“Kinda Rapey” Part 1: The Problem of Rape on Serial TV in 2015

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You don’t have to be an entertainment or art critic to pick up on a trend when it’s going around on television. Superhero adventures, modern family dramas, and epic fantasy macro-trends multiply from one channel (ahem, streaming service) to the next, faster than you can say “season two”. On the other hand, micro-trends like repeating character archetypes, story arcs, and racial or sexual themes sometimes take a finer toothed comb to sift through. Yet, these are just as prominent and often a much better measure as to our collective subconscious than the common genre oversaturation.

This year, there was one emotionally uncomfortable trend  which stuck out so vividly I didn’t even need that fine toothed comb for it: rape. The truth is that outside of procedurals the likes of Law & Order: SVU, television (and modern serials in particular) has not dealt with the issue of sexual assault quite as frequently or wisely as one may think considering its resonating dramatic impact.

In 2015, what was even more surprising than the actual discussion and inclusion of sexual assaults, were its graphic portrayals and disproportionate narrative consequences. Margaret Lyons of Vulture asked and answered “How Much TV Rape Is Too Much?, while Amy Zimmerman at The Daily Beast called the trend a “rape obsession” in which “violence is sexy and sex is violent”. Sansa’s rape on Game of Thrones this year is brought up in both pieces as problematic and was written about ad nauseum by other critics, and with good reason. Most of the problems surrounding the representation of rape on television today lay in a gratuitousness (i.e. is this really necessary?) and a lack of addressing the emotional and psychological consequences on the victims. Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair notes that Sansa’s rape was about Ramsey’s evil and Theon’s redemption, and asks, what about Sansa? Further, I would add, on such highly sexualized and violent series like GoT and Outlander, how does violent sexual assault separate itself from violent sex and does this trend on “racy” shows beget the “sucks, moving on” problem? As Robin Thick once said: blurred lines.

Anyone remember this moment from the late 90s?

The arc surrounding Kelly Taylor’s rape on Beverly Hills 90210 went on for several episodes — from her rapist’s trial to the severe emotional distress it caused her. Yet, the rape scene itself, by today’s standards, was not much to remember. Truly, its greatest impact was the WTF left-fieldness and the subsequent cliffhanger cut to the end credits (which I must say was pretty effective). Of course those were different times and it was network television, but graphic rape scene or not, the consequences were dealt with on an emotional and even criminal level for episodes to follow. In other words, we saw less rape and felt more for the victim, where as on GoT we saw more rape and felt less — or at least recovered a lot faster.

One of my favorite series of 2015, Starz’ 18th-century time-travel saga set in the Scottish Highlands, Outlander, has been praised over and over for its season finale arc which centers around a rape. In it, the male lead, a Scottish warrior named Jamie, is sexually and psychologically abused by the show’s recurring villain, an unredeemable British Sergeant named Jack Randall. The rape is shown in flashback fragments throughout the first season’s final episode as both the audience and Jamie’s wife, Claire, come to learn the details of the rape from a suicidal Jamie. Those details reveal a set of events far more psychologically scarring than physical, despite an incredible amount of blood and violence. It is a difficult episode to watch, no doubt, but unlike GoT or 90210 were one could fast forward through the rape scenes and not lose much, in this episode, the story and character arcs would have been completely lost. Whatever the definition of gratuitous is (FYI here it is!), Jamie’s rape was the opposite as it was absolutely necessary and focused on the victim. I’m not the first to note this, and I applaud the series for its bravery and narrative execution, however one thing still bothers me…

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By my count, Claire — the true series lead on Outlander — is nearly raped five times in the show’s 13-episode season, while Jamie’s sister, Jenny, barely escapes being raped by Randall, as well. While we don’t witness the immediate aftermath of Jenny’s ordeal, we are present for all of Claire’s and it is only after the fourth attempt on her by a pair of British soldiers out in a glade, that she breaks down, goes into shock, and runs off. However, that distress lasts all of ten minutes before she is captured and taken by the British. That same episode ends with Randall’s second attempted rape of her at Fort William before she is quite literally saved from atop a tower by Jamie. Other personal and political dramas follow and the two rapes are tossed aside, not to be spoken of again.

Now, sexual assault is sexual assault, so I have to wonder if Claire’s “resilience” despite (in comparison to Jamie’s) is based in (A) her strength of character, (B) the lengthy psychological duress that Jamie is put through, or (C) our expectations and personal experiences of the commonplace sexual assault on women as opposed to men, in and outside of the media. Would it have been quite as hard to watch had it been Claire? No doubt it would have been difficult but, we’re more used to the idea and the visual of a woman being raped, aren’t we? Something to think about.

Next week, in the second part to this “Kinda Rapey” series, I’ll discuss how Netflix/ABC/Marvel’s Jessica Jones addresses the oft ignored issue of control (over sex) in rape by dealing with a non-violent form and bypassing showing the act all together, all while building a violent yet consensual sexual and romantic relationship for Jessica. Stay tuned.

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