There’s been some very good coverage of rape plots gone wrong in fictional media, and I don’t have much to add. But I was thinking yesterday about why I feel writers (or production teams) who choose to write rape storylines are taking on an extra burden of responsibility to get it right, and why I feel entitled to hold them to a higher standard than I hold writers on some other topics.
One of my big complaints about rape is “it’s used as a plot device, nothing more”. Well, so is murder, for example. So where do I see a difference?
No one ever thinks maybe the murder victim wanted to die, so maybe it was really consensual death. They don’t think this in their life outside TV either. If they serve on a jury, they are highly unlikely to consider the possibility that the victim’s mode of dress excused his or her being killed. Therefore, the risk of sending accidental mixed messages with TV murders is minimal, because the audience’s mindset is predisposed to one message only: murder is bad. Sometimes killing is necessary, but the word “murder” is reserved for wrongful deaths.
With rape, however, we don’t have a cultural consensus that “forced sex” is always wrong. A lot of people don’t fully comprehend what constitutes rape or consent. A lot of people still think it can’t be rape if the rapist is known to the victim. A lot of people still think women can owe men sex, and men are entitled to take the sex they’ve earned if it’s not forthcoming. And they apply this thinking in their daily lives. To women they know. To victims when they serve on juries (or as judges). To themselves, when they internalize the blame for violations others visited upon them.
TV originally perpetuated a lot of these ideas about rape. I can’t stress this enough in terms of TV’s responsibility now. If you think it should be excused because “we were ignorant back then”, check out Anatomy of a Murder (1959), a movie in which the issues of consent and victim credibility are explored quite adequately. Far more so than in most of the rape plotlines I suffered through in the 80’s and 90’s.
While TV’s message “murder is bad” remains as true today as it was when TV started, TV’s earlier messages about “bad girls” and “oh, you know she wanted it” have begun to be recognized as “wrong” by our culture (even if an alarming number of individuals still don’t get it). This puts TV in the awkward position of having either to defend its earlier stance, or keep up with the new view. In the 80’s, TV began to adapt.
Then came the backlash, whose tenets included such gems as “women lie about rape all the time” and “poor men, now a woman can put them in jail just by pointing and murmuring rape”. This rang true to everyone who didn’t like the new views. And those people had TV’s.
Suddenly there were two sides. They were almost completely mutually contradictory. And TV could only present one story at a time.
When I watch rape plotlines, I’m wondering which side TV is taking, because it’s impossible to stand neutral on an issue so polarized that where one person sees a victim the other sees a cunning liar. When I watch rape plotlines, I wonder if TV is taking the side of the guys who violated the many women I know who have been raped. I can’t help but wonder and I shouldn’t be expected to extend the benefit of my doubt to a bunch of probably privileged TV execs instead of to victims I’ve known.
If you choose to position your show in the middle of that battle – which you are probably doing for sensationalism and ratings rather than social conscience – then you should not be shocked that some of us are scrutinizing you not just for missteps, but for indications you really didn’t research your topic or make that painful effort to empathize with your victim before writing her or him.
Of course, we won’t all agree on what makes a reasonable rape plotline and what falls short. Some people – including devoted feminists – don’t even agree that pop culture is worth analyzing in feminist terms. A number of viewpoints here are valid. I’m just explaining mine.
UPDATE: For clarity, I’m not arguing rape stories should not be written. I’m arguing that if you cannot or will not do it properly, then maybe you’re not someone who should be writing it. And at the very least, you should be more interested in receiving constructive feedback than in attacking those who criticize your handling of the topic.