Rape as a TV trope is more common than ever. But while some series make strides to tackle the subject in a profound and eye-opening manner, others opt for over-sexualized rape plots that are thrown in purely for shock value. Survivors’ struggles are often pushed aside to make room for a more fast-paced, "gritty" narrative, leaving viewers wondering whether the sexual assault was necessary to advance the characters’ story. Sometimes, the scenes in question even make fans feel so sick they abandon watching the show forever.
It’s important to note, however, that rape on television can be executed responsibly, and in a sensitive manner. Veronica Mars was always praised for the way in which it handled sexual assault. Jessica Jones is another example of a show where rape isn’t used purely for dramatic effect, but to navigate the emotional ramifications of sexual assault. Outlander, despite its extremely graphic scenes, also did a good job at illustrating Jamie’s struggles in the aftermath of his brutal attack. Orange is the New Black also tackled the subject tactfully, making Pennsatucky’s storyline feel as raw and realistic as possible.
That’s exactly why TV shows that simply use sexual assault as a plot point can be frustrating to watch. From Game of Thrones to True Blood to Scandal, there have been several irresponsible portrayals of rape on TV in recent memory. These are all mainstream shows, not controversial indie movies one might seek out purely for the outrageous storylines. We’re not even talking about series like Law and Order: SVU, for instance, where the whole premise relies on the prevalence of sexual violence in day-to-day life.
Using gratuitous rape scenes to advance plot lines is not only lazy, but can be disappointing and disheartening to survivors. Instead of focusing on delivering graphic and shocking scenes, TV writers who want to address the issue should spend more time talking to experts and victims. When that doesn’t happen, the psychological consequences of sexual assault can easily become an afterthought. Here are a few poorly handled representations of sexual violence on TV that left a sour taste in viewers’ mouths.
To say that Game of Thrones is a graphic show would be an understatement. But while sometimes the on-screen violence is necessary, other times it’s there purely to boost ratings and give viewers something to talk about around the water cooler.
The way in which the show treats its female characters has often been criticized, especially since Game of Thrones has been a rape-heavy show from early on. In the pilot, Daenerys is sexually assaulted by her new husband, Khal Drogo. In Season 4, Jamie rapes Cersei next to Joffrey’s dead body. There are countless references to rape, and numerous scenes portraying sexual violence during the series’ run.
However, the show really crossed the line when is showed Sansa’s wedding night horror in Season 5. Sansa is raped by Ramsay Bolton, her new husband, while her foster brother Theon Greyjoy is forced to watch. The scene caused a lot of controversy, with many fans threatening to quit the show (and some websites stopping promotion altogether). Detractors insisted the rape was gratuitous, useless, and merely a plot device to trigger Theon’s redemption story.
Honestly? They had good reason. We already knew Ramsay was sadistic, so showing us the rape accomplishes absolutely nothing. It’s a good thing that Sansa eventually gets her sweet revenge in Season 6, but that doesn’t excuse the explicit and pointless nature of the wedding night rape scene, and the lack of emotional fall out that followed.
Back when it was still good, Scandal was a show full of shocking plot twist and outrageous storylines, often tackling sensitive subjects with some much-needed delicacy. That’s why it was so disappointing when, in Season 3, viewers found out that Mellie Grant, the First Lady, was raped by her father-in-law long before Fitz became president.
The scene was heartbreaking, but it also felt like a cheap shot. Back then, Mellie was one of the most despised characters on the show. Showing her rape was basically a lazy way to buy sympathy for a woman portrayed as cold and conniving in the present timeline.
Of course, given that Scandal is fast-paced and rarely deals with emotional issues with more than a rapid-fire monologue or a couple of lingering stares, it skipped to the next scene as if nothing happened. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to create a multi-layered character, but in this instance it just didn’t work. Luckily, Mellie evolved into a well-rounded character during subsequent seasons, especially following the death of her son.
The consensus seems to be that The Newsroom is, generally speaking, a preachy and flawed show. But when it tackled campus rape with impecably bad timing (Rolling Stone had just published a badly-received report on a gang rape at the University of Virginia and the Cosby scandal was reaching its zenith), critics stopped being polite and called out the series for its shameless victim blaming and complete lack of sensitivity towards the subject.
Although the campus rape storyline was just a subplot in an already over-stuffed Season 3 episode, The Newsroom sparked controversy because it suggested campus rape should not be covered. An executive producer from the cable network, Don, pre-interviews a rape victim, Mary, in her dorm room. Feeling outraged that her two rapists were not arrested, Mary created a site where men could be accused anonymously of rape.
While Don initially seems sympathetic, he eventually admits he also heard one of the accused rapist’s side of the story and that he feels morally obligated to believe him. Don also suggests that her website is unfair to the men who might have their futures ruined following false accusations and lack of due process.
Moreover, he warns her that participating in a live debate with the accused rapist will result in her being slut-shamed. Now, there’s no doubt such a debate would be a horrible idea, but Don argues for no coverage at all, and the show presents that as a reasonable, measured response. And that’s just wrong.
True Blood was a show with plenty of sex and violence. Besides the ridiculously hot vampires, this was its main appeal. It was addictive, intoxicating, and highly entertaining at times. But it was also rife with gratuitous rape themes that existed for no reason other than to provide shock value. Two instances were particularly problematic.
First off, we have Tara, who was kidnapped by a disturbed vampire named Franklin in Season 3. He rapes her, terrorizes her, starves her, and plans to turn her into a vampire so he can spend eternity making her miserable. She’s victimized for no real purpose other than to make the viewers cringe. Not only that, but Franklin is portrayed as a funny and charming guy, and he’s given some of the best one-liners of the series. After Tara escapes, she is shown briefly attending exactly one support meeting before her rape storyline is abandoned forever.
Next, we have the lovable Jason, who is also kidnapped and repeatedly raped in Season 4. Jason’s attackers – several women who rape him over the course of a few days – are also portrayed as redeemable. They’ve been abused themselves, and they’re desperate. After he escapes, his rape story is brushed aside as well. He has a short scene with his best friend where Jason postulates that God punished him for having too much sex, and that’s about it.
In short, after being weirdly glamorized, both Jason and Tara’s rapes are overlooked to make room for more action-packed sequences. No real aftermath required.