The show Private Practice is promoting the fact that during sweeps week, a female character will be raped. What should we expect?
KaDee Strickland, who plays the character of Charlotte, says she was excited when show creator Shonda Rhimes proposed the plotline. Spoiler alert: The rape is committed by a "mentally unstable" man who comes into the ER (played by Nicholas Brendon from Buffy).
It's heartening to hear that Strickland say that "RAINN, the Rape Abuse Incest National Network, got heavily involved with us in this process to make sure that everything we did was suitable to the story of the survivor of this kind of crime." And also to connect the crime with the horrific statistics on women and rape:
When you really go to those statistics and you look at the size of our audience, you're talking about a lot of people that understand this, a lot of people that have had it either happen to them or to someone close to them. If we can legitimize that for people who know what this walk and this journey is like, then we've done something that we set out to do.
You can also see the work of experienced rape survivor advocates all over statements like, "It's not resolved in four episodes. It's not like it just goes away. It is a part of who I will be on this show as long as this show is on the air, and I love that. That's real." And when she says that rape victims are reluctant to report and blame themselves.
Beyond the jarring feeling of hearing someone so cheerfully discuss enacting rape — in this context, of course, an exciting professional challenge for an actor — it's interesting to see that Rhimes chose stranger rape, the far less common type of rape, and the least potentially ambiguous. TV loves drama, and stranger rape is most dramatic and visually arresting — just think back to the cruelest and most horrifying example of it I can recall, Dr. Melfi's in The Sopranos. And making the perpetrator a "mentally unstable" stranger takes out any doubt that rape is something that only crazy people wandering the streets commit.
There's context for this: As Lisa M. Cuklanz wrote in Rape on Prime Time: Television, Masculinity, and Sexual Violence
Still, the book later goes on to chart how as the feminist rape reform movement gained strength starting in the 1970s, acquaintance rape became more prominent on television.
More recently, on Mad Men, audiences got a brutal introduction to the concept of marital rape when we were forced to watch Joan Holloway's face as her fiancee raped her on the floor of Don Draper's office. If you needed to better understand that rape can happen even when you've previously consented, that was it. Similarly, we see Pete Campbell all but demand sex from a young, terrified foreign au pair over whom he has significant power and who acquiesces even though she clearly does not want to have sex with him.
Seeing such acts committed onscreen, and then later debated, is a reminder that it can be rape, even when there is no manic stranger and no screaming "no." Not every television show has to show this all the time, but it's interesting to see when it does and does not.