Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cheap Trick or Call for Action? Rape on Television
By: Caitlyn Schultz
Some of you may have become instantly uncomfortable and hesitant to read on after the title. I understand it is not a happy go lucky topic and this will not be filled with puns and witty jokes, but in light of all the calls for sexual assault education across the nation recently, it seems fitting to dive into one of the platforms that have the power to help or hurt this cause.
Before we jump into how television portrays sexual assault, one must decide if we are even allowed to hold networks accountable for the works they are creating. Where does the creative license end and the need for public service begin? Are networks responsible for shedding light on certain issues and making sure to do it in both a tasteful yet attention catching way? According to a study done in 2012 by Nielsen, a company that handles TV ratings and other information, reported that the average American was spending more than 37 hours watching television (Hinckley 2014.) This number did not account for the shows being watched on other devices, which is becoming more and more common each year. Any medium that reaches that many people at such a constant rate should to some degree be held accountable for the information they are putting out into the world.  Networks need to be very conscious of what they are portraying and how they are portraying it.
Now trying to take on a storyline that involves rape is an especially large task that needs to be handled with care. Not only is sexual assault a heavy topic in general, but the fact that one in five women in the U.S have been victims of it adds that extra pressure of displaying it in the right light. In an article called “Rape on TV- More Than Just a Plot Twist”, author Jaclyn Friedman talks about her experience with television depictions of these situations, coming from someone who was sexually assaulted earlier in life. She talks about how despite the fact that it was over 20 years ago, many assault scenes in movies still leave her feeling uneasy and sometimes even unable to keep watching the show. Later Friedman goes on to say “I never want narrative television to stop depicting rape. Television is perfectly suited to telling complex, challenging stories that evolve over time. And TV’s national and international audiences are certainly in need of better understanding of all of the issues surrounding sexual violence." (Friedman 2014.) Which goes along with my earlier point that TV should be held responsible for what it puts out to its audiences because it does have the capability to reach large audiences and create such complex, striking story lines. The fact that rape has continued to be an issue, up until recently, that has mostly remained untouched in the public eye, positions it as a perfect problem to showcase in a television show. Doing this would finally get the word out and get people talking. But the real issue is; is if there is even a right way to do this.
When we see a sexual assault scene on a TV show, are we more uncomfortable and baffled by the fact they put that in or do we begin to think about the real issue attached? If it’s the first one, which I believe in many cases it is, then it becomes a conversation about whether or not the network should’ve made that move and if it was good for the storyline. This takes the focus off of what is truly important and that is showcasing the horrible crime that is rape and hopefully empowering the victim to rise above. I think television shows have trouble highlighting rape in the correct way due to the fact there are so many components that would need to be implemented to make it a comprehensive education.
This trouble springs from the ideas of rape myths. These myths include the mindset of “they asked for it” and the idea that men cannot always control their sexual urges so it is not their fault (Breines 2014.) In the psychology today article “She Asked for It: The Impact of Rape Myths” the author Juliana Breines talks about the connection between how strongly one believes the rape myths and likelihood of committing it or not viewing it as an issue. This may help explain why it is difficult to portray rape in the correct way on television because some of these rape myths are so engrained in our culture that it is hard to realize that’s not how things actually are and we are just making the problem worse.
One show that recently got a lot of heat for their rape scene was a British drama series, Downton Abbey. Many times when a show inserts a sexual assault scene it is being done purely to add excitement to
the storyline or character. This is extremely frowned upon because of its touchy nature already and that’s exactly what Downton did with their character Annie. Now I do not personally watch the show but when I accidentally spoiled this episode for my roommate who does watch it, her response was one of surprise. Not necessarily because someone got raped, but more so because it was a character that doesn’t really do much and is happily married. That statement simultaneously shows that the episode did it for the drama, not the cause, AND  introduces another  very common rape myth. There is no way Annie could’ve been raped, she is happily married, she never gets in to trouble, she wasn’t asking for it! Despite the fact that it is pretty obvious Downton was just using this scene as a plot device, they did one thing right in showing that it could really happen to anyone.
That’s really all of the praise they are going to receive from me though, because just about every other aspect of it was pretty off and unsettling. One of the most important components of portraying such a horrific crime on TV, is making sure to focus on the victim. Whoever it was, the show should make it a point to follow their struggles and strength, not the aggressor or anyone related. In Friedman’s article she talks about how awful it is that Downton’s main focus after the event is how the husband might react if he finds out, not how Annie is doing. What is confusing about this episode though, is that there is so much worry about what the husbands going to think, but then on the one seems to question or judge Annie. Obviously this comes off as something really positive and the viewer is happy that people feel sorry for her and understand, but it is not realistic at all.
One of the most striking parts about rape culture is how people react to it. As much as we would all like to say we would be understanding and compassionate (not saying any of you wouldn’t be) but a lot of the time the response in the U.S is one of blame. Downton Abbey does nothing of the sort. Leaving all of that out of the storyline goes to show that the writers really are just using it as a shock and awe tactic instead of trying to get people talking about the real issue at hand.
Rape and rape culture in general is a heavy topic to take on and I will give any network who attempts to a little pat on the back but it really comes down to a matter of using it for ratings or using it for education. Given trying to portray it as real as possible can be difficult and very unsettling for viewers so it must be done with great caution and understanding. And who knows, the real problem might not even be the TV shows inability to show rape culture for what it is, but the viewers inability to process it and start an intelligent dialogue to do something about it because of how taboo the topic is in our society. Hopefully one day a TV show will shock people enough to kick start some change and not just in the ratings.

Breines, J.. N.p.. Web. 28 Mar 2014. <>.Hinckley, D.. N.p.. Web. 30 Mar 2014. <>.Jaclyn, Friedman. N.p.. Web. 30 Mar 2014. <—more-just-plot-twist>. 


  1. I appreciate you discussing the difficult topic of sexual assault in television. Your points are valid, more specifically, talking about Downtown Abbey in relation to necessity of sexual assault instances. I would like to see a development as to what you think a proper call to action by television would be when it comes to rape culture portrayals.

  2. I think it is great you chose this topic because it is a concerning topic not many people are comfortable with approaching. I think your point is valid how television shows need to make sure they are using it in an educational way- instead of raising their ratings. Rape on television may be insulting to other rape victims or plain horrific to others; which in the end might lower the shows ratings. I think television series are using rape for drama as well, which might be making our culture more immune to the topic.

  3. You did a good job discussing a difficult topic. I think you make a good point about people watching TV for an allotted amount of time a day so television companies should maybe take responsibility to talk about important topics. There are commercials about starving children in other countries, endangered animals, and safe driving. I just don't know how this would work for rape; I don't think a commercial might be the appropriate way to approach this topic so it is up to the programs to handle them in a correct way.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.