Does Rape Belong in Entertainment?

Note: This post will contain spoiler information from some popular programs.

A while back, I was reading an alternate history novel that I had to put down because the author had felt it necessary to graphically describe a child being raped. Battles between adults had been glossed over, but the scene of the child remembering was brutally explicit. I did not sleep for days. I recalled that scene this weekend when I found myself in a discussion about rape in entertainment.

We were discussing Game of Thrones. One person in the discussion declared that they had heard about something that happened in the most recent season, and that they would never watch again because that had happened. Another person pointed out that there had been rape throughout the series, and it seemed unusual to only just take offense to it. I stated that, as a piece that is trying to be accurate in many ways to historic Medieval culture, the idea that a rape would happen within a marriage was not far-fetched, as rape absolutely happened in our own Medieval era, and still happens. Then another person stated that rape does not belong in entertainment. There were valid arguments made. It is a lazy way to motivate characters, someone said. It is a lazy way to show that someone is a bad person, said another. I said that it is something that happens, and pretending it doesn’t exist helps nobody. This was countered with a statement that we were not watching a news program, but entertainment, and rape has no place in entertainment. That showing rape in entertainment desensitizes us to the violent act, and we think it is OK.

This is when I dropped the subject. I do not enjoy rape scenes. I find them incredibly triggering and traumatizing. I am very uncomfortable with them because they bring up memories I wish I did not have. That said, I don’t think everything should be a Hollywood fairytale where everyone has perfect teeth and frogs turn into princes. When you are dealing with a show that is trying to really show the depth and range of humanity in a context that is different from our world but heavily parallels our own history – where you have murders and flayings and beheadings and zombies and people charred by dragons, it actually makes sense that this is also a world where there is rape. Even in our own world today, it exists. Many people believe it is extremely rare. What if, by banning it as part of a storyline, we are feeding in to the myth that it doesn’t really happen?

Laura Palmer - photo by ABC
Laura Palmer – photo by ABC

On more than one occasion, I have watched through all of Twin Peaks with different friends. I knew people who were livid that there was rape within the storyline. “How can you watch this?!” they would say. Other friends connected with the fact that it was happening. Although we were saddened to know the character was going through such a terrible experience, it was amazing that there was someone – and a popular, well-loved someone, no less – who was experiencing this terrible thing that we had experienced as well (though in less supernatural circumstances). It was, oddly, a validation of sorts. When I had worked up the courage to try and report being raped, I had been called a liar, an attention-seeker, and worse. I was told I was “just mad” at my “boyfriend.” people I thought were my friends would say condescending things like “I believe that you think you were raped.” A member of my family told me to “get over it!” But here was Laura Palmer, someone that, on the surface, had everything a teenage girl could want, and her story was being told. People were shocked and horrified about what had happened. There was dialogue about rape, and friends who had been too frightened to come forward and seek a friend to talk to about it started talking. As horrible as my experience had been, I suddenly felt less isolated, less alone. I could relate to aspects of Laura Palmer, and understand her destructive behavior, because I personally had felt so isolated and terrified and angry after my own experience with rape. Other friends echoed my thoughts and feelings. not just other women, either.

Veronica mars - Photo by Rob Thomas Productions
Veronica Mars – Photo by Rob Thomas Productions

When reading A Song of Ice and fire, and when watching Game of Thrones, I have been one of the few people I know who has felt compassionate toward Sansa. I could relate to some of the abusive situations she found herself in. I felt that she was going though a terrible amount of PTSD, and was trying so hard to find her way in a world that is stacked against her on many levels. I thought it was highly likely that she would end up being raped this season, and I was shaken and upset when she was. But, like Laura Palmer, this again brought forth dialogue that people avoid. It made people think. Personally, with some people, I believe that it is the fact that they have to think about something unpleasant that they find objectionable. I know that’s not everyone, but  it is some. I once knew someone who had an enormous amount of privilege and self-pity, and could not handle other people having bad experiences because she had to consider that she was lucky instead of feeling sorry for herself. She liked to say “a pound of feathers weighs the same as a pound of anvils” – and that was literally her way of saying that her not getting to stay in a five star hotel was just as awful as other people surviving a violent kidnapping and rape. She never considered that a square foot of feathers was far lighter than a square foot of anvils. This woman frequently went on at length about how terrible any show that depicted rape was. Any show. And she refused to watch Twin Peaks because of it. But when characters experience and work through rape, it can be powerful for those of us who have survived rape.

Photo from Gran Hotel
Photo from Gran Hotel

Look, I am not saying that rape should be a go-to plot device. I’m not saying that we should have scenes with graphic rape. I’m not saying that there aren’t times where it is in poor taste and/or for gratuitous entertainment (the film Crank did this, and it was sickening). Rape as a comedy trope is disgusting – and that includes EVERY show where people think it is funny that people will be raped in prison. Rape is never a joke. What I AM saying is that we live in a rape culture, and many of us are rape survivors. Sometimes, having characters in books and film who are also survivors really means a lot to us. Sometimes, rape is actually relevant to the storyline. Sometimes, when being a survivor motivates a character to break free and escape, it motivates real life survivors to break free as well. Sometimes, by having an innocent character that viewers have come to feel protective of experience something so violent and horrendous, people stop and think about how atrocious rape truly is, and dialogues are open, and people have an opportunity to learn. Even when a self-involved creep like Donald Trump makes ridiculous statements about rapists (and FWIW, every rapist I know I have met has been an entitled, over-privileged white guy), people have to take off the rose-colored glasses and consider that this is a real thing that exists.

There are countless articles and opinion pieces out there that condemn the use of rape on television. There are many that think Game of Thrones has gone too far. I am aware that, for some survivors, reminders are too troubling. I, for instance, cannot listen to Pink Floyd because it was playing when I was assaulted. But I know MANY people who have taken the time to learn more, to volunteer, to donate to RAINN, or simply listen to a friend after thought-compelling episodes where a rape occurred. The Sansa storyline was one of these.

Continuing to have well-told stories that make people confront the fact that this happens is, in my opinion, important. Scrubbing away elements that make people uncomfortable is, to me, a way of sterilizing the truth. A way of enforcing continued silence.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. I find it difficult to watch as well, but it is important not to cover it up and it is distasteful always in a comedic situation. I also have difficulty with scenes where someone shoots themselves as it brings back painful memories of the loss of my father. If it is too graphic I will turn it off because PTSD plays a factor and sometimes it is just too terrible to see. We do have a choice to look away or turn it off but it is never good to not acknowledge that it does happen. It is NOT an acceptable behavior ever and we should be more understanding of those who have experienced it.

  2. Barb Holter says:

    This is such excellent writing, and I agree will all your points. I am sorry you went through such a terrible thing. I dislike many scenes of violence on shows, but I know they are make believe and don’t take them to heart. I hope these depictions make the realities of violence of all kinds unacceptable.

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