How to Portray Rape on Television

Rape is a crime that has become increasingly prevalent on TV shows. There’s even an entire show dedicated to it’s litigation, Law and Order: SVU. While it is not inherently bad for such crimes to be used in television, it is important that a character’s rape be an important moment in their history. For the victims of sexual violence in SVU, their stories very rarely last more than 45 minutes. One tragic story is substituted for the next creating a seemingly endless conveyor belt of sex crime after sex crime. I would argue that viewers almost become desensitized to the crimes, after potentially watching all sixteen seasons of the show. I believe Law and Order: SVU is a poor representation of portraying rape on screen. There is one show, however, that uses a horrific gang rape to permanently change the characterization of one of its lead characters. That show is Sons of Anarchy.

In the beginning of the second season of a show that can best be described as a wonderful cocktail of Breaking Bad and motorcycles, motorcycle club matriarch Gemma Teller gets kidnapped and brutally raped by members of a white supremacy group that have recently moved to town. Her rapists wanted to send a message to the motorcycle club. Knowing that the club would react violently and ultimately do more harm than good, Gemma only told two people about her rape. The psychological effects of her rape and subsequently hiding it from her husband and son were severe. In the following episodes, Gemma refused to have sex with her husband, and was noticeably jumpy around any sudden movements or sounds.

Faced with watching her son leave town over seemingly never ending altercations with her husband, Gemma realized she had no choice but to tell her family about her assault. Moved and brought to tears, Gemma’s son and husband immediately reconciled and shifted their attention to punishing her assailants.

Prior to her rape, Gemma was constructed and an indestructible matriarch that could not be broken, let alone phased, by the actions of the motorcycle club. Other women associated with the club looked to her for guidance in difficult times. Using rape as a plot device to show Gemma’s vulnerability was a brilliant way to express such a difficult topic to portray on television. Throughout the season, Gemma struggled with her identity as a strong willed mother. A number of topics central to discussing rape were present, including victim blaming. For a large majority the season, Gemma was convinced the violence against her was her own fault. Gemma also turned to faith to help her deal with her assault, which was non-existent in her life up until that point.

Gemma’s experiences with sexual assault and her journey as a survivor can be put in direct contrast to how another show, Game of Thrones, portrayed the rape of one of the protagonists, Cersei Lannister. In season 4, Cersei, who had been in a incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime, was arguably raped by him at the vigil for their dead son. Some viewers of the show, including the director for the episode, believed the act was consensual. However, many viewers decried the scene as an act of sexual assault. Assuming that the act was in fact rape, the re-characterization of Cersei after the event non-existent. Any effect that the incident had on her psyche was gone by the next episode.

(Warning: Thrones Spoilers in video)

This is the problem with portraying rape on television. It can really only work if the victim is given enough screen time dedicated specifically to them coming to terms with and recovering from the act of violence against them. In my opinion, this is exactly what the writers of Sons of Anarchy accomplished. If you were to consider the scene from Game of Thrones a sexual assault though, it was clear that it was included for mere shock value and did nothing to affect the relationship between the two characters.

Do you think the scene between Cersei and Jaime is rape? Should rape even be portrayed on television? If so, how do you think the best way to show it? Does such a casual portrayal of rape in the media promote rape culture?

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2 thoughts on “How to Portray Rape on Television

  1. I do think that rape should be portrayed on television, because it is a sick reality. If the downsides of rape are shown correctly, I feel that it could have a positive impact on society. Of course, some of the material may be hard to watch, but it will show people the sick truth behind the process. Rape scenes should be supported with a realistic recovery f they are shown on television. I think that the best way to show it is to not show the actual rape, maybe talk about it, or give small flashbacks of a clip. The best way to show it is to show how many people are effected by the situation, and how the impact never seems to go away. If so, how do you think the best way to show it? I think that casual portrayal of rape does impact society. The negative and long lasting impact is something that should be have to shown on television.

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  2. Interesting post! I think the scene in Game of Thrones is rape. Even though that is his wife(?), it does not give him the right to demand sex whenever and wherever. It seems as if both parties are grieving a loss, however using this as a justification for why Jaime demanded sex (since it seems this is what the director is trying to get across) is dangerous, misleading, and promotes rape culture. For those who viewed this as a rape or knew that something was not quite right, to not have Cersei go through what you call a “re-characterization” minimalizes the effects and traumas of rape. This portrays rape as “not that bad”. I think it is ok to portray rape on television because it is a good outlet to raise awareness, however that re-characterization must occur for the audience to fully grasp (as much as someone who has never been raped can grasp) the full trauma of rape.

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