It’s become a very familiar feeling: watching a TV show I like a lot, even love, and suddenly there’s a narrative turn and I think, oh, come on, not this again, be better than this, try a little harder. But no. Sooner or later, one by one, every drama on TV has to include a rape.
Rape has become the quickest possible shorthand for showing “this guy is evil” or “this woman is damaged”. A flashback shows a rape to lazily telegraph that this woman has had a really hard life. A scene with lots of women getting raped in the background–as “Game of Thrones” has shown repeatedly–is a quick sketch of a world where women are constantly under threat and violence permeates everything.
Elizabeth Jennings in FX’s “The Americans” grows up poor and fatherless in Soviet Russia, and gets recruited to the KGB when she’s 16. They train her as a spy, and from the show’s first moments we consistently see her using her sexuality to get information and then turn around and kill people–a lot of people–without blinking an eye. Did we need to see her raped by a superior to know that her life has been hard and traumatic and soul-deadening? I don’t think so.
Sansa Stark on “Game of Thrones” has had half of her family murdered, been dragged all over the country as a prisoner, and been married off twice against her will. Her rapist, Ramsay Bolton, peels people’s skin off for fun. Now, did we need to have a rape (that was apparently added to the show for effect) to communicate “Sansa is traumatized and desperate” and “Ramsay is a really bad guy”? I don’t think so.
In the first episode of this season of True Detective there’s a rape, off screen, in the first few minutes. I literally threw up my hands. Did we need that to communicate that True Detective is going to be really, really bleak and that Colin Farrell’s character is troubled? I don’t think so. Worse, the wife–the person who you know, actually got raped–barely appears in the show at all.
Rape happens in life, and it follows that it’s going to happen at times in fiction. What’s offensive is the gratuitousness we’re dealing with on TV today, the sheer volume of instances where women’s pain is nothing more than a narrative crutch. And when TV writers make the “well, rape happens” argument, I want to say, we fucking know. It’s happening all the time to us, to our friends, our sisters, our daughters, our mothers. We know.
As a woman you know practically your whole life that the possibility of rape is everywhere. Depending on your own experience, it may not be something you necessarily think about a lot, but it’s always fear-as-landscape, small things: always walking with a friend at night, or at least a set of keys, and certainly no headphones. Avoiding certain places after certain times, minding your drink at a crowded bar. It’s not full blown paranoia, just awareness, simmering away in a corner of your brain you try not to visit.
Here’s what bothers me, as a woman and as someone who cares about good storytelling: human pain is a practically endless palette for artists, yet somehow we’ve reached a point where any time the plot calls for a Really Bad Thing to happen to a woman, it’s going to be rape. Even lazier and more cringe-inducing is when something Really Bad has to happen to a man, and so a woman he cares about–who has spoken perhaps four words in the span of the series, if she is seen at all–gets raped. In real life, humans hurt each other in so many awful ways, both physical and otherwise, but somehow rapes on television amass, show after show, season after season, the hostility compounded by their sameness.
And why? Because it’s shocking? Is it some kind of Mount Everest thing, putting graphic rape on TV just because the show is on premium cable and it’s allowed? I’m really not sure. All I know is that it’s lazy, it’s wildly hostile, and I’m seriously over it.
P.S.: My title is only a little bit of an exaggeration, but I do want to call out this great essay on Vulture called “OINTB is the Only TV Show That Understands Rape“, which makes a compelling case and offers some excellent notes for the writers of… um, every other show.