There was recently an article in the Washington post about how many TV shows have female characters who are raped, and the importance of showing the reaction and power of survivors. Media representation is important, and it is true that many women experience sexual assault. But what is so frustrating about media portrayals of sexual assault is that it’s rarely used to explore sexual agency, the feelings of violation for the survivor, or the ways that survivors can put themselves back together. In fact, sexual assault in media often happens in settings utterly unlike our own: on Game of Thrones, where women have no power, or on Mad Men, at a time when sexual assault wasn’t even a crime, and even in cop shows in which women are abducted (not a particular common circumstance for rape).
Now I’m the first to point out that fiction, and even fiction that does not directly parallel everyday experiences can do amazing things to help people understand their experiences and feel represented, inspired, or connected. However I have a hard time buying that most of the portrayals of rape on TV today have been placed there for these reasons. Instead, the rape narratives that seem to saturate media are so far from representative of the actual lived experiences of survivors that I have a hard time seeing them as anything but plot points. And that’s simply lazy storytelling. A friend of mine pinpointed exactly what feels off about them: assault is often thrown into a show for no reason as a set piece or window dressing. Sexual assault becomes a setting.
This becomes more obvious when we look at the fact that many of the TV shows that include sexual assault regularly are those that have created a world in which women have no power. Things have been rigged, because the creators chose to place the assault in times and places in which there are obvious, overwhelming, systematic ways of oppressing women as a way to further illustrate the ways that men dominate women.
This is not only lazy storytelling, but it so deeply trivializes the actual experience of being sexually assaulted that oftentimes I can’t even watch the shows anymore. It turns rape into something that happened in bad times when things were so unequal that women couldn’t own property or marry who they wanted. And they’re almost always forceful. They’re not the cajoling, wheedling “I’m not sure if I get to label this rape but it feels so violating” kind of sexual assault that often happens in partner rape, or the slightly drunken moments that someone takes advantage of. They imply that rape is a thing of the past, that happened when women were disempowered by powerful, vicious men who took what they wanted through their strength. Things aren’t like that anymore, right guyz?
These aren’t real stories about what it feels like to be raped, about how you scramble to put your life back together. These are plot points, plain and simple. They linger sometimes, but more often than not they’re forgotten or used to redeem or condemn. They’re about painting the man in certain ways, about punishing the woman or giving her an excuse to hate. Rape isn’t like that. Oftentimes rape is the only backstory that women get and it’s the backstory that every woman gets (especially strong women because how else would a strong woman exist if she weren’t just getting uppity about her ladyparts).
In real life rape isn’t the delineation between “he’s my boyfriend” and “I hate him, he’s a bad man”. It isn’t the delineation between ‘bitch” and “sympathetic character”. Rape is pain and trauma. Rape is often the breaking of a relationship, or the terror of trying to understand how someone you love can do something like that to you, or flashbacks, or distrust, or guilt.
Most of these plotlines don’t give us an insight into what it’s like to be a woman dealing with rape because of the way the world is set up, the pervasiveness of sexism, and how quickly the rape is generally forgotten. They don’t show what it’s like not to be believed, they don’t show what it’s like not to be sure if it was rape, they don’t often show the wide variety of types of rape, they don’t show an average woman being raped, they show a queen or a KGB agent. This isn’t representation, this is a sick kind of idealization that underscores the general societal beliefs that rape doesn’t really happen that much and when it does it’s because a very evil misogynistic man wanted to abuse a woman.
There are good ways to write stories about rape. In fact there is a serious dearth of realistic, meaningful stories that include rape. But what we’ve got now just isn’t cutting it.