The Progress and Pitfalls of Television’s Treatment of Rape

The Progress and Pitfalls of Television's Treatment of Rape
Courtesy MTV

When he was helping to choose writers for the staff of Fox’s television revival of “The Exorcist,” executive producer Jeremy Slater kept encountering the same plot point over and over.

“One of my hard-and-fast rules when reading spec scripts was, the second that there was a rape that was used for shock value and that didn’t have any sort of narrative purpose, I threw the script aside. And I was shocked by the number that had that,” Slater said. “I would say out of those 200 scripts, there were probably 30 or 40 of them that opened with a rape or had a pretty savage rape at some point.”

He shook his head and sighed. “It has become a plague on the industry.”

Rape as a plot device has come under renewed scrutiny in light of Bernardo Bertolucci’s comments about what occurred in an infamous scene in his film “Last Tango in Paris.” The director implied in a recent interview that he and star Marlon Brando conspired to spring the assault on co-star Maria Schneider, though he’s now clarified those comments. Regardless of the director’s attempts to defuse the controversy, the actress, who died in 2011, said the encounter felt like rape to her.

Of course, on-screen assaults are all too common in both prestigious films and less ambitious fare. Innumerable movies use attacks on women — usually a wife, girlfriend or daughter — as the motivating incidents for a male protagonist.

Television isn’t any safer for women: There’s no doubt that rape is one of the small screen’s most frequently used dramatic devices. Whether writers think it adds “edge” or connotes character depth — and both of those assumptions are fraught — rape is prevalent in prestige vehicles, procedurals and genre shows alike.

“It’s become shorthand for backstory and drama,” says an experienced female writer who didn’t want her name to be used. “Everyone knows rape is awful and an horrific violation, so it’s easy for an audience to grasp.”

Adds another veteran female writer, “For male showrunners, sexual assault is always the go-to when looking for ‘traumatic backstory’ for a female character. You can be sure it will be brought up immediately, like it’s the obvious place to go when fleshing out a female character.”

Underlying the idea of rape as a go-to concept is the idea that the fallout from the incident will inform the character “forever,” this writer adds.

“You can use it as a reason for anything she might do,” the writer notes. “She’s ‘damaged goods,’ physically, emotionally and mentally, and I think that is a bad, bad message to send to women who have been sexually assaulted.”

“The nexus of sex and violence is the cinematic equivalent of a cheap sugar rush,” notes Michelle Lovretta, executive producer and showrunner of “Lost Girl” and “Killjoys.” “It’s a fast-hitting combo of a lot of powerful inputs — titillation, taboo, character conflict, deep betrayal. In one scene, you could change the narrative arcs of a whole swath of your characters, and that kind of bomb can be pretty tempting for storytellers.”

In the last few years, the sheer amount of competition on the TV scene has created an arms race — the shortcut to standing out from the pack is to up the ante when it comes to depicting extreme events like murder, rape and other kinds of violence. “It’s like, ‘If we don’t make this [moment very] provocative, how to top last week’s throat slit? Well, let’s just completely decapitate the woman and throw the head in the river.’ And it’s just become a kind of pornography,” says Ray McKinnon, creator of “Rectify.”

But some writers and producers are resisting, pushing back against tired and exploitative rape tropes whenever they come across them in meetings and in writer’s rooms.

“For a long time, incest and rape were go-to story points, and I don’t think they’re edgy, they’re just gross,” says Michael Green, executive producer and co-showrunner of “American Gods.” “The disposability of it as a plot point is not anything I can engage in. For me, there’s no quicker way to get me to turn off a story. I’m just done.” 

Bryan Fuller is done, too. Fuller, executive producer and co-showrunner of “American Gods,” went so far as to issue an edict to the writers of his previous show, NBC’s “Hannibal”: No sexual violence.

“I personally think that it stains a story, in a way, in that it prevents you from being able to celebrate different aspects of sexuality,” Fuller says. “America as a country has a very fucked-up attitude regarding sex and sexuality, so there is something [troubling] about the punishing of characters for their sex and sexuality.”

Of course, “Hannibal” depicted many kinds of bloodshed, sometimes in mystical or poetic ways, sometimes in tableaus that were quite literally visceral. But part of the reason Fuller banned sexual assault from “Hannibal” was because he saw too many shows trying to wrap up rape plots “in 42 minutes,” and bypassing what it means to have gone through that experience or to be a survivor.

“As an adult, as a gay man, looking at my own sexuality and looking at how complicated it is, it’s hard to project a total experience of that kind of story and not be overwhelmed by the reality that this happens every day,” Fuller says. “It’s hard for me to evaluate as entertainment.”

“The Americans” and “Rectify” are among the dramas that have male showrunners who’ve approached the topic of assault with sensitivity and creativity. But a wave of female showrunners has substantially changed the conversation about the depiction of sexual assault on television. Melissa Rosenberg of “Marvel’s Jessica Jones,” Shonda Rhimes of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” Jenji Kohan of “Orange Is the New Black,” Tig Notaro and Diablo Cody of “One Mississippi,” Ava DuVernay of “Queen Sugar” and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson of “Sweet/Vicious” are among those leading the way toward more complex stories about the lives of assault and rape survivors.

