Juxtapositions in scenes of sexual violence

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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?

Comments

  1. Chris Power says

    Would you be willing to do the same kind of analysis for the attempted rape scene of Heroes season 1, ep. 3, with Claire’s seemingly non-slimeball interest?

  2. says

    I find it very interesting that no one in my high school class has mentioned that there even was a rape scene. Nearly every single one of them watched it. Nearly every single one of them claimed it was really bad because it was too exaggerated, it wasn’t really like that – no one really feels like that kid who was interviewed for the NYT review, who said that she felt excluded because she wasn’t as rich (are you fucking kidding?). And not a single person had a complaint or even a comment about the fact taht there was a rape scene.

  3. says

    I find it very interesting that no one in my high school class has mentioned that there even was a rape scene.

    See, this gets at exactly why I think this is a problem. People are so used to this status quo, low-impact, ho-hum depiction of sexual violence that it’s not even worth mentioning when you’re talking about it. There are *two* attempted rape scenes, and you’re right–the idea of being rich/privileged/popular is the prominent feature despite that. Not that it’s not important to talk about privilege here, but…

    Would you be willing to do the same kind of analysis for the attempted rape scene of Heroes season 1, ep. 3, with Claire’s seemingly non-slimeball interest?

    I’m always willing to deconstruct scenes of sexual violence, but an article or any informed comment would take some time, since I’d have to rewatch the episode (I don’t remember the specifics). Any suggestion on how you think it fits in here?

  4. Chris Power says

    The Heroes episode seems to map onto a number of the items that you touch on, in particular some of the strange circumstances around *not* telling people, even though Claire appears deeply disturbed often. I’m mainly curious to hear your opinion on whether the events surrounding the reactions to the rape scene (i.e. the trip to the morgue, the resurrection, the return to school, the attacker’s reaction) influence the behaviour of the characters and can be explained away through it.

  5. S. A. Bonasi says

    Hey, I justed wanted to let you know that when you make a new entry on this site, the bottom entry doesn’t go to the next page; it disappears. The Bionic Woman post and the one about Nekkid Apollo are no longer showing up, although I can reach them by direct link.

  6. sbg says

    Wow, I had pre-written GG off as another unecessary show about white, rich, spoiled kids. Seriously, does the world really need any more of those?

    I figured the show would be bad, but two attempted rapes in the very first episode tips it right over the edge.

  7. Chris Power says

    Interesting. These were my impressions as well, but being rather new to the field of decomposing media for scenes of the sex/violence justaposition as well as other objectifications vs. proper story telling, I wanted to have some other opinions of that particular episode.

    Thanks.

  8. MaggieCat says

    I don’t have exact references, and haven’t seen the Heroes episode in question in a while, but I don’t think it was particularly bad. It was certainly better than a lot of them- showing that the rapist seemed normal (and was even a guy Claire kind of liked) rather than making him an obvious freak, his rationalizations about what he was doing, his complete disregard for her as a person (dumping her body after she was “killed” rather than getting help and saying she fell like any normal person would), and even later presenting the fact that there were other girls he had raped who were too afraid to come forward.

    Claire bounced back a little too quickly for my taste, but it did have repercussions for a few episodes (her in denial, driving him into a wall after realizing that he wasn’t going to stop doing the same thing to girl after girl) and I can see where she might be a little distracted with the whole coming-back-from-the-dead, bomb-blowing-up-New-York thing (since season 1 took place over about a month of time) but I fear with her new boyfriend on the horizon that it’ll never be addressed again- although I’d certainly throw a party if they remembered it.

  9. SunlessNick says

    and even later presenting the fact that there were other girls he had raped who were too afraid to come forward. - MaggieCat

    I liked that we saw the other girl before scumboy (I can’t remember his name) attacked Claire, watching them – in retrospect looking like she was wishing she would warn Claire and ashamed of herself for not doing so, in spite of the disbelief she’d know she’d be greeted with. I also like how the script gave a sense of her mattering in herself rather than just being an adjunct to how Claire was affected.

    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’).

    Chuck uses Serena’s past sexual history in order to give himself permission to rape her. There’s an almost gleeful sense to his desire to punish her for her actions, and I’m not sure the show disagrees entirely. - Purtek

    “Interesting” how men get to use mutually contradictory arguments about women in order to justify things.

