How Not to Apologize for a Raping

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Oh man. Blake Carrington and Krystle. Last season Blake raped Krystle because he was mad at her for taking birth control, but she forgave him after he gave her some sparkly jewelry and flowers. She has lately returned to his bed because she feels super sorry for him after he “accidentally” killed his son’s gay lover.

Blake: That night that I forced you, the night that I… wanted you to have my child… that was even a bigger mistake than you thought. The last reward that I need is another child. And you were quite right to be angry with me.

“That time I wanted you to have my child” is the greatest vague euphemism for rape I have ever heard. I’ve been thinking a lot about rape on tv shows. This is one of the most realistic scenarios I’ve seen yet. Television rapists nowadays tend to be very different from real life rapists. In a post about Law and Order: SVU, Melissa McEwan notes that if the show reflected reality, it would be pretty boring:

The problem with L&O:SVU is ultimately this: If it reflected the reality of sexual assault, it would be a “boring” show. Woman gets raped; it’s her boyfriend. Woman gets raped; it’s her male lab partner. Girl gets raped; it’s her stepdad. Woman gets raped; it’s her male date. Girl gets raped; it’s her male teacher. Girl gets raped; it’s her dad. Woman gets raped; it’s her male boss. Woman gets raped; it’s a guy she met at a bar. Woman gets raped; it’s her male coworker. Boy gets raped; it’s his male scout leader. Girl gets raped; it’s her male soccer coach. Woman gets raped; it’s her ex-boyfriend…

We’d have to go on a long way like that before we got to a female assaulter or a false accusation. It would even be awhile before we got to a stranger rape on the street (or in Central Park, ahem); women are three times more likely to be raped by someone they know than a stranger, and nine times more likely to be raped in their home, the home of someone they know, or anywhere else than being raped on the street.

Fantastical, larger than life shows like Law and Order: SVU or Nip/Tuck or even Beverly Hills: 90210* have long acted as if violent stranger rape is the only kind of rape that exists or is worth talking about, particularly because it’s very easy to identify as rape, and it doesn’t lead anyone to any uncomfortable places. If one out of four women is raped in her life (which I’m sure is a conservative estimate given how often rape goes unreported) not only do you probably know a rapist, you have probably dated one, are friends with one, or are related to one. And no one likes to think about that.

So we’re good at not identifying rape. Last year on Mad Men, in one of the saddest, hardest to watch scenes I think I’ve ever seen on television, Joan is raped by her fiance. In his recap for TWOP, Couch Baron initially called this a “borderline rape.” Similarly, a recent discussion about Weeds on Shakesville revealed that even among very media-savvy feminists it’s hard to identify rape for what is, and instead recontextualize it as “a bad date” or “rough sex.”

Similarly, Gossip Girl opened with Chuck Bass attempting to rape Jenny Humphrey on the roof at a party, when he is interrupted by her brother, at the time, this was clearly understood as rape, and Chuck, in fact apologized for it to Jenny midway through last season. But as the show progressed Chuck became something of a fan favorite, especially in his relationship with Blair. So the next time Chuck raped someone, even though he had been widely understood to already be a rapist, Chuck and Blair fans (of which I am one, actually, Chair forever!) found it difficult to call a rape a rape. During a blackout, Chuck takes advantage of the darkness to pretend to be Blair’s boyfriend and have sex with her while she thought he was someone else. When confronted, Blair said that she knew it was Chuck all along. But the rape victim’s state of mind isn’t what determines whether something is or isn’t rape. Chuck intended to mislead her as to his identity in order to have sex with her, presuming she would not consent if she knew the truth. Attempting to shortcut someone’s ability to consent IS rape.

There’s a very similar scene on Nip/Tuck, actually, in which Christian believes that Liz, his friend who is a lesbian (I point this out, because it is very clear that they have no prior sexual history which could confuse the matter, AND he has a big reason to believe she wouldn’t consent– she doesn’t like dudes), is asleep, and he begins to have sex with her. Of course it turns out later, she likes it. Very few of my tv watching companions understand this to be a rape scene. But Christian waited until she was asleep in order to have sex with her, assuming she would not consent. Attempting to shortcut someone’s ability to consent IS rape.

Veronica Mars has the best and the worst depictions of rape on tv. The first season did something amazing and subtle. We find out, first episode, that Veronica was raped, she doesn’t know by whom at a party where she was drugged. One of the season’s big mysteries is who raped her. It’s nice to see a rape survivor who is completely proactive about solving the case, who doesn’t turn it over to someone else to save her. What she learns is that she was drugged by accident, when a drink spiked for someone else was handed to her, and that her drugged ex-boyfriend, with whom she was still in love joined her in what he thought was consensual, but secret sex. It was an upsetting, deeply conflicting solution to the seasons mystery. Without a pervasive rape culture, Veronica never would have been raped. If no one thought it was acceptable to drug a woman’s drink to get her to have sex, she wouldn’t have been in that position in the first place. But the person who had sex with her in no way intended to rape her, and was also drugged against his will. Both Veronica and Duncan, in this scenario, were victims of rape culture, which was a powerful, profound, and very complex situation for a tv show to take on.

