The Overuse of a Heinous Act: Sexual Assault in Television Shows

Posted: February 22, 2015 in Reflections, Writing
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

(Note: the following post contains some spoilers from various television series. Be a little wary before reading on.)

I watch a lot of TV. Sometimes I think too much. Actually, there’s a strong case to say I watch too much TV But what can I say? A lot of great stuff on TV these days. Serial killers, seven different types of apocalypse, a dozen different types of crime shows, screwball comedy and dramas that twist and turn with every episode. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Isn’t there another way to explain why Annalise is the way she is?

As much as I love TV though, sometimes I think Hollywood might be going in the wrong direction or not thinking things through before they create something. Here’s one thing that’s got my goat recently: in the latest episode of How To Get Away With Murder (SPOILERS!), it was revealed that main character Annaliese Keating, as well as several of her relatives, were raped when they were young, which is why Annaliese has such trust issues and puts up a tough, angry front.

While I do agree that sexual assault could cause this to happen, I have to wonder if it was necessary to use sexual assault as the reason why Annaliese is the way she is. In fact, it makes me wonder why sexual assault is being used as a form of character development in so many different shows. Not just HTGAWM, but Scandal, Reign, Game of Thrones, heck even Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and several more than I could name here.

Now, I may not be the best person to speak about this. Sexual assault or attempted sexual assault has been part of my stories more than once. Heck, I wrote a novel about a young rape victim trying to fight her demons, set within the backdrop of a conspiracy in Washington (now that’s an original idea for a thriller, isn’t it). I plan to rewrite it later this year if possible. But I have to say, how much rape is being used as a form of character development or backstory is rather too much.

Rape is a horrible thing, and it does change the people to whom it happens. But there are other ways to change someone, to make their personalities make sense or to bring them to the next stage of their journey. The loss of the lover, seeing someone die, a war starting, an apocalypse, time travel, a new job, a betrayal, torture, kidnap, etc. Heck, that last one (SPOILERS!) was used in the last three or so episodes of Scandal, and Olivia told Fitz afterwards that there were some things worse than rape. Why is rape being used so much, to the point that it seems to cheapen the tragedy when it happens in real life? Makes it seem like it’s not a big deal, because it happens so often and heck, most of the characters on TV to whom it happens may not be 100% better afterwards but their characters grow and change in interesting ways?

It also says something that it’s used almost entirely with women than with men. Sexual assault of men does happen, but due to a number of reasons is not often reported by the victims themselves or by the mainstream press. And yet when portrayed on TV, almost always it happens to women or children. Men on TV are rare victims, which I can’t help but wonder might be because people don’t want to see that or something along those lines.

So I’m going to finish this post with a request to the heads of the television industry, to the writers and actors and producers and everyone else involved in the TV making process. The next time you wish to use rape in your show, ask if it’s absolutely necessary, if there’s a good reason for it, or if it’s just there to boost ratings and explain why a character is the way s/he is. Because I don’t believe the latter should be used that often. Perhaps something else might do the same sort of thing for your characters and show than what you plan to use. And I think many people would agree with me, maybe even articulate it better than me.

It’s something to think about.

  1. Nicola says:

    I think in part it’s a product of how male the television industry is. For many women, sexual assault is part of our daily lives whether we’ve been assaulted or not: we carry our keys when walking to the car at night, we check the back seat before getting in, we cross the road to avoid catcallers. While rape is not a crime unique to women, I think that taking precautions to avoid being raped is*. Rape in fiction hits close to home for women because we’re aware that it’s a real danger in our lives. It’s something we fear. That’s not even taking into account the number of women who have been assaulted and are triggered by depictions of rape.

    And that gets down to the root of my problem with the use of sexual assault in television. If I, as a woman who has not been assaulted, can find these depictions genuinely distressing, what must it be like for a woman who is dealing with her own assault?

    *There’s a lot I could go into about how it leads to victim-blaming, doesn’t stop rape because it just means someone else is raped, and Police Scotland’s excellent “We can stop it” campaign that calls on men to … not rape, but that’s tangential.

  2. Kylie Betzner says:

    I totally agree. It gets so old as a woman to constantly see women victimized on television when the guys get to . . . fight off zombies while tied to a chair . . . she’s being sexually assaulted . . . it’s like, really?

    • Indeed. I think it’s pretty awful how set these sort of roles are. Men fight monsters, women get assaulted. It would be an interesting change to see a woman fighting the monsters and maybe a man fighting against a rapist or two. Or perhaps use rapists less often or not at all. Especially when depictions of rape could be triggers for some people.

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