Remote Control Rape

22 / 05 / 2014

Television shows featuring powerful and complex women characters are irresistible to a female audience, as long as they aren’t misusing sexual violence as an empty narrative device, writes Karen Pickering.

**Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence on screen**

Television is a cultural medium on a high. Despite the delivery systems i.e. networks, being in major crisis due to decreased advertising spends and increased piracy, the artform itself is arguable outperforming film in terms of cultural capital and actually is a far more fertile ground for women makers, showrunners, writers and characters. Some of the biggest shows in the world are written by, driven by or are about women, and allow women’s stories and realities to be reflected through fiction in meaningful ways, such as Orange is The New Black or The Good Wife. Some of them are just jolly good fun, like Parks and Recreation or Veep. One of the most hotly debated of late is Game of Thrones.

There are plenty of reasons to watch Game of Thrones. It could be the incredibly lavish production values, where the dollars drip off every set, costume and backdrop. It could be the stunning performances from fine actors like Lena Headey, Diana Rigg and Michelle Fairley or the great one-liners that nearly every character gets from time to time. For some people, I’m sure it’s the gratuitous, graphic violence and sex, pendulous bosoms swinging through most episodes, and casual nudity of both genders offset by spectacular fight sequences and battles to behold. There are incredibly beautiful men and women in armour and fur and jewelled frocks, direwolves and castles, zombies and dragons and witches, oh my! It’s an absurd show, with a deeply silly premise, that operates almost identically to a pantomime. There are goodies and baddies (and yes, some who are confusingly both), and there are so many contenders for the Iron Throne that we know nobody can stay on it very long. “Look behind you!” would be very useful advice for many a denizen of Westeros, right before they meet a sticky end.

But recently there’s been a lot of discussion about why people have stopped watching it, especially women. These commentators, much like me, come from the standpoint of having once been fans and now finding it more and more untenable to keep watching. You see, we could handle all the cartoonish violence and faintly ridiculous over-the-top sex-a-thons, because the show had a kind of deeply silly charm that rather evaporates when graphic rape scenes keep recurring as a diversion from the plot. I say diversion because rape is not a subject I’d ever want to see banned from screens, I feel like women are being more upfront in their demand that a storyteller will exercise caution when using sexual violence as a narrative device.

Not to say that Game of Thrones is the only offender. It’s difficult to name a cop or crime show that hasn’t used rape or sexual violence as a plot point, nor a mystery series, legal procedural or teen drama. I’d argue that it can sometimes be an incredibly effective exploration of the complexities around consent, power and victim blaming, but often it’s just a lazy shortcut to tell us something about the characters. She is damaged and angry and seeking vengeance, you see, because she was raped. He is unpredictable and out of control and blinded by white hot rage, because his girlfriend/sister/wife was raped. This man is Very Bad, because he raped someone. This woman will Never Be The Same because somebody raped her.

I’ve seen utterly brilliant subversions of this laziness and predictability though, where rape is an integral part of a story, and is used to tell the audience something they didn’t know before, or forces them to consider a viewpoint they don’t like. The Fall, starring Gillian Anderson as a hard-boiled, no-nonsense senior detective called in to solve a series of grisly rapes and murders, is very clear in its use of her character as a foil to the victim blaming and slut shaming engaged in by her fellow officers. This gives the show a chance to challenge these prevailing ideas by having the main character, with whom we identify, display a zero tolerance attitude to blaming victims or even implicating them.

In a lighter context, Veronica Mars is a character whose entire mission is to discover who raped her and left her alone at a party she attended with friends, a scenario that must be familiar to many of the audience who tuned it. But rather than succumb to the social pressure to feel shame and disappear, Veronica turns the tables on the people colluding to protect her attacker, and at great cost to herself and others, pursues them relentlessly in order to make them pay for their sexual violation of her. That makes it pretty subversive for a teen mystery drama with a comedy edge.

By contrast, Scandal, the political drama starring Kerry Washington as a ruthless political operative, largely praised for its somewhat progressive gender politics (the women are every bit as diabolical as the men, it must be said), included a storyline in the first season where a man had shot his wife’s attacker during the commission of a rape. The team of fixers worked on how to protect the man (a high-ranking government official) from prosecution all the while unawares that (SPOILER) the dead man was in fact the wife’s secret lover and the sex was consensual. I was furious that the episode trivialised rape by featuring a woman lying about it to hide an affair, and that the revelation she had lied feeds into the completely toxic myth that false rape allegations are commonplace and a tactic used by women to ruin men’s lives. That’s when I stopped watching it.

While other huge hit shows like True Detective, Breaking Bad and Mad Men all arguable essentialise women’s experience, using the female characters as vehicles to reveal something about the men, other shows like Game of Thrones, that depict women exerting control over their own lives, and the lives of men, will always hold a particular appeal for women viewers. As long as they don’t go down the path of alienating them and then wondering where half the audience went.


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