildly popular HBO drama Game of Thrones.
As accurate as television ratings can be when internet streaming disrupts traditional Nielsen ratings, I consider a show with an average of 8 million viewers to be wildly popular. For perspective, America’s Got Talent gets close to 11 million. Scandal and Downton Abbey have reports showing close to 10 million viewers each. A show like Orange Is the New Black defies the Nielsen rating altogether since it is made available via Netflix subscriptions, and more than one view can utilise a single subscription, but the blogosphere guesstimates a following of four million. Even Mad Men, topping off at about three million viewers, has clout. The drama set in the world of mid-century advertising is discussed widely on social media and reviewed in detail on more than one news outlet.
Mad Men may be one of the first American television shows to broadcast a rape scene on screen. In “The Mountain King” (season 2, episode 12), the agency’s office manager, Joan Holloway, is raped by her fiance, Greg Harris, in the office of the series protagonist, brooding creative Don Draper. Greg had stopped by the ad agency with a vase of roses to collect Joan before their dinner date at Lutece. There is an awkward introduction between Joan and Roger Sterling, Joan’s boss. The fact that Roger is familiar with Joan’s distaste for French cuisine is not lost on Greg. Greg follows Joan as she heads into Don’s office to lock up for the night, assuming it must belong to Roger, and forces himself on her. The scene depicts Greg wrestling Joan to the ground, hiking up her skirt, and pushing himself on top of her. Then, the camera cuts to a close-up of Joan’s horizontal face, resigned, as we hear Greg grunting to completion.
The episode upset quite a few viewers, but there wasn’t much criticism cast at the show runners. While the main cast of Mad Men lacks significant diversity, the show received some praise for its complex female characters. Joan in particular is a sexually provocative character who, throughout the series, makes difficult decisions that allow her to further her career. By the end of the fifth season, Joan is a partner at Sterling Cooper, and a long way from a rape victim torn between a career that excites her and the desire to be well-off and married to a doctor.
Another popular drama set in a particular historical period is Downton Abbey. The series takes place in the post-Edwardian decades of the twentieth century. A sprawling estate belonging to the resilient, aristocratic Crawley family, Downton is also home to the assiduous staff that tends to the family’s domestic needs. Butlers, menservants, footmen, Lady’s aides, cooks, and kitchen girls, the social hierarchy of the era is brought to life with lovable characters such as the innocent and soft-spoken Anna Bates. By the second episode of the fourth season, there are plenty of plot points swirling. There has been a death in the family, the longevity of the estate is tenuous, and new main characters have been introduced into the household. Some reviews have suggested that there was really no need to write a rape scene for Anna.
After all, to marry the love of her life, John Bates, the character of Anna already overcame plenty of well-written strife. Could the show’s writers have given her character a break? Perhaps. Then again, the actress Joanne Froggatt’s acceptance speech for the Golden Globe she won for her navigation of Anna’s rape was a powerful microphone for victims who are tormented by the shame and fear that keep them from speaking up about their assault. The 72nd Annual Golden Globes ceremony had many problems, not the least of which was the coincidence that the actors who play submissive Anastasia Steele and dominant Christian Grey in the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey, a bestselling novel that details the fantasy of BDSM sexual encounters, were on stage to present an award to a woman who played a character who is a victim of sexual violence.
The women who are raped in the 1960s world of Mad Men and the 1920s world of Downton Abbey do not have the option of reporting their rapes to the police and completing rape kits so that they can gather evidence against their attackers.
Nor are the women in Game of Thrones given agency to bring down their rapists. There are two major episodes in the dramatic fantasy where key female characters are sexually assaulted by men they know. In the first case, Cersei Lannister is raped by her brother Jaime, over the body of their dead son. By the time Jaime rapes Cersei in the series, he’s been established as a complicated character with serious flaws, a long-term incestuous relationship with his sister possibly the least troublesome. But the writers crafted a story arc in which Jaime was cast in a more sympathetic light, especially when he stands up to Cersei on behalf of their brother Tyrion. Still, just because the viewers develop a soft spot for Jaime, and just because he had enjoyed plenty of consensual sex with his sister, it does not give him space to force himself on the vulnerable, grieving mother of his dead son.
