Rape on TV—More Than Just a Plot Twist

Mild spoiler warning for U.S. Downton Abbey viewers.

Courtesy of PBS/Masterpiece

Oh, Anna. Couldn't you have become a Jazz Baby or something?

For those who missed out, this Sunday's episode of the British upstairs/downstairs saga Downton Abbey wrapped up with a visiting valet abruptly raping beloved ladies' maid Anna. I wasn't the only one tempted to break up with the Crawleys over it. Downton's clumsy attempt came right on the heels of another botched rape plot, Scandal's flashback rape of First Lady Mellie at the hands of her father-in-law. 

How these shows handle rape matters. I was sexually assaulted over 20 years ago, and even after all this time, unexpectedly watching Fitz' dad rape Mellie on Scandal kept me up into the wee hours that night. When it was Anna's turn, I turned off the TV and curled up in a ball.

That said, 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. But for all the dramatic and social good rape as a theme can bring to television, rape as a plot device is manipulative and damaging. It’s a difference of intention—why are we doing a rape plotline now?—and comes down to the execution. While Downton’s plot twist was more cynically deployed than Scandal’s, both shows exploited the drama of rape instead of exploring the realities of it. 

Of course, a show like Scandal, which tells the story of damaged people doing damage control (and damaging each other some more) at the highest levels of D.C.'s power ladder, trades in all kinds of awful violence. On a show that featured a woman chewing her own wrists open, one could ask why rape should be treated with kid gloves? Because culturally, rape is really, really different than the other violence. People tend to be believed when they claim to have been kidnapped. The legal system takes domestic assassinations seriously. There is no epidemic of interrogation-by-tooth-extraction on our campuses or in our communities. 

Moreover, most people watching Scandal haven't been waterboarded. But nearly one in five women in the U.S. is a victim of rape or attempted rape. (The data on men as victims is less reliable, but there are more than you'd think.) And the bulk of those victims—around 80 percent—were violated before they were 25. Even TV producers who don't care about the well-being of their viewers should know that ill-considered rape stories risk alienating the precious 18-25 demo. 

What's more, we know that when the media perpetuates common rape myths, it makes it harder for victims to report, harder for cops and prosecutors and judges and juries to take them seriously when they do, and harder for rapists to identify their own behavior as wrong.

All of which is to say: If you're going to depict rape on TV, it's going to have an outsized impact. Here are seven key ways TV shows can make sure that impact is good for both story and society: 

1) Don't use rape to make a character more "interesting." On Downton, the rape was used primarily to cause a "shocking" conflict for snoozily happy couple Anna and Bates. On Scandal, the rape flashback woven into a Mellie-centric episode seems to have been used to make bitter, conniving Mellie more sympathetic (and that was definitely the show’s avid fans’ response on Twitter). But rape doesn't make people better. It doesn't give its victims new personalities. And there are a hundred other ways to give a one-note character nuance, as both of these shows have demonstrated plenty of times. Boring Lady Edith pursued an affair with a farmer—instant character development! Cyrus Beene, who ordered a hit on his husband when said husband became a threat to his political career, revealed in a heartbreaking scene that own his presidential ambitions had been curdled by the impossibility of a current-day gay president. That's some sympathetic backstory. Rape as a way to jazz up your stuck plot or character arc isn't just exploitative. It's lazy. 

2) Don't oversimplify the players. On Scandala show in which even lying, torturing spydaddies and philandering, murderer presidents are painted in shades of gray—Mellie is raped by the only recurring character never shown to have any redeeming qualities. He’s a straight-up villain. The flip is true on Downton, where the rapist is a well-liked guest downstairs but victim is angelic Anna, who has no perceptible flaws beyond a raging case of the borings. It's also worth noting that both shows chose victims who are white, female "good girl" types. (Mellie may not be so good now, but Scandal takes pains to show that she certainly was that type before she was raped.)

