In ‘things that have taken way too long but let’s just focus on the major good worth celebrating,’ a number of prominent television showrunners have finally started rejecting rape as a lazy plot device and source of groundless shock value.
Jeremy Slater, of Fox’s new Exorcist show, described his process of staffing up his writer’s room.
One of my hard-and-fast rules when reading spec scripts was, the second that there was a rape that was used for shock value and that didn’t have any sort of narrative purpose, I threw the script aside. And I was shocked by the number that had that. I would say out of those 200 scripts, there were probably 30 or 40 of them that opened with a rape or had a pretty savage rape at some point.
That’s mind-boggling. For any trope to become that commonplace, it usually means it should be shunned by writers. If 20% of scripts share a plot device, it’s most likely hack and lazy. Add on top of that the fact that this particular lazy, hack move is utterly disrespectful to its female characters, reducing them to nothing more than (usually) a single act of trauma, and it’s clearly time— past time— for this plot point to die. As Slater puts it, “It has become a plague on the industry.”
Bryan Fuller and his American Gods executive producer and co-showrunner Michael Green— who thinks incest and rape onscreen isn’t “edgy,” it’s “just gross”— are two more who won’t exploit rape as a shortcut to character development. For all the violence in Hannibal, Fuller avoided sexual violence as a means of punishment for his characters.
“I personally think that it stains a story, in a way, in that it prevents you from being able to celebrate different aspects of sexuality,” Fuller says. “America as a country has a very fucked-up attitude regarding sex and sexuality, so there is something [troubling] about the punishing of characters for their sex and sexuality.”
It’s wonderful that so many prominent showrunners are taking note of these trends and taking a stand. And yet rape scenes continue to be a major draw for lazy writers of all levels of success. An “experienced female writer who didn’t want her name to be used” explains succinctly why that is.
“It’s become shorthand for backstory and drama… Everyone knows rape is awful and an horrific violation, so it’s easy for an audience to grasp.”
Adds another veteran female writer, “For male showrunners, sexual assault is always the go-to when looking for ‘traumatic backstory’ for a female character. You can be sure it will be brought up immediately, like it’s the obvious place to go when fleshing out a female character.”
Imagine if nearly a quarter of all scripts treated their male characters so carelessly. In an ideal television (and film, and literature, and comic book) landscape, bad things could, of course, happen to women. Rape doesn’t need to be a totally off-limits subject. It’s a tragic reality of women’s lives, and should have the chance to be reflected as such onscreen. But, as all of these writers have said, it’s become a shorthand rather than an act to be treated with care.
Take, for instance, the first season of The Americans. Very early in the show’s run (spoilers here), we see flashback’s to Elizabeth’s rape by a superior officer. We see the rape, and we see her revenge. And what we’re seeing is a woman’s story. Not a lazy way to demonstrate how awful that officer he was. (He was awful, obviously, but unlike, say Ramsay Bolton, a woman wasn’t abused as a quick way to demonstrate that awfulness.) And learning of Elizabeth’s assault affected Philip, but he wasn’t the focus of that journey, Elizabeth was. And that’s how women’s stories need to be treated: as their own.