In the past month, two popular shows offered brutal depictions of rape, with beloved main characters becoming victims of assault. One show, Game of Thrones, has been widely chastised for how it handled Sansa Stark’s wedding-night rape. The other, Outlander, received mostly positive feedback for its depiction of Jamie Fraser’s rape and torture.
Sansa and Jamie may be fictional characters, but their stories have started an important conversation, drawing attention to a vital missing piece in the long history of how sexual violence has been portrayed on television: What happens to survivors afterward, and how can depicting these traumatic experiences on TV educate and inform viewers about sexual assault?
In the aftermath of Sansa's and Jamie’s rapes, Amy Zimmerman wrote an article in The Daily Beast about TV’s current golden age of “rape glut,” which can be identified on shows like Game of Thrones and Law & Order: SVU. She defined it as “a crime procedural template that doesn’t allow for the psychological complexities of trauma and recovery, and the constant, merciless, explicit exploitation of the theme of women’s disposability in a patriarchal world.”
Bryan Fuller, creator of Hannibal, echoed Zimmerman’s theory in a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly. “The reason the rape well is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that happens. There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience.”
Fuller has chosen not to include sexual violence plot lines on Hannibal because, “[Y]ou don’t have the real estate in 42 minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape…All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.”
Speaking with Refinery29, Lisa Cuklanz, Professor of Communication at Boston College and author of Rape on Prime Time, says, “Television has a long history of turning rape into a story about men, either as detectives, rescuers, lovers, and partners who suffer, or good men learning to help a wife, daughter, sister, or fiancé deal with trauma…Depictions that place the survivor at the center of the story are still quite rare.”
Many more shows seem to be making an effort to amplify survivors’ experiences, like Outlander did when it spent two episodes on Jamie’s rape and recovery. (Next season will continue to address his traumatic experience.) Katherine Hull Fliflet, RAINN's VP of Communications, says this is key. “We’re at an interesting point where so many Americans are getting their health information from television…It can give the broader public a better understanding of the realities of sexual violence and help equip loved ones with a better picture of this crime and help them have a deeper understanding of what their friend or loved one is going through.”
The statistics are plain and simple: Sexual violence happens in real life — “over 804 incidences in the United States every day,” Fliflet says. Television, in its quest for authenticity, mirrors life, so sexual violence is going to happen on TV. What audiences have started to demand from shows and their creators in 2015, though, is that they treat the subject with the gravity and respect it deserves.
In the following slides, we look at how TV addressed rape this season.