The pilot of Gossip Girl contains an attempted rape scene full of the standard problems with the portrayal of sexual violence on TV. By coincidence, immediately after watching this episode, I finally got around to watching the episode of Friday Night Lights containing the attempted rape scene (discussed by MaggieCat here and here). The contrast between the two really highlights a lot of what many of us have been trying to say about the acceptable vs. unacceptable ways to write about sexual violence. Since both episodes also features intercut scenes, I was inspired to draw my own connections. (Good=FNL, Bad=Gossip Girl)
Good: Tyra’s assailant appears friendly and harmless in order to get her off her guard.
Bad: Serena’s assailant, Chuck, is a cardboard caricature of high school sleaze, marked with the ‘evil’ stamp at first sight (he says that Serena’s perfection ‘just needs to be violated’).
Good: Tyra is attacked leaving a diner after studying, not in any context that highlights her former ‘bad girl’ ways.
Bad: Chuck uses Serena’s past sexual history in order to give himself permission to rape her (he saw her having sex with her best friend’s boyfriend the previous year, before she left town). There’s an almost gleeful sense to his desire to punish her for her actions, and I’m not sure the show disagrees entirely.
Good: The attempted rape is intercut with a charged up, aggressive sports match, making a powerful point about rape and rape culture.
Bad: The attempted rape is intercut with flashbacks to Serena having sex with her best friend’s boyfriend, complete with dark-yet-sultry music and sloppy kissing noises making the violence seem more sexy than terrifying. It is also cut against the best friend, having prepared to lose her virginity that night, crying and yelling at her boyfriend who’s just revealed his infidelity, making a connection between the sex that may have seemed fun at the time, but for which both parties will be punished (the woman much more harshly).
Good: FNL showing Tyra, fleeing and literally running into the geeky boy with a crush on her, breaking into tears as soon as she sees him–not for flirtation, but because this is the first sense of safety she’s had. A follow-up shot of Landry attempting to comfort her, face full of fear, concern and confusion.
Bad: GG showing Serena fleeing and literally running into the geeky boy with a crush on her and…dropping her cell phone. A follow-up shot of him looking like he’s pissed at having missed another chance to be noticed. (They cutely make a date the next time they meet, unfettered by reminders of the attempted rape.)
Good: FNL depicting sexual assault as terrifying, overwhelming and not remotely titillating.
Bad: GG depicting sexual assault as a brief, not particularly difficult struggle with heavily sexual undertones that has little to no impact once the immediate danger has passed.
Good: Constructing the plotline around the impact the event had on Tyra, making the reactions of the other characters peripheral to hers.
Bad: Constructing the plotline around what the attempted rape–as well as a later attempted rape (yes, in one episode of a high school drama about gossip)–says about the male characters, making the reactions of the other characters the way to separate the good guys from the bad guys (and really, only the guys).
The Gossip Girl scene is pretty mundane, and I’ve certainly seen far more horrifying stuff, but the minimization and misrepresentation of sexual violence is the status quo on television. If people think an attempted rape looks and feels like, well, gossip, then how do we really blame them for not thinking a woman’s story matters all that much?