Much writing has been dedicated to the problems with how rape is used to motivate characters in our favorite television shows, particularly Game of Sex and Violence. Generally, women get raped and men get motivated to grow as characters because of that rape.
TV critic Maureen Ryan interviewed showrunners on the popular plot device for Variety, and it sounds like many of them are as sick of it as their viewers. Jeremy Slater is heading Fox’s TV revival of The Exorcist, and while looking through spec scripts for new writers, he encountered it again and again:
“One of my hard-and-fast rules when reading spec scripts was, the second that there was a rape that was used for shock value and that didn’t have any sort of narrative purpose, I threw the script aside. And I was shocked by the number that had that,” Slater said. “I would say out of those 200 scripts, there were probably 30 or 40 of them that opened with a rape or had a pretty savage rape at some point.”
He shook his head and sighed. “It has become a plague on the industry.”
Why so much sexual assault? Partly because of how frequently it is portrayed. Executive producer and showrunner of Lost Girl and Killjoys, Michelle Lovretta says, “It’s a fast-hitting combo of a lot of powerful inputs — titillation, taboo, character conflict, deep betrayal.”
It’s also motivating to the male protagonist to take some ass-kicking revenge, and with the disparity in gender in the writer’s room, either there’s no women to speak up in defense of woman characters or they’re not heard:
“It’s become shorthand for backstory and drama,” says an experienced female writer who didn’t want her name to be used. “Everyone knows rape is awful and an horrific violation, so it’s easy for an audience to grasp.”
Adds another veteran female writer, “For male showrunners, sexual assault is always the go-to when looking for ‘traumatic backstory’ for a female character. You can be sure it will be brought up immediately, like it’s the obvious place to go when fleshing out a female character.”
Some male showrunners, however, are listening. Bryan Fuller of American Gods made an official edict when he was working on Hannibal that there would be no sexual violence. Plenty of other kinds of violence, but no explicit rape scenes:
“I personally think that it stains a story, in a way, in that it prevents you from being able to celebrate different aspects of sexuality,” Fuller says. “America as a country has a very fucked-up attitude regarding sex and sexuality, so there is something [troubling] about the punishing of characters for their sex and sexuality.”
Fuller adds that as a gay man, his awareness of assault as a reality people face every day makes it difficult for him to explore in an episode in television as a full experience. He says, “It’s hard for me to evaluate as entertainment.”
This conversation is happening around the same time as people are reassessing entertainment from the past that portrayed rape and violence towards women in ways that crossed the line between fiction and reality. Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris included a “surprise” rape scene that left 19-year-old Maria Schneider feeling violated after filming. Shelley Duvall, who is still being exploited in the media, was reportedly tormented and abused on the set of The Shining by Stanley Kubrick. Tippi Hedren recently spoke out about being sexually harassed by Alfred Hitchcock on the set of The Birds. While practices may have improved behind the scenes (sometimes), what we see on screen has still not caught up.