In some ways, we should be thankful that rape, outside of a stranger jumping out from the bushes, is depicted at all. Depictions of rapists as acquaintances, friends or former significant others help people understand that rapists aren’t boogeymen, but men considered “good” in many other respects – a person who is considered family-oriented, kind and involved in their community.
But it isn’t good enough to simply depict rape – We have to consider how the way we depict rape reflects the reality of many victims, and that we consider our own prejudices in the process. A person can be an outspoken advocate for rape survivors and still struggle to understand how their views are shaped by rape culture and in some cases, certain American values.
Three fairly recent depictions of rape or its aftermath (outside of courtroom dramas) stand out to me – Mellie’s rape by her father-in-law on Scandal and Anna’s rape by a visiting servant on Downton Abbey. Both women follow similar paths following their sexual assaults: They stay mum. And to be clear, that choice is the choice of the majority of rape survivors, with 60 percent never reporting their rapes to police, according to the Department of Justice’s Crime Victimization Survey from 2008 to 2012.
But my concern is whether or not television writers are pushing what they believe is the acceptable kind of victimhood, based on what we’ve been taught about how women (although men are rape survivors as well, women are the most common victims) should respond to what is considered an assault on her dignity, whether it be rape or something far less threatening but still misogynist and hurtful - such as calling a woman a whore or a bitch. Let me separate the fact that rape is absolutely an assault on someone’s dignity and discuss the difference between the damage done to the victim and what society perceives to be the victim’s damage.
One of the reasons that rape is used as a weapon of war is that the rapist knows the survivor will be perceived differently by society – as tainted by their own sexual assault. Being seen as a victim first and as a full person, of which their rape is one of many experiences that have shaped them, second, is one of the many consequences of telling the wider public that you have been raped. In our culture, one of the worst things that an a person can suffer is the indignity of being pitied, and these shows have found a work around: Instead of putting the show through a trial, during which a painful he said/she said will continue for several episodes until creators can craft an unlikely outcome where the rapist is sent to prison, or show the rapist walking out scot-free, they choose two special routes.
One possibility is that the (usually) female protagonist refuses to call herself a victim or give the man who wronged her any more power over her than he already has. It feels like a faux-empowerment message though, and one that undercuts the reaction of many survivors, who could never sit across the table and smile lovingly at the man who raped them, as Mellie does, or withhold the fact of their assault from their husbands, as Anna withholds from Bates. It is a sort of martyrdom that is expected of female rape victims on television, especially married ones. The other possibility is that the male significant other, friend or family member exacts vigilante justice on the rapist, as happened with Bates, removing any agency from the rape victim, and making it all about the person exacting revenge on their behalf.
Sons of Anarchy’s matriarch, Gemma, is gang-raped and similarly withholds information for a long time before telling her son, Jax, and her husband, Clay, what happened. Like Anna fears they’ll attempt to exact revenge on her rapists and endanger themselves. Her son Jax eventually ends up killing one of the rapists, AJ Weston. As with Mellie, the rape seems to function as a device to make the character softer and more sympathetic.
Their decision not to tell the police, or even others close to them, at least at first, is portrayed as self-control, a great quality that is to be admired. But what does that make the rape survivors who don’t fit this mold? Are they less dignified, less in control of their emotions? In a culture where we consider it manly to experience pain, both emotional and physical, and let that pain wash over you, only to become stronger from enduring it without complaint, it’s easy for some to paint such a reaction to rape as empowering to women.
By refusing to exact vengeance, it appeared that Mellie in particular, and also Anna to some degree, was refusing to "let" the rapist take her mental stability from her, but that assumes other survivors are letting rapists rule their lives, simply because they are acknowledging their truth to the public or pursuing justice in the courts. And that seems unfair, to say the least. Whether or not the rape survivor decides to tell the police, the rape still happened, and it can’t be erased as an experience, just like any other experience.
