Trigger Warning: discussion of rape and sexual assault
The representation of rape in pop-culture is something I have struggled with over the years. Until very recently, I would argue that all depictions of rape and sexual assault in pop-culture are never necessary and should never be part of a storyline. And I came to that conclusion based on the types of depictions of rape I was seeing, the two standouts for me being the entire series of Game of Thrones and more recently in the formerly sex-positive show, Orange Is The New Black. My issue with these depictions stems from an awareness of the all too present rape culture that still saturates society and how that informs the problematic representation of sexual violence in pop-culture.
Rape culture, for those unfamiliar, is the culture of normalising rape and sexual violence to the extent that it is tolerated, excused and even condoned. It goes hand in hand with victim blaming, sexual objectification and the trivialising of rape and sexual violence. (I discuss rape culture in more detail in a previous post, which you can access here).
The main representation of rape and sexual assault that I see in pop-culture falls within this rape culture narrative, propagating this violence as a norm. For example, a common defense I hear when I talk about sexual violence in Game Of Thrones with GoT fans is that it’s an “accurate” representation of what society was like at that time in history. On the surface of this statement, I’m left asking, at what time in history were there dragons? And at what point did this fictional book become a historical piece of non-fiction? But when I look deeper at where this defense comes from, it’s a whole lot more worrying. It’s excusing sexual violence. It’s saying that in order to represent women, at any point in time, they must always face sexual violence. It’s part of the ‘woman experience’. And this is where it becomes problematic: this defense normalises rape and sexual assault (cue rape culture). And what truly annoys me about this rape culture rhetoric, is that while sexual violence is considered a norm, representation of women engaging in sex-positive acts, like masturbation, is either non existent, or heavily censored.
Game of Thrones normalises sexual violence by using rape as a plot device to progress character development, while simultaneously exploiting the experiences of sexual assault survivors. The most potent example of this was undoubtedly the scene in which Ramsay raped Sansa as a plot device to develop Sansa’s character. While this scene was unnecessary and exploitative, it wasn’t the first of the series. Back in season one, Drogo repeatedly rapes Khaleesi in scenes that are also exploitative and problematic.
Orange is the New Black on the other hand, started out as a very sex-positive show, which seemingly countered rape culture tropes by celebrating female sexuality. While there were still borderline scenes, like with Mendez and Trish Miller, exchanging sexual acts for drugs (which is a non consensual and abusive act), it wasn’t until the backstory of Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett that I became disappointed with the show. The multiple rape scenes were used in the same way as GoT, as a plot device to develop a character.
When the focus of this kind of violence is framed in a way that positions it as necessary for character development or to carry forward the plot, it removes any space for survivors to be treated with respect, sensitivity and empathy. After all, we live in a world where violence against women is still a major issue and should be treated as such when represented in pop-culture.
So, how did I change my stance towards representations of rape in pop-culture? Quite simply, it came down to seeing non-exploitative representations of sexual violence. Examples like Jessica Jones, Room, Mad Max: Fury Road and Into The Forest directly counter rape culture by framing this violence in a way that is sensitive and respectful to the survivor. They also served to condemn the perpetrator as committing violence that is represented as outside the norm. This shifts the perspective of the viewer from seeing sexual violence as a necessary evil to an unacceptable act of violence. Another way they counter rape culture is by making sure the focus on the survivors, their experiences of PTSD, and by representing them as women not solely defined by their assault.