Is an on screen rape scene something to be left to personal preferences and opinions or is it a media trend which needs to be reevaluated and even fought against? Is an act of sexual violence on par with physical violence when it appears on television? If we’ve become desensitized to physical violence on film, how long will it be before we’re totally desensitized to sexual violence?
Or has that already happened?
Sex and violence saturate most television programs to one degree or another and most adult viewers are immune to the negative undertones, particularly when sex and violence are wedded with comedy. But when sex and violence mix, at least 1 in 4 audience members will not view the scene nonchalantly. In fact, for about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men, sexual violence is far too real to be reduced to drama.
Jane Martinson writes:
“In her 1999 book Rape on Prime Time, Lisa Cuklanz charts shifts in the depiction of rape on television. Starting as a crime perpetrated by evil strangers in the 1970s, televisual representations of rape have changed over time, slowly turning their attention to the effect of sexual violence on the victim and by 1990, to portrayals of date and marital rape. The latter became a crime in all 50 states of the US in 1993 and in 1991 in the UK.
But has rape now become more common on our TV screens? With one in five women in England and Wales having experienced some form of sexual violence after the age of 16, television viewers are far more likely to have been affected by this crime than they are by, say, the murders so frequently depicted on our screens.”
As Martinson notes in her article ‘Rape on Television‘, one argument for allowing sexual violence to be filmed is for building a character’s development or a story’s depth. Eliana Dockterman, while exploring the reasons behind the increasing regularity of rape on television, seconds Martinson’s observation, writing “some have dismissed this trend as an easy means for creating tension, drama and sympathy. Along with death and torture, rape ranks right up there with the worst things that can happen to a character.” Dockterman also points out that rape has become a tool to humanize otherwise cold female characters.
It is one thing to be told Character X sexually abuses his wife but it is quite another thing to watch him act on that behavioral pattern. Audiences want to be emotionally connected with the characters – whether in literature or film – and actions do often speak louder than words. Not only that, modern cultures are becoming more and more image-driven rather than word-driven. In other words, with the fast paced imagery of film, we’ve taken the power of the written word and substituted it for the power of an image. Based on this, it is understandable why writers and directors prefer to portray sexual violence and rape through action rather than mere dialogue. Understandable…but is it helpful to the audience in the long run?
By way of example, consider the late Stieg Larsson’s powerful crime novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (originally known by its Swedish title Män som Hatar Kvinnor or Men Who Hate Women). Compelled by experiences in his youth, Larsson wrote a story which is filled with sexual violence, including incest, rape, and torture. The first of three books in the series, The Girl ends on a relatively positive note: the primary villains appear to have either been punished for their cruelty or permanently stopped from doing any further harm. With two books to follow (and Larsson had more to add), readers familiar with the tale know that the end of The Girl was only the beginning of a truly captivating trilogy.
Larsson was a fabulous writer. By the time I had read about 1/3 of the book, I could not put it down. The story, the mystery, the characters were all intensely addictive. That yellow-ish paper binding earned itself a seat of honor on one of my many bookshelves.
However, I never went to see the film.
I’ve received very mixed reviews for both films so I won’t pretend to know how they’ve stood up to the book. People like and dislike film for all sorts of reasons. And I’m not best friends with any seasoned film critics.
I chose, as personal preference, to forgo the film because of how deeply the book had touched me emotionally and psychologically when I read Larsson’s accounts of sexual violence. It was truly horrifying stuff and I am an incredibly visual person. While I completely understand its purpose and believe the story would be quite lifeless without it, I could not bring myself to view the sexual violence and rape on an enormous screen. I had an easier time processing the violence in print than I could in full technicolor. I was, however, glad for the opportunities to discuss the very real issues surrounding abuse and rape which the popularity of the film afforded. You cannot tell the story of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by ignoring the scenes of rape; they are pivotal to the storyline.
That being said, necessity and sensitivity are not always cohabitants of a rape scene.
Another argument for enacting sexual violence on film is historical accuracy. As an example from literature, I’m currently reading Alison Weir’s Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley (thanks to the student who left a brand new copy in my father’s classroom). Shameless plug for Weir: it’s outstanding work. Since she sought to accurately chronicle the lives of the King and Queen and their counselors, there is quite a lot of “who slept with whom”. The story demands it for historical accuracy; with so many differing answers to the motives of the murderer, it’s important to understand who was doing what (or who was accused of doing what). The royal courts of Scotland, England, France, etc. in the 16th century allow for many mentions of mistresses, syphilis, sexual violence, and “natural” daughters. The facts are inescapable but Weir’s style – very wisely – does not allow for sexually embellished descriptions.
Films and television series which wish to portray historical figures (or even historical-fiction characters) in a truthful light will often be compelled to reenact sexual violence and/or rape. Sexual violence is not a new phenomenon and, whether the setting is 15th century or 21st century, engaging the audience on an emotional level is vitally important. However, is a rape scene absolutely necessary to create that emotional connection?
Martinson addresses one particular scene from the new BBC1 drama ‘The White Queen’:
“Watching BBC1’s historical drama ‘The White Queen’, I couldn’t help wonder whether sexual violence is now being used as an all-too-easy dramatic device?
At sunset a beautiful young widow goes alone to an oak tree to meet a young man about to go into battle. But less than half way through this episode of the new BBC1 primetime drama, The White Queen, the romantic scene quickly turns violent. King Edward, played by Max Irons, refuses to accept that the woman’s mere presence is not an open invitation to sex. “I said no,” says Elizabeth Woodville, played by Rebecca Ferguson. “But you came,” replies the king, sounding hurt.
