The other night, my friend and I were searching for something to watch and landed on Nocturnal Animals. Unaware of the content, we were halfway through when – spoiler – the abduction, rape and murder of a mother and daughter prompted my friend, a rape survivor, to break down in tears.
“I’m sorry I suggested we watch it,” I said, cursing myself for being so stupid.
“Don’t worry,” she said, “Honestly. It happens all the time.”
I wasn’t sure if she was talking about sexual assault, or chancing upon scenes of rape in TV and film. It could have been both, given that one in five women aged between 16 and 59 in the UK have experienced some form of sexual violence, and given that a series like Game of Thrones, which depicts rape almost as often as it does conversations, can still be the most popular show in networks HBO and Sky’s history.
There are no actual statistics for how many rape scenes are televised or make it onto cinema screens each year, but when I asked my friend for some other recent examples, she gave me these: Top of the Lake, Westworld, The Handmaid’s Tale, Apple Tree Yard and Poldark. She boycotted Paul Verhoeven’s notorious rape movie, Elle, earlier this year because from all the negative press it generated, she knew better than to see it, but the amount of times she’s been made to watch scenes of sexual violence in the cinema with no warning is startling.
My friend jokes that she probably watches too much TV anyway, but that’s beside the point. The point is: Why should the onus fall on her to avoid TV shows that might triggeringly portray sexual violence in a gratuitous, violent and callous manner? Especially when the result is such a painful and visceral reaction. “Usually it catches me by surprise,” she explains. “It’s not something I personally think about day to day but often, on screen, I’m suddenly confronted with it. It’ll stir a very deep emotion, a well of sadness, and really takes you back there – to what is, for me, something I try not to think about at all.”
Pavan Amara runs My Body Back, a support group for women who’ve experienced sexual assault. A sexual assault survivor herself, she started the group in 2014 after noticing the lack of resources for women who’ve been raped to navigate eroticism and intimacy afterwards. She’s heard from service users that depictions of rape on screen can be detrimental to recovery not just because seeing the act itself is triggering, as my friend and so many other women have found, but because they so often depict the woman as a victim rather than a survivor.
“Another thing I see over and over again,” says Pavan, “is the story told through the eyes of the perpetrator or another person in the story and rarely told through the eyes of the person who was raped.” Think: most crime dramas. “A lot of cases depict gratuitous violence or the crime being committed by a stranger, too,” she points out, when actually, 90% of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. “It’s always used as a plot device, a twist or turn in the tale, but never grounded in what an awful crime it is or how it actually affects the woman’s life.”
For film critic, academic and feminist writer Sophie Mayer, film and TV “remains a rape machine”, the emphasis being on “remains”. In other words, this is nothing new. “As [film theorist] Laura Mulvey famously argued in 1975, and as [Michael Powell’s] Peeping Tom demonstrated a decade earlier, the camera is a weapon that has been used to objectify and violate since its invention – not just women, but also non-white people, and people who are differently abled. The whole of Euro-Western culture is pump-primed around sadism as spectacle and narrative.”
It’s not something I think about day to day but often, on screen, I’m suddenly confronted with it. It’ll stir a very deep emotion, a well of sadness, and really takes you back there – to something I try not to think about at all.
The commonality and treatment of rape in cinema makes Sophie “furious and anxious” enough not to go to the cinema. “I almost saw Passengers and then heard more about it and was just bewildered that it existed and that the director thought it was ‘romantic’," she says. “I fucking hate that films like Nocturnal Animals are seen as cool and transgressive.” Sophie advocates seeing films made by women and which do right by their female characters and boycotting or calling out films that get it dangerously wrong – but that’s still not enough, she says.
“This is a wider structural problem,” she explains. “We need to flip the question: Not whose onus is it to avoid rape in cinema, but whose fantasy is this? Who benefits from seeing violent rape onscreen? Why does patriarchal culture keep insisting on this spectacle? And individual male writers and directors keep fulfilling it?” She points to an article by April Wolfe in LA Weekly on the actors and actresses who have to enact rape as part of their job: “If all these male filmmakers and performers find it so upsetting (and I'm sure they do), why does it carry on?”
Pavan agrees with Sophie that the responsibility should not fall on women to look out for trigger warnings or avoid TV and film altogether, but on the industry. “I think part of the reason scripts are failing is that the writers tend to be white men, and they just don’t know how to write about these things if it’s far from what they’ve experienced. There’s a lack of understanding and diversity.” She experienced this first-hand, after being approached by TV companies to have My Body Back feature in documentaries, or to develop a drama that captures the reality of what women go through after sexual assault. In the end, neither got the green light from executives.
Change is beginning to happen, however. And I’m not just talking about rape revenge plots where the woman retaliates by killing her rapist. According to Jezebel, Bryan Fuller, the American scriptwriter for the series Hannibal and American Gods, sent a memo to his team saying he didn’t want any sexual violence in the former. And geeky American entertainment website The Mary Sue decided to stop reporting on Game of Thrones in disagreement with the show’s penchant for sexual violence storylines.
In the UK, Pavan maintains that it’s not all bad: “Happy Valley was a series that got it right for me. It’s written by a woman, Sally Wainwright, the character who was raped felt three-dimensional, and it discussed the rape a year on from when it happened. What I like most about it though was that they depicted how humour can be a way of coping in the darkest times after rape, and that might sound strange but I know from working with a lot of women that this can be the case.”
When films and TV shows come under fire for depicting rape, they continue to make the argument that rape happens in the media because it happens in real life. When Game of Thrones hit the headlines for showing over 50 rape scenes across what had then been just five seasons, the writer of the books on which it is based came forward and told The New York Times: “An artist has the obligation to tell the truth.” Emmerdale actress Zoe Henry made the same argument when the show drew criticism for depicting rape at 7pm earlier this year.
When I put this defence to my friend, she said: “Of course this is a social issue that happens to real people; I should know, I was one of them. But the question producers need to ask is to what end are you portraying it? When it’s cinematic, high-violence rape, I think the answer is obvious: to titillate audiences.” She believes that a more intelligent discussion of rape might help reduce it and Pavan agrees: “I’ve seen the way that the media handles rape play into the general consciousness around rape, and that includes government attitudes.”
Maybe it’s time more TV execs and film producers listened to the many women who have experienced rape themselves, then. “We’re fed the violence of the act, not the strength of the woman for overcoming it,” Pavan concludes. “The rape itself is a very small part of the story for a woman; the long-term story starts afterwards, how she handles it and what she does. That story is rarely told.”