Of course, the second season fucks it all up and ruins the awesome completely. Because it turns out that Duncan was not the only person to have sex with Veronica that night. Cassidy “Beaver” Casablancas secretly master-minded the whole thing and raped Veronica. In the season finale, there is a suggestion that he raped Veronica’s friend Mac, which is denied in the third season. (He takes her clothes, and when she’s found she cries, “He took everything.” Which I thought meant he raped her, but it turned out I was wrong. I know, first time for everything.) And the third season opened with ANOTHER rapist, who rapes Mac’s roommate Parker, and later nearly rapes Veronica. It was incredibly sad to have such a subtle, feminist show morph into procedural levels of sensationalism. I mean, seriously, Two out of three protagonists were raped with the third only narrowly escaping? Our plucky heroine is nearly raped twice? What is the purpose of that? Veronica was an amazing heroine. I would have loved her even without the writers putting her virtue in jeopardy every six seconds. (And at this point, I’d ever prefer if Veronica were nearly the victim of multiple murders, so great is my distaste for depictions of rape for edginess. Newsflash, by definition, nothing that happens to a quarter of all women is edgy.)

I suppose my concern, at the end of the day, is that these rapes are made so sexy and titillating that rape takes on the shape of being a crime about sex, rather than a crime about power, and it’s confusing. In Dynasty, Krystle forgives Blake, but they both call it rape. On General Hospital, Laura marries Luke. But they still called it rape. But 20 years later it’s hard for people who write about tv and committed feminists to consistently identify rape as what it is. We know from advertising how persuasive a medium tv is. I feel it’s a distinct possibility that the relentless sensationalizing of rape and its divorce from reality have affected our judgment negatively and profoundly.

*In the first season Kelly tells her friends at a sleepover that her first time was rape, and she was raped by a friend from school, but this instance is overshadowed by the 9 million strangers who stalk and rape or attempt to rape Kelly over the run of the show.

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5 Responses to “How Not to Apologize for a Raping”

  1. Jezebel Says:

    I’ve been catching up on Mad Men so I just watched that episode with Joan and her fiance yesterday, and there was nothing “borderline” about it. Definitely a tough scene to watch.

  2. Handprinted Says:

    Thanks for the discussion of Veronica Mars. The witty writing drew me to the show, and the realistic portrayal of rape culture kept me watching. I think the purpose of the Cassidy twist was simply to try to bring the show back to what had made it great during the first season (a complex storyline with no easy answer) and still keep it fresh so the viewers didn’t become bored. It failed on both tasks, but the rooftop scene during the finale was excellently performed on the part of Kyle Gallner.

    And for what it’s worth, I thought Mac’s “he took everything” line indicated that she’d been raped as well.

  3. gnatalby Says:

    Yeah, I thought Kyle Gallner was awesome in that role as well.

    Did you know he’s in Wet Hot American Summer? I just noticed that the other night.

  4. Brian Says:

    he problem with L&O:SVU is ultimately this: If it reflected the reality of sexual assault, it would be a “boring” show.

    If these shows don’t reflect the reality of sexual assault (and I suspect McEwan’s right that they don’t), they probably model the reality of sexual assaults reported to, and investigated by police much better, which is really what the standard for “is this a realistic police procedural?” should be. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network gives 40% of rapes being reported to police see here, and that strikes me as kinda high (I’d guess it’s more like 20%, but I’m not going to dig up dozens of studies.) I think it’s unrealistic to assume that they’re uniformly reported. I expect rapes committed by intimates (fathers, husbands, mothers, whatever) to be less likely to be reported than strangers in the park. (In fact, that’s reported here. Of course, men are less likely than women to report assaults, especially when the assailant is a woman (see here) Actually, that report has a lot of good numbers on what’s realistic (McEwan claims female rapists and false reports are <1% of cases, both of those numbers are bogus. ~10% in both cases is more realistic (that's probably an underestimate of female rapists and an overestimate of the number of false rape reports; ~20% and ~5% are probably more realistic, but I digress X2)) They do find that people are far more likely to report strangers sexually assaulting them than intimates, that women are more likely than men to report assaults, especially by their partner. What's a realistic portrayal from the rape victims' end isn't the same as a realistic portrayal from the polices' end.

    I imagine that point only applies to things like Law & Order. Obviously other shows should still be held to a "be realistic about things, if you're trying to be a realistic show"

  5. Sadako Says:

    I remember reading the first GG book and thinking, “Wow. A character basically tried to rape a girl in the bathroom, and everyone just sort of shrugs and is all, whatevs.” I mean, I know that happens in real life, but it’s still gross. Same with Back to the Future. Biff isn’t just a bully–he’s a fucking sex offender!

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