    Tyra is attacked leaving a diner after studying, not in any context that highlights her former ‘bad girl’ ways.

    Studying is also not something that majorly emphasises “purity” or “sacred victimhood” – no sense of her being a special case we can care about without having to care about other victims.

  10. says

    “Interesting” how men get to use mutually contradictory arguments about women in order to justify things.

    I’m always struggling to explain how putting certain kinds of women on a pedestal is part of the system of misogyny for a whole range of reasons. Thanks for highlighting this, because it’s a really good example.

    Your point about ‘sacred victimhood’ is even more true given that Tyra is just at the point of trying to turn a lot of aspects of her life around when this happens to her, whereas the ‘sacred victim’ wouldn’t be allowed to have any kind of a past at all. The conventional storyline for her would have been to reward the ‘bad girl’ for reforming her evil ways.

    Wow, I had pre-written GG off as another unecessary show about white, rich, spoiled kids. Seriously, does the world really need any more of those?

    Yeah, I kind of watched it for research purposes, pretty much assuming it would give me something to write about. I wasn’t expecting quite this much, though. (I could probably mine an additional post out of what happens with the second attempted rape)

  11. says

    I picked up one of the GG girl books just because I felt like I ought to know what they were really like, considering what I do for a living.

    What I found interesting was that, while it was really bad (I couldn’t get through the first book) it wasn’t bad in the way everyone kept saying it was, imo.

    There was quite a bit of sex and it was quite explicitly described for a book they still let sit on he teen shelves, but it wasn’t outrageous, despite the lack of realism.

    It was, however, really badly written. And it was very obvious – to me – that it was mostly about wish fulfillment. The covers all show a bunch of glamorous older teens having fun together – but the series is all about the ultimate cliques and betryals.

    Now I’m curious to know if the attempted rape is in the book, because one of the things that really stuck with me was this scene where the kids are at a dinner partly with adults. At one point an older (but not really old) man essentially makes a pass – harrasses really – the main character, and she handles it with such ease and poise and as if it doesn’t phase her at all.

    I just found it all endlessly fascinating – the contrast between how teen girls wish they could deal with crap, the complaints about the amount of sex in the series itself, and the extent to which teen girls have to deal with being sexualized by even the people that are supposedly there to “protect” them. And I’m curious as to how many teen readers pick up on all this.

  12. says

    Actually, the way Mickle describes it rings true with some of the vibe from the last scene of the pilot–after the second attempted rape, what I presume will be the three main characters, having just escaped/rescued the girl/punched the bully, walk through this big party under the watchful, gossipy eye of their entire class. The implication seems to be ‘how dare they show their faces/treat us this way’ while these three semi-outcasts exhibit the kind of ‘ease and poise’ that Mickle mentions. So there could be a lot of wish-fulfillment type thinking going on there, depending on where they go.

    Noting that the book is written by a woman while the series was created and is produced by a man makes me look at the way this episode plays on some of the same wish fulfillment element, but much more from the perspective of the geeky never-noticed guy.

  13. says

    “Noting that the book is written by a woman while the series was created and is produced by a man makes me look at the way this episode plays on some of the same wish fulfillment element, but much more from the perspective of the geeky never-noticed guy.”

    This is part of why I find YA lit so fascinating. While I understand and partly agree with the complaints that there isn’t as much in that area that appeals to boys, I also know a part of it is because teen girls are looked down on in ways teen boys aren’t, so any space that caters to teen girls in any way becomes a type of pink ghetto. Any attempt to balance teen lit will backfire in some way so long as girl = icky.

    In the meantime this ends up making teen lit one of the few places where adults – often adult women – create media that is respectful towards teen girls and honest about their lives. Whether it’s about what their life is like or simply want they want.

    It makes for some really interesting stories – even in the really awful books – that don’t happen elsewhere very often.

  14. SunlessNick says

    I find it very interesting that no one in my high school class has mentioned that there even was a rape scene. - Dunvi
    See, this gets at exactly why I think this is a problem. People are so used to this status quo, low-impact, ho-hum depiction of sexual violence that it’s not even worth mentioning when you’re talking about it. - Purtek

    That it can happen in an episode – twice – and not even be what the episode is about.

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