I had serious doubts when I heard that Private Practice was planning an episode in which one of the characters would be violently raped. It sounded icky, exploitative, and self-promotional. But they pulled it off — mostly. In the terms of the show, anyway, which are very specific: high-end melodrama, a commercial style as legitimate as anything else on television.
Just to state my biases up front, I’ve never been a fan of Grey’s Anatomy. Even in the first season, the love triangles made me roll my eyes. But the one thing that series and its spinoff always had going for them, even to a non-fan like me, was their array of bold, messy, intimacy-impaired, tough-girl female characters, the favorite subject of the show’s creator, Shonda Rhimes. (Read a good Q&A with her here.)
And while I’ve watched a few episodes of the spinoff Private Practice, I wasn’t up to date on Charlotte (KaDee Strickland), the smart-mouthed Southerner engaged to the adorable Coop. The opening sequence made me nervous — the classical music, the wavering camera following a beaten Charlotte from behind, her bloody hands wiping against a glass door. But then, in quick, bold strokes, the story became clear: Charlotte had been raped by a stranger, a mental patient. She insisted it was only a mugging. She refused a rape kit. She told only one other doctor, Addison, the series’s main character, but then insisted Addison tell no one else, including Charlotte’s fiancé.
Very much in the tradition of Grey’s Anatomy, it was all over-the-top: a vicious beating, a psychotic stranger, and a woman so tough she took 50 stitches without medication. And yet, in those scenes of Charlotte being treated, there was real power, even nuance, amid the heightened dialogue. When Charlotte’s fiancé showed up, drunk and confused (he’d been out at a party), Charlotte ended up comforting him. She got those stitches because she was a recovering addict. And there was plenty of peripheral drama, particularly among the women, who shot one another glances, suspecting what might have really happened. There was the question of whether she’d been wearing underpants. There was the terrible pelvic exam.
In the episode’s climactic sequence, Charlotte confronts Addison, who wants her to file charges. In what was clearly Rhimes’s mission statement, Charlotte contrasted her rape with rapes in “made-for-TV movies.” In these gauzy victim narratives, she says mockingly, the woman rocks in the shower crying, and when the rape happens, her eyes go blank so she can go somewhere else. “It’s nothing like that,” she says bitterly. “It’s dirty and sweaty and he licks your face and he wipes himself off in your hair and when you try to scream he punches you so hard you see God.”
Of course, this was a TV show — it was working its own clichés. Still, you could tell that this raw description had come from somewhere, that it was an attempt at making this story truly explicit, and not merely in a prurient way. And of course, the context was meaningful, because for all the publicity this plot has generated, network television overflows with raped women. They’re the central subject of CSI and Law & Order, although on those shows (with some exceptions, like Law & Order: SVU), the victims mostly have cameos, often as half-naked corpses.
Was Charlotte’s speech melodramatic? Definitely. It also had a chiding quality, suggesting that this drama was the only authentic one, which it’s not, especially compared with cable television. The Sopranos, Mad Men, Dexter, and Sons of Anarchy have all featured unsettling rape plots in recent years, each one featuring central characters who reacted with fury and denial. (And in fact, the notion of the “tough woman who tries to power through her trauma” is by now as fetishized as any notion of fragility.) But there are reasons some viewers prefer melodrama to cinematic high-art storytelling. Melodrama, with its broad strokes, can be a particularly effective way to dramatize an experience so heightened and so horrible. These experiences are melodramatic.
The part that didn’t work as well was the police interrogation. It didn’t help that Charlotte’s rapist was played by Nicholas Brendon, a.k.a. Xander from Buffy (what’s with all the sweet nerds from my favorite teen shows showing up as rapists? It wasn’t that long ago that sweet Brian Krakow date-raped Felicity’s best friend). It also didn’t help that by the time he broke down under interrogation — spilling misogynist excuses like “she was asking for it” — it was clear the guy was likely schizophrenic, and in some sense, not responsible for his actions. Worse, you could feel the season’s machinery turning: The rapist would be set free, Charlotte wouldn’t file charges, he might threaten another woman in the hospital, she might decide to take him to trial during sweeps.
The other part that made me so uncomfortable I was practically twitching was the final scene, in which Charlotte — fragile, furious, exposed — walked down the hall of the hospital. As that same classical music played, the sequence cut back and forth into visuals of the rape itself, a scenario that operated, as such sequences inevitably do, as the episode’s climax. Some of the shots were extreme close-ups, others happened at a distance, and you could feel the TV creators struggling, and not entirely succeeding, to find a visual vocabulary to break through the clichés they were using. But there may simply be no way to solve this dilemma: No matter how well-motivated, a rape scene is a sex scene, and TV shows are fantasies. This one wasn’t sexy, but there was part of me that didn’t want them to show it at all.