When we imagine rapists as irredeemable monsters, it's harder to make charges stick against real, complex people who commit rape. Depicting victims as beyond reproach similarly makes it harder for those of us who have flaws and quirks, or whose lived realities don't live up to cultural expectations of "good" womanhood, to find justice and healing when someone violates our bodies. If Downton really wanted to explore a rape theme, how much more interesting a story would it have been had the victim been the prickly (and mildly slutty) Edith, or even the vile and sort-of-sad closet case Thomas? Casting cardboard cutouts as perp or victim is hacky and harmful. 

3) Make the story about the victim. One of the worst parts of Downton's handling of the subject has yet to air in the U.S.—the rest of the season focuses the central drama on Anna's husband’s (potential) reactions, not on Anna’s own struggles to survive and heal. 

Too often in real life, when a victim speaks up about being raped, we see communities fixate on the impact on the rapist, or on the reputation of the town, or on the football team. Falling into the same trap on TV is modeling the wrong thing, and may make survivors in the audience feel even more marginalized. 

4) Expose rape culture. Strangely, Downton seems to have gone out of its way to create a pretend world in which not one person ever questions Anna's account of the assault. Not a single person says to the ladies' maid, "Well, what were you doing alone with him in the first place?" No one suggests she led him on with flirting, or was confused about what had happened. Very few survivors in 2014 will meet with such universal understanding and support, let alone a lower-class woman in the 1920s British countryside. 

It's possible that Downton’s creator Julian Fellowes purposely did this in an attempt to model ideal behavior, but whatever his motives, it erases the enormous victim-blaming most rape survivors face. It would have been much more powerful (as well as better drama) to show Anna struggling in the face of others' distrust. There would be no need to hang her out to dry entirely—perhaps Mrs. Hughes could have been an ally, but Lady Mary more suspicious? By whitewashing reality, Downton missed an opportunity to show the real impact on survivors when they are not believed. At least Scandal got real about Mellie's decision to stay silent about what Fitz's father did to her, and in so doing illustrated the ways that silence can poison. 

5) Convey the value of recovery and support. Scandal sidestepped this question, instead showing the damage that can be done when victims are cut off from recovery or support. But in Downton, Anna seems to heal miraculously over the season, largely based on how secure she is at any given moment that Bates isn't risking the gallows by chasing revenge. Outside of that Batesian focus, we barely see her struggle with grief, or anger, or intimacy, or PTSD, or really anything else most rape survivors grapple with for years. As long as Bates isn't going to get himself hanged, its seems nothing else matters.

Contrast this with a show like Private Practice, which won accolades for its plotline exploring the aftermath of a brutal assault on tough-as-nails surgeon Charlotte. We see Charlotte at first not wanting to tell anyone, not wanting to report, not wanting to get help. We see the other main characters each trying to find their way to let her know they were there for her. Charlotte gets to make some tentative strides and then have new outbursts and struggles, because healing is never linear. The show showed over time what supporting a survivor can look like, and the short- and long-term effects on the survivor of different kinds of support.

6) Take care of your viewers. Content advisories in advance of any episode that depicts rape are a must. But even more than that, a message at the end of the episode encouraging survivors (and anyone else upset by the content) not only lets viewers know that it is an issue to be taken seriously, but that its depiction can have a real-world impact in the lives of audience members. In the wake of Glee's episode about sexual abuse, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that their Online Hotline usage was up by 60 percent, while calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline rose 80 percent. And because one of the survivors depicted was male, calls from male-identified people were up even in comparison to the general spike in activity. 

Of course, in our current media landscape, that also means that embedding those messages into the episode itself is crucial: Those content warnings and resource messages have to come through on every platform, not just the broadcast edition. 

7) Above all: Take rape seriously before the cameras start rolling. If shows want to take on rape in ways that don't harm their viewers (or just lose them), they have to do their homework at every level. Writers, producers, actors and network execs all need to get their research on before the story is broken, not after the episode airs. Organizations like RAINN and CounterQuo can connect shows with experts and survivors for background, and advise them on how to roll out a compelling story that does good in the world and well in the ratings. 

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