Then there is Sansa Stark, a character who has really had a rough couple of years. She has had to watch her father get his head chopped off, been isolated from her family, betrothed to a sadistic king, denied the chance to be queen, accused of murder, sentenced to death, manipulated by power-hungry men, and finally, married to one of the most psychotic characters on television, Ramsey Bolton. Game of Thrones viewers know that Ramsey is far worse than the average sadist because an earlier episode insinuated that he castrated a male character. So when he rapes Sansa Stark on their wedding night, it isn’t so that his character can be re-established as pure evil. Nor does the rape serve to portray Sansa as the victim of unending tragedy. Unsurprisingly, the fifth season episode drew much criticism for its use of rape as sensational, gratuitous entertainment. The show runners were called out for their departure of the book-based storyline and deliberate choice to write a violent rape scene. It almost broke the internet.
Game of Thrones is not the only HBO drama to feature rape as a vehicle to complicate characters. In the fifth episode of the final season of Aaron Sorkin’s series The Newsroom, a character on the show is tasked with tracking down an anonymous rape victim who has created a website where women can speak up and accuse men of rape. The network executives make it plain that the crossfire-style segment featuring the woman who created the website and her rapist is for ratings. As troubling as the storyline in “Oh Shenandoah” may be, it functions on a metaphysical level that questions whether the rape debate is appropriate fodder for entertainment, even in the context of old-fashioned journalism. Sorkin received some flack for his treatment of the issue of campus rape, as well as his treatment of writer Alena Smith, who was extremely vocal on Twitter. As upsetting as I found the episode, the campus rape victim had at least been able to report the crime.
The same could not be said for the character of Mellie Grant when she is raped in the season 3, episode 7 of Scandal, “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie.” A political soap opera created by Shonda Rhimes and broadcast on the ABC network, Scandal is one of the most widely accessible television shows to depict a rape on camera, and the writers received plenty of criticism for their decision to use Mellie’s rape as a device that explains her frigid demeanor.
Orange Is the New Black is another popular series with a rape-related storyline. At least two major blogs published positive reactions to the episode where the formerly loathsome, now charmingly complex character of recovering meth addict Pennsatucky is raped by a correctional officer in the third season of the Netflix hit series, which takes place in a women’s prison.
What do all these shows have in common? Besides the fact that they have all received at least one Emmy nomination, they also happen to present a disturbingly accurate historical survey of the different circumstances in which rape has occurred. Every single one of the female characters I’ve mentioned is familiar with her attacker. Only the college student in The Newsroom has actually reported her rape to the police. Three of the characters in these shows eventually reveal the attack to their confidantes, but of these women, not one is given the chance to press charges. Certainly providing rape kits to Cersei and Sansa would be extremely out of place in a fantasy realm that includes dragons and snow zombies, so there’s no point in expecting justice from Game of Thrones.
If the staff writers on these popular shows have unintentionally given the canon of American television several occasions where we, as fans of televised entertainment, can discuss the controversy of rape—whether it is a ratings ploy or not—on what grounds do we criticise their creative choices?
Victims of rape undergo a horrific experience, fraught with complications such as burden of proof, timely reporting, thorough police investigations, support on the part of institutional administration, years of therapy, and a lifetime of trust issues. If American culture can’t even guarantee that victims will have a safe space to talk about the uncomfortable details of their trauma, how can we expect to educate future generations on the importance of rape prevention?
While it is certainly problematic that popular television shows exploit rape as something that lends an otherwise thin character some complexity, shouldn’t we acknowledge that, at the very least, we are granted a forum where we can examine how widespread and poorly addressed rape is in the real world?
I’m not of the opinion that it is ever appropriate to use rape as a plot device, even if a writer has a clear survival plan for the victimised character. There are so many other ways to create a particularly tense drama. But as a viewer, after watching so many episodes where rape occurs before a wide-reaching audience, I have to wonder: do the writers deserve criticism for their indelicate treatment of the crime, or do we?