There are mountains of reasons not to step forward - the exhausting process of a trial, during which you'll see your rapist, have people question you on your sexual past, be judged for not wearing the proper facial expressions after your rape or not remembering the story as clearly as you should have remembered it and so many more. Even if you tell only family members and friends, there is a chance some of them won’t believe you either, putting an incredible strain on your relationship. In the case of Mellie, her husband already felt unadulterated rage towards his father, a former president. Mellie was protecting him from the damage her rape would do to her husband’s political aspirations. Anna protected her husband from possible imprisonment.
Their decisions are never presented as decisions made for themselves – that they actively decided this was the best decision for them and their own mental stability. Those decisions were made on behalf of others, and although their husbands are part of their emotional stability in many ways, I wonder if this is at all a symptom of how we see women, as an extension of the men around them. It is almost a vision of a saintly rape survivor, a suffering wife, who values her husband’s well being above her own. How would viewers react if the survivor actively sought out vengeance or justice, no matter how her actions affected others? It is stepping outside of the feminine role, in many ways.
Viewers may eventually turn on the rape survivor if she continues to pursue some form of justice on her own (in Mellie’s case a political one, and in Anna’s case likely a social and economic one). It is far more traditional to watch a rape survivor on television (outside a courtroom drama) simply tell her husband to calm down, until the husband takes actions into his own hands on her behalf, usually outside the law.
I thought House of Cards’ Lady Macbeth, Claire Underwood, would go this route as well, until she decided to transform a political nightmare into an opportunity to punish her rapist. In an interview with a reporter, she was badgered into admitting she had an abortion, and decided to the use the rape, and outing of the rapist, a general, as a distraction from the abortion. The lie, while damaging because it discredits rape victims further, was perfectly in keeping with the character. Her husband did not defend her “honor” as Bates did, although she could have requested some action from him.
The manipulation and lack of concern she showed towards the young private, another woman raped by the general, as she worked with her on a campaign to change the military’s handling of sexual assault, was well thought-out. It reinforced Claire’s character: a ruthless pragmatist blind to the emotional wreckage and compromising of ideals that pragmatism costs, and serves to remind people of the way in which rape survivors may be treated by political figures in real life – as political props whose emotional well-being is secondary to the abstract cause. Her story was left unsettled, despite the prosecution of her rapist, showing that the classic TV model of punishing the rapist and proceeding as if everything is fine – is false.
Looking further back at The Sopranos, Jennifer Melfi, Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, is raped by a man she later discovers works at a fast food restaurant, and has been named “Employee of the Month.” Although he is arrested (and his arrest may have been aided by the rape being a stranger rape), he is released on a technicality. She has a chance to tell Tony to take the man out, but decides not to. This is a great example of a more nuanced rape survivor story. The man isn’t considered a monster in his regular habitat. He’s a hard worker, and respected. There isn’t any happy ending; no closure on a legal or vigilante level. It sends a message to viewers that even though Jennifer went through a horrible life event, she isn’t defined by that event, as much as she may continue to struggle with it.
What I am suggesting is not that there should be one correct model of how rape victims on television should be depicted reacting to their rapes - that would be ludicrous. But I think it would validate more rape victims' experiences if we portrayed a wider range of experiences on television that don’t simply exist to create a beleaguered spouse’s revenge plot or show a character as strong or noble because she was raped. The scenario that is depicted today feeds into ideas about how women should react to violence and abuse - that there is always more dignity in "not giving power" to that person, but that is the same line of reasoning that people use to dismiss sexism and racism. The idea is that by acknowledging injustice, we are somehow allowing it to continue. It's completely illogical, but remains very popular argument, nonetheless.
Even though the majority of rape survivors don’t report crimes to police, 40 percent of rape survivors come forward, and to leave them out of the equation is to deny telling valuable stories. These stories usually aren’t uplifting in reality, with only 10 percent of reports leading to an arrest and 97 percent of rapists never spending a day in jail according to the 2006 to 2010 FBI Uniform Crime report. But if you watch today’s most lauded shows, many of them aren’t tied up with a neat little bow. Orange is The New Black, The Big C, Nurse Jackie, Mad Men and the recently ended Breaking Bad, are all quite dark in nature. Why can’t we represent rape as the reality it often is, when we portray so many other parts of life in a raw and honest format?