Rape, on a screen near you

By Rose Hoare

When did rape become the plot device du jour on our screens
Perhaps most dangerously, rape is also sometimes treated as a sexy thing. Photo / Getty Images
Perhaps most dangerously, rape is also sometimes treated as a sexy thing. Photo / Getty Images

Once the kids are tucked up in bed and it's time to settle in with some prestige drama from this golden age of television we're living in, I like to ponder aloud: who's getting raped tonight? Game of Thrones, House of Cards, The Americans, Narcos, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Top of the Lake, True Detective, The Sopranos, The Wire, even Downton freakin' Abbey, and countless other "serious" dramas have piled on to a disquieting trend for using rape as a plot device.

Rape is on trend, I'm guessing, because it's a way of exploring the heroic side of masculinity: it's a way of making male characters look like stand-up guys, protectors of the frail, and gives them moral justification to vanquish the rape however they see fit, including by means of graphic (but righteous) violence. It's almost never a way of exploring why some men rape.

It's an easy, unimaginative short-cut. "Take a story, add one rape, stir vigorously, and presto - instant emotional reaction! This is both incredibly lazy and incredibly callous, but it works, so people keep doing it," wrote Laura Hudson in Wired.

Rape is also a handy way of giving an "unlikeable" female character a back story that will win her sympathy from viewers unaccustomed to seeing females who aren't smiley and winsome. Our culture has assigned women the job of being emotional cheerleaders: they're the ones who are expected to offer the appropriate social reaction, to laugh, to smile, to get excited on everyone's behalf. If someone in your office has a baby or takes a holiday, it's the women who are expected to exclaim over the photos. Female TV characters like The Americans' Elizabeth Jennings, who don't do this (unpaid, thankless, low-status) emotional work, apparently require explanation. That being: she's grumpy or sullen because she's damaged goods.

Of her character's rape in the first season of Game of Thrones, actress Emilia Clarke said, "You need that part of the story to feel empathy for Daenerys". I didn't, though. I already felt sorry for her character, guarded by a horrible brother and sold into an arranged marriage. Rape is only necessary for making a female character more interesting, complicated or empathetic, if you are operating under the assumption that female characters are inherently boring or beneath caring about.

And apparently rape is only endlessly fascinating if it happens to a woman. Speaking anonymously, a female TV writer told Variety, "Every year, male writers pitch a storyline that involves a female character being sexually assaulted ... If rape were so illuminating, such a great story, then they'd be pitching to rape the men."

Perhaps most dangerously, rape is also sometimes treated as a sexy thing. According to Game of Thrones director Alex Graves, a Season 4 rape scene (in which the victim says "no" and "it's not right", and the rapist says "I don't care") "becomes consensual by the end". Lots of viewers didn't see it that way. (And on an "inside the episode" featurette, the show's own show runner described the scene as "She's saying no, and he's forcing himself on her".)

Picture / 123RF
Picture / 123RF

Game of Thrones, the world's most downloaded TV show, is probably the worst offender for its gratuitous rape scenes, which trivialise its victims, alienate its viewers and get in the way of its storytelling.

There's nothing inherently wrong with TV exploring the very real epidemic of sexual assault, and some argue rape scenes can form the basis of important conversations that need to happen for social progress. But most TV rapes bear little similarity to what happens in real life. They show rape that's by a smirking stranger, someone who sticks out like a sore thumb. Not someone's uncle, babysitter, stepdad, or ex-boyfriend. They suggest that you'll be believed, your rape will be avenged, and the order of justice will be restored.

For all of the many rape scenes I have watched, I can't recall a show that's spent time exploring useful stuff like how and where to report a rape; how a rape complaint should be handled; what rights the victim has; what short and long-term effects the victim is likely to suffer; what kind of support is available; what punishment is the attacker likely to get. You get the point.

Instead, usually, the story (much like the rapist) dispenses with its victim after the rape.

It's not a TV drama's job to educate people about rape. But the fact remains that a lot of people have somehow managed to get the wrong idea about rape. This is a problem because people with the wrong idea about rape sit on juries at rape trials.

Alongside Australia, New Zealand has the world's third-highest rate of sexual assault, according to a report in the medical journal Lancet. There were 2658 reported in the first half of this year, and with reporting rates estimated at around 9 per cent, this suggests there have already been more than 30,000 sexual assaults this year.

We live in a country stacked with detectives, teachers, rugby players, even Women's Refuge board members, who badly need to get their heads around how consent works. Our abysmal statistics, along with gross failures like the Roast Busters non-investigation, show that we don't know how to prevent, investigate, prosecute, report or understand rape.

A nightly parade of brutal sexual assault, presented as a form of entertainment, isn't helping things. It's a dismissive treatment of something that's far too dismissed in real life. Plus it's getting really boring.


New Zealand's Rape Crisis centre's Call Line is: 0800 883 300.

- Canvas

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