But while having women at the helm can be key, it’s just as important to have a diverse array of writers around the table. “A lot of the time, the female voice in the room isn’t strong enough, or there are too few women, or the one woman in the room isn’t allowed to express that point of view,” says an experienced female writer.

“More female voices are needed, obviously, but what’s also crucial is that men learn how to listen to women and let go of their perceptions,” she notes. “People need to push back against these assumptions about what makes a female character interesting, especially in prestige TV, where these ideas seem to be ever-present.”

ABC does not rely on assault scenarios all that often, but when it does, it is often handled sensitively and with intelligence, as was the case with the acclaimed recent season of “American Crime.” Mellie’s rape on “Scandal,” too, was also explored in a way that deepened the character and her dilemmas, and the storyline was centered on her choices.

Channing Dungey, the president of ABC, said she has talked with her staff about how to compete in an environment in which dozens of dramas go to graphic and sometimes exploitative places all the time.

Speaking about the drama landscape in general, Dungey said, “It’s actually very hard to out-cable cable or out-stream streaming, when it comes to dark, edgy, violent, highly sexualized” fare, Dungey said. “We just can’t go to the same places that they can go to.”

And yet broadcast networks are in competition with those kinds of shows, and executives are fully aware that they have less time than ever to hook audiences. Many drama writers, pressed for time and pressured to come up with something “noisy,” fall back on what they know, and what they’ve seen before.

“When you’re writing a pilot, when you’re launching a drama, and you’re looking for that inciting incident, you want to find something very extreme and powerful,” said Joel Fields, executive producer of “The Americans.” “I certainly get it as a writer. I get how you can be pulled in that direction. The challenge really is the specificity of character in those crises.”

Both “Rectify” and “The Americans” feature rape as notable element of their very first episodes. But neither program shows a graphic attack, and both instead use that part of the story to deepen the characters, add texture to their relationships and create complex moral dilemmas.

In the pilot for FX’s “The Americans,” for example, it emerged that Elizabeth had been raped by a superior years earlier, when she was a cadet in a Russian training facility. But the moral and emotional fallout from that attack was depicted from the perspectives of both Elizabeth and her husband, Philip. It wasn’t all about motivating Philip’s actions.

“To me, it’s not so much that the very notion of sexual violence against women is taboo or shouldn’t be done,” says FX CEO John Landgraf. “It’s that if you do it over and over and over from the context of ultimately what it means to the man, then you’re just being lazy.”

Jaw-dropping creative choices are still sometimes made — for instance, “Roadies” treated the assault of a male character as a joke, a scenario that is lamentable but, sadly, not uncommon on TV. And though it’s not unheard of for television to seriously examine the sexual assault of of a man, the presentation of the topic typically follows patterns that are all too predictable.

“Look, it’s our job as screenwriters to examine all lived experiences,” notes a veteran female writer/producer. “That’s actually part of the issue – sexual assault is a human experience. It happens to men, children, elderly women, and it’s all traumatic. So why do screenwriters almost exclusively reserve rape for sexually attractive young women on screen?”

All that said, television has made some progress in its treatment of the subject. MTV’s jaunty new program, “Sweet/Vicious” is one of the most innovative shows of the year, in that it treats the survival of sexual assault seriously and yet manages to be a fairly nimble mixture of comedy, drama and superhero tropes.

Many writers cited the first season of “Jessica Jones” as the gold standard in this arena: It sustained a variety of explorations of the emotional and psychological ramifications of rape, and the story was told from the point of view of the survivor. Showrunner Melissa Rosenberg, her writing staff and star Krysten Ritter gave Jessica a nuanced, complicated personality — one that wasn’t necessarily defined or limited by having been violated by her nemesis, Kilgrave. The show managed to be both a smart superhero tale and an important discussion of the concept of consent.

“The imagery of rape — I mean, how many shows have you seen where there’s an image of a woman with her clothes ripped off and she’s been violated and she’s on the ground and all of that?” Rosenberg told Variety. “We were not going to do that thing where it’s about how the hero’s wife and child were killed and how his wife was raped — and it’s all about how he has to get revenge because that was ‘his woman.’ We are not doing that. We are looking at the aftermath of what happened to her from her viewpoint.”

By contrast, after “Game of Thrones” aired a rape scene involving Sansa, many critics took issue with the fact that the rape was not depicted from her perspective, but cut away from her and focused on the emotions of a male character nearby. 

“A guy actually came back at me and said ‘Fine, would you rather have seen [it from Sansa’s point of view]’?” And I said yes, actually,” the veteran female writer said. “If you’re going to do it, show it, and show it from the P.O.V. from the woman, and don’t use it as a way to motivate a male character.”

Beyond that Sansa scene, it’s worth noting that many of the most memorable moments from six seasons of “Game of Thrones” feature women who haven’t necessarily been assaulted — and who are still interesting anyway.

“I think there are lots of ways to have stakes that don’t necessarily have to be about someone getting raped or assaulted,” says Maggie Friedman, an executive producer of the CW’s “No Tomorrow.”

“Sometimes going there is valid and powerful. Sometimes it’s lazy and exploitative,” says Lovretta. “The difference comes down to why you’re telling this story, who you’re telling it through, and what you’re saying in the process.”