Rape has been on television for a long time. Law and Order: SVU focuses almost entirely on this subject, even though special victims detectives often deal with other issues like child abuse. However, it’s been something that’s more talked-about this season.
Characters like Claire Underwood from House of Cards, Mellie Grant from Scandal, Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones and Elizabeth Jennings from The Americans had significant rape storylines this season, while beloved character Tara Thornton from True Blood has had a rape plot line in the past, and they gained a lot of negative criticism (see EW’s Karen Valby’s writeup as a good example).
Valby does a good job of summing up the reasons people are having problems with rape storylines, especially ones that involve such central female characters. Such storylines seem to be a cheap attempt to soften the images of icy or ruthless women (in other words, women can only act ruthless if they have suffered sexual violence) or to sensationalize the television show.
To an extent, Valby’s right. Sensationalism has blatantly been at the heart of such scenes, particularly the case with Cersei, whose non-consensual sex with her brother on Game of Thrones was changed from the consensual scene that happened in the Song of Fire and Ice books, the books upon which Game of Thrones is based. What other reason would there be for adding a non-consensual sex scene to a show that already has several such scenes? A number of people spoke out on the issue, including the author of the Song and Fire of Ice series. Looking at rape as something purely dramatic seems disrespectful to rape victims, whose experiences shouldn’t be diminished for viewers.
Also, seriously, did the scene need any more sensationalism? It takes place next to Cersei and Jamie’s dead son.
That said, sensationalism (read: dark and twisty) shows certainly hold audiences. Emmy nominations came out a week ago, solidifying what we already knew: the grittier and edgier the drama (or comedy—I’m looking at you, Orange is the New Black), the better the chances for a nomination. Rape has been one of the subjects used to raise the stakes, a favorite of grittier networks like HBO. However, should we be upset that we’re seeing a change in the rape narrative on television, and are we upset for the right reasons?
After all, we didn’t hear the same kinds of arguments for SVU, and that show began its run in 1999. When we hear for a call to, as Valby says, “stop raping women,” then, does that mean we’re just asking to go back to the rape story we’ve heard before, the rape story we’re used to? It’s possible that, in our own shock at the new rape portrayals we are seeing, we’re missing a new attitude toward rape, one that is reflective of a society more willing to talk about sexual violence.
Rape certainly has a game-changing factor to it (there’s literally a trope called Rape is a Special Kind of Evil). It brought a new dimension to the back stories of Claire, Mellie, Cersei and Elizabeth, though it didn’t necessarily make the women more sympathetic, nor was it necessarily portrayed as the sole reason the women were ruthless.
For example, Claire Underwood ends up using her rape story to her advantage, arguably ruining another rape victim’s life (or at least causing her significant psychological damage). This was terrible and dramatic to watch, but it was also very in character for Claire, who routinely uses people and turns situations around to her advantage. Claire also shows a lot of anger even though her rape took place years earlier (and off camera), pointing to the residual effects of sexual violence.
Claire and the other women who have had sexual violence in their storylines this season are also attracting attention because they’re not the typical rape victims we see on our televisions. The victim of the week that we got used to seeing on Law and Order: SVU was just that: the victim of the week. The show examined her life and gave her a voice, but the actress wasn’t in the main credits of the show. Rape is not the whole of Cersei, Claire, Mellie or Elizabeth’s storylines. It is a single dimension of who they are as characters. They are not portrayed as victims but as survivors.
While the rape narrative is changing on television, rape and sexual abuse are becoming part of mainstream conversation. The term “slut-shaming” has emerged as a common term used to describe the tendency of people to blame the rape/abuse survivor rather than the person who committed the crime. We’re not used to seeing this form of story in our media, so we’re reacting to it. We’re talking about it.
Rape has certainly been used to sensationalize stories. Game of Thrones is guilty of this. However, consider the national statistics. An American is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes. Approximately 60% of rapes go unreported. One in four college women report either attempted rape or surviving rape after their fourteenth birthday. Abuse and rape are much more common than other violent acts portrayed on television, such as murder. It doesn’t make sense to censor that from media, especially when it lends a mainstream voice to people who have suffered such acts of violence. It’s widening the narrative of the rape/abuse story. Perhaps our plea then, is not for televison to “stop raping women” as Valby describes but for society to stop raping. Period.
It’s good to recognize the reaction to these storylines because we, at least in American society, are opening our eyes to the sexual violence around us. Rape is widespread and can happen to pretty much anyone under several different sets of circumstances. The fact that television is starting to reflect this may cause us discomfort, but it’s a reflection of our society beginning to change its stance on rape. That’s not a bad thing.