The revelation that Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris featured a nonconsensual rape scene has reignited conversations around sexual assault onscreen. This discussion has dominated the TV landscape in recent years, with Game of Thrones receiving backlash for its ongoing tendency to subject female characters to gratuitous acts of sexual violence. In an in-depth piece for Variety, TV critic Maureen Ryan spoke to a number of writers and showrunners about TV’s onscreen rape epidemic, and found that, much like viewers, many are feeling fatigue with the ubiquity of sexual violence as a go-to plot device.
Exorcist EP Jeremy Slater describes it as “a plague on the industry,” adding that when he was choosing writers for his forthcoming horror series, 30 to 40 of the 200 submitted scripts featured rape scenes.
“For male showrunners, sexual assault is always the go-to when looking for ‘traumatic backstory’ for a female character,” explains one female writer. “You can use it as a reason for anything she might do. She’s ‘damaged goods,’ physically, emotionally and mentally, and I think that is a bad, bad message to send to women who have been sexually assaulted.”
Ryan points to the overcrowded TV landscape as a motivation for the current onscreen “arms race,” in which depicting extreme violence becomes a way to garner attention amid a glut of competition. Rape becomes an easy plot device to fall back on when writers are looking to inject drama and emotion into a narrative. “The nexus of sex and violence is the cinematic equivalent of a cheap sugar rush,” explains Michelle Lovretta, EP and showrunner of Lost Girl and Killjoys. “It’s a fast-hitting combo of a lot of powerful inputs — titillation, taboo, character conflict, deep betrayal. In one scene, you could change the narrative arcs of a whole swath of your characters, and that kind of bomb can be pretty tempting for storytellers.”
Yet, encouragingly, a number of the showrunners and execs Ryan spoke with expressed the desire to end the use of rape as a cheap narrative device. “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,” says American Gods EP and co-showrunner Bryan Fuller, who banned writers from using sexual violence as a plot point on his previous show Hannibal. “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.”
Which is not to say that rape shouldn’t be dealt with onscreen, just that there are ways to depict sexual assault that don’t trivialize the experience or use it as fodder for a male character’s growth. Ryan points to Jessica Jones, The Americans, Rectify, Sweet and Vicious, Orange Is the New Black, Queen Sugar and the Shondaland shows as examples of programming that has presented nuanced and sensitive depictions of sexual violence. One thread common to most (but not all) of these shows: the presence of female voices behind the scenes. We know that if we want better depictions of women on TV, we need more women in TV; while numbers have improved, female creatives are still underrepresented across the board. “More female voices are needed, obviously, but what’s also crucial is that men learn how to listen to women and let go of their perceptions,” said one female writer. “People need to push back against these assumptions about what makes a female character interesting, especially in prestige TV, where these ideas seem to be ever-present.”
“Sometimes going there is valid and powerful. Sometimes it’s lazy and exploitative,” adds Lovretta. “The difference comes down to why you’re telling this story, who you’re telling it through, and what you’re saying in the process.”