Anyone who watches the Walking Dead with only a dilettante's diligence might not know that (SPOILER MINEFIELD AHEAD) Episode 7 of the third season contained a pretty nasty surprise: a threatened rape. The recap, via Rolling Stone's Beth Schwartz:
The Governor approaches Maggie, determined to find out where her people are. Maggie refuses to talk. Until now, The Governor has been shaded sort of gray – he doesn't seem like the worst guy in the world, even though he took out the National Guardsmen and keeps dismembered heads in his man cave. But he orders Maggie to stand up and remove her shirt, and then her bra – or else he'll bring Glenn's hand to her. Ack. It's horrible. The tension is palpable. The Governor removes his belt. He shoves her over the table and stands behind her and it seems like we are about to witness The Walking Dead's first rape scene and I am terrified. The Governor is absolutely a terrible, horrible man. But he leaves her bent over the table, half naked and humiliated.
The scene left some casual viewers like Fem 2.0's Tizzy Giordano (who was watching the show because the bar she and a friend were hanging out at just so happens to hold a weekly Walking Dead viewing) reeling. Giordano took issue with the way AMC seemingly "eroticized" the threatened rape "to court ‘shock'n'awe ratings.'" Expressing frustration with the way AMC chose to depict rape, Giordano concluded in a final flurry of anger, "Shame on you [AMC] for making the scene as "sexy" as possible, that fucked up striptease you had the "most attractive by your fascist beauty standards" female character do accomplished its job."
The Walking Dead, like pretty much every piece of Hollywood property in the age of entertainment when popular, recognizable brands make for the safest investments, is based on a graphic novel, which you can buy and enjoy in all its stupendous gory detail, if you're into that sort of thing. In the graphic novel, the Governor does indeed, notes Wetpaint's Gina Carbone, rape one of the female characters, but it's not Maggie, so strict faith to the show's source material isn't a very viable defense for including the scene. What is pretty clear, however, is that basic cable has veered a little too close to the exploitational territory of I Spit on Your Grave or The Last House on the Left, and that can (and should) make viewers uncomfortable.
Treatises have been written, for better or worse, about rape and violation in cinema. Movies that revolve around rape like Wes Craven's revenge parable based on Ingmar Bergman's revenge parable make a subject out of an act so unspeakable that it demands an audience's attention while simultaneously shaming an audience for paying attention. Exploitation filmmakers (and there are many degrees of intelligence in that group) convey to viewers some variation of the following message: you know you want to watch this rape/torture/murder because you're a sick fuck, way sicker than the villains in this movie because you're just sitting there, doing nothing while this awful thing happens right in front of your eyes. That's pretty much exactly what Brian De Palma shouts at us when the augur dips through the floorboards in Body Double, but really, it's not a shout so much as single, disgusted "ugh." The audience, whoever that may be, is the truly guilty party because, without them, none of these savage on-screen acts of violence would be happening.
The Walking Dead takes place in the post-apocalyptic world, and in the post-apocalyptic world, civilization has broken down to its most elemental and savage components. Rape, murder, theft, and other miscellaneous acts of violence are no longer affronts to a generally organized and law-abiding society — they're ways for asserting dominance and power in a world suddenly atomized into much smaller, more vulnerable little groups. The way AMC's producers chose to depict the threatened rape in The Walking Dead may mark an especially troubling instance, as Giordano points out, of shallow ratings exploitation (pretty much everything on television is a shallow grab for ratings, but you get the idea — this is, for obvious reason, acutely egregious). However, Revolution, another post-apocalyptic drama, threatens rape pretty much every week, an unhappy fact helps us ask the question: is it acceptable, in the name of artistic integrity, plot progression, or whatever other grandiose sentiment we can summon, to air a rape scene on basic cable?
When you walk into a theater , you're making more of a conscious decision (usually informed by a poster or trailer) to burn a certain chunk of your time viewing filmed acts of love, violence, whimsy, comedy — basically whatever kind of material you're willing to spend a couple of hours with. It's like going into a prolonged peep show — you're a voyeur, watching shadow people live their tawdry lives, commit their heinous crimes, and then melt away forever. As a TV viewer, you're not really making that pact with a show, though in an age when production values for TV are getting more expensive, even basic cable shows like Mad Men can do some sincere dramatic work with material as onerous as a major character's rape. Where The Walking Dead seems to have gone wrong is in stylizing a scene of brutal, ugly violence to attract the glazed eyes of the itinerant TV-viewer. If you're going to put something as heavy as rape on-screen, you'd better make sure you're prepared to deal with it in a way that doesn't offer viewers an exploitative middle finger followed swiftly on its heels by a Doritos commercial.
‘Walking Dead' Recap: Discipline and Punishment [Rolling Stone]