In so many ways, TV is better than it's ever been. The quality and diversity of content continue to grow, as do the ways to watch. But one area that still proves to be problematic in 2016? Television's depiction of consent and sexual assault. It's not that showing rape on TV is necessarily bad, but the approach so many shows take to the subject is ignorant, inaccurate, and harmful. The popular BBC period drama Poldark fell into that all-too-common trap last night with a controversial scene that depicts the act of rape as a sexual fantasy. In the scene, Poldark (Aidan Turner) bursts into the bedroom of his one-time lover (and his cousin's widow) Elizabeth (Heida Reed), where he forces himself on her — trying to kiss her multiple times as she repeatedly says "no" and physically resists him, as the BBC describes it. Poldark looks at her bed suggestively, prompting Elizabeth to say, "You will not dare. You will not dare." He replies, "I would Elizabeth. I would and so will you," and pushes her down onto the bed, continuing to force himself on her. Here she appears to give in to his advances and engages with him.
Elizabeth clearly expresses, both verbally and nonverbally, that she does not want to have sex with Poldark. But the problem isn't so much in showing nonconsensual sex — it's the series' attempt to pass the encounter off as consensual. A producer for the show characterized the scene to the Daily Mail as "a fiery encounter which concludes with a consensual act — one which had been coming for a long time." Reed described it to the Daily Mail as a softened-up rewriting of a rape scene in the book upon which the series is based. And Turner insisted to The Sun, "It seems consensual, and it just seems right. He goes to talk. He doesn't go to commit a crime."
By cloaking the scene in suggestions of romance and ambiguity, Poldark muddles the clear rules of consent and perpetuates the horrible myth that you just have to keep pushing a woman who tells you "no" until she changes her mind. Rape isn't pretty or romantic, and it's not a passionate form of seduction; to show it as such is irresponsible and inexcusable. The BBC and U.K. media regulator Ofcom have both received a number of complaints about the scene, as the BBC reports, but the bulk of audience protests are taking place on Twitter. "Sorry but when someone explicitly says no even if they love you, that is rape," tweeted one outraged viewer. "I am genuinely in shock at how @BBC is defending rape purely to keep their male hero idea going. In what way was that consensual??" wrote another.
It may be rash to write off an entire series based on a single scene. But the way Poldark handled this one is questionable at best, especially given that the subject of sexual consent is particularly salient right now on our national stage. It would be great if fictional characters could get it right, even when a certain presidential candidate does not.