I’ve been debating how to write this piece for a couple of weeks now. After the many, many occasions when this site has criticized fictional portrayals of sexual assault (most of which I’ve agreed with) I wasn’t entirely sure how to address the idea that a show had done so in a way I felt was actually done well. I’m still not positive I’ve managed it, but I think it’s worth a shot. Yes, it’s another post about the extremely talented writers on Friday Night Lights.
The attack itself was fairly straightforward- most of the town was at the football game, but Tyra had skipped it in order to study for a test. She was waiting at the diner where her math tutor, Landry, was supposed to meet her but car trouble kept him from getting there. There was a man in the restaurant when she came in who made small talk for a minute or two but basically left her alone until she decided to leave, when he chased after her saying she’d forgotten something before punching her and throwing her into the cab of his pickup. Tyra did get away, managing to hit the cigarette lighter and burning his face/eye and scrambling out the driver’s side door, slamming him in the arm and head with the door several times before running away. As she was picking up the things she’d dropped, Landry arrived.
The things I’ve noticed criticized the most about fictional assaults (and the things that have led me stop watching several shows) have been mostly avoided. Times when rape has been played for titillation- this scene was not played that way. Little was seen with the show managing to convey the fear and the claustrophobia of the location without glamorization or exploitation. The extremely lazy habit of using rape as character advancement, particularly using it as shortcut to designate a villain is also avoided- as far as I can recall we’ve never seen this man before and I don’t know if we will again, and he was by all appearances normal rather than an obvious monster. The show avoided the cliché of having her be saved by the very nice boy who’s had a crush on her all season by having him arrive after she had escaped on her own, but also didn’t have her turn into a superwoman- she’s just a very scared girl who managed well in an awful situation.
This is still a show about a football team, and Jennifer has discussed the rape culture that sometimes goes along with athletics in the forum. The fact that they didn’t shy away from that here is extremely effective. The scenes of the game- particularly Coach Taylor’s pep talks of how this is their game, theirs to win, all they have to do is take it- are intercut with the scene in the truck cab of that same mentality twisted into something vile. Most shows probably would have felt the need to hide that parallel as much as possible to keep their heroes clean, but the audience knows that these players are good kids and is trusted to see the difference while not ignoring the similarity between their mantra and a rapist’s rationalization.