The scene, written by Emma Frost, is as well done as any depiction of date rape in 1464 can be. Without giving too much away, Elizabeth does get to say: “Don’t doubt my courage” which, she adds, is “a match for any man”.
Women do play central roles in the series, based on the historical novels of Philippa Gregory. But when I watched this scene, I couldn’t help but notice how common rape seems to have become as a dramatic device on primetime TV. Here, in a drama clearly pitched to become a Sunday-night blockbuster (even the soundtrack has Downton overtones), rape is casually introduced in order to show that the king, the ultimate in powerful men, thinks he can have what he wants…”
By way of another example of historical drama, The Flowers of War is a Chinese film (directed by Zhang Yamou), adapted from a book by the same title, and tells the story of a group of orphans, a group of prostitutes, and a Westerner during the WWII rape of Nanking [Nanjing]. As one might gather from the very name of the massacre, rape played an enormous role in the atrocities which the citizens of Nanking suffered at the hands of the invading Japanese soldiers.
The film was very tastefully done. But it did not ignore that aspect of the destruction. One of the most jarring scenes of the film takes place in a church, when a group of Japanese soldiers attempt to capture and rape the young girls. It is a very difficult scene to watch; the viewer becomes an eyewitness to the absolute terror of a group of children at the hands of violent men. It could certainly cause some to question its necessity to the storyline. At the same time, can anything a group of actors present really capture the reality of what occurred in Nanking during that winter in 1937-8? If a brief scene such as the chase in the church can evoke such raw emotion and empathy, could the film have been truly successful as a historical narrative without it?
Are real-life stories that include sexual violence even ours to tell? Or do they enhance the human experience and shed light on those things we hesitate to speak of? One might argue it’s a way to raise awareness but can a portrayal of rape, meant to boost television ratings, really accomplish any good in the battle against sexual assault?
The purpose behind each piece of film is different. No rape scene on screen – or in print – can be fully compared with another. If a scene of sexual violence requires an extensive or far-fetched defense to justify its validity or purpose, that scene will be a tactless, unrealistic, or unnecessary portrayal of the reality of sexual violence.
Margaret Lyons, writing about the 20 April 2014 episode of Game of Thrones, stated:
I’m not opposed to shows depicting sexual violence, but rape-as-prop is always distressing, particularly in a show like this, where that disregard echoes the kinds of ideas that foster rape culture in the first place: that women’s feelings don’t matter, that sexual agency isn’t a big deal, that rape is something that just kind of happens and that healthy people simply move on. Rape and abuse have consequences for the victims who carry those traumas with them.
I recall hearing one woman say, after watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, “Rape scenes just don’t bother me.” That cannot be a good pattern to set.
I would argue that society as a whole has desensitized itself to viewing rape and sexual violence on television or in the theater. Rape culture and pornography have only encouraged the acceptance of sexually violent images. This ought to act as a warning: what might shock audiences now will have almost no lasting effect on audiences a decade from now (e.g. the public outcry when Gone with the Wind writers chose to include the word “damn” in the closing scene of the 1939 film). If we accept depictions of rape on television as artist license or dramatic affect, where will the line be drawn between “graphic” and “pornographic” within the next few years?
Whether rape on TV is artistic license or artistic suicide, what are the ramifications for those audience members who have experienced sexual violence and rape firsthand? They will have a very unique perspective upon the opening (often unsuspected) of a rape scene. The briefest of scenes, the smallest of sexual insinuations, can trigger extremely painful memories for survivors of abuse.
RAINN offers insight into this issue by answering the question “Why do movies and TV shows trigger such strong emotions [for survivors]?”:
1. They frequently deal with topics that are especially relevant to survivors.
2. They often portray graphic scenes of sexual assault or abuse that may call up painful memories for a survivor.
3. A survivor might not be prepared to see scenes of sexual assault, especially if that is not the main focus of the movie or TV show.
4. Some movies or TV shows sensationalize survivors’ experiences and emphasize their trauma without showing any of their healing process. For most movie and TV show producers, the first priority is to entertain, which means that they don’t always focus on making an accurate portrayal of sexual assault and recovery.
RAINN adds, “One of the advantages of watching movies and TV at home is that you have control over when you watch. If you’re watching a show and you find that you’re getting upset, it’s okay to turn the TV off and find something else to do!”
If any piece of media is threatening your emotional/psychological health, leave the viewing to someone else. Enjoying 25 of the 30 minutes is not worth those 5 minutes of flashbacks or painful memories.
By way of another example of sexual violence on television and its potential dangers vs benefits, read Rape at the Abbey: Has Downton Gone Too Far for Sunday Nights? (October 2013) and Watching Downton Abbey: ‘A Shocking Crime’ (January 2014) for the mixed reactions to the episode which aired in the UK in October and in the US in January (spoilers if you’ve not yet made it to the most recent series). Jaclyn Friedman reacts to the Downton Abbey rape scene, herself a survivor of sexual assault, in Rape on TV: More than Just a Plot Twist: “…I turned off the TV and curled up in a ball.”
The episode of Game of Thrones which aired on 20 April 2014 is another example of how rape is dangerously misunderstood: When You Call a Rape Anything but Rape, You are Just Making Excuses for Rapists, Yes, That Game of Thrones Was Rape and, No, It’s Not Okay, Yes, Of Course That Was Rape on Last Night’s ‘Game of Thrones’, The ‘Game of Thrones’ Sex Scene Can’t Be Both Rape and Not Rape, ‘Game of Thrones’ Glamorizes Rape.