The truth about TV's rape obsession: How we struggle with the broken myths of masculinity, on screen and off

From soaps to prestige drama, it's the theater through which both men and women grapple with maleness and power

Published June 25, 2015 5:55PM (EDT)

“The Sopranos” did it in 2001, when Lorraine Bracco’s Jennifer Melfi was suddenly and violently raped in a parking garage. “Veronica Mars” made it part of the titular protagonist’s backstory, in the 2004 pilot. In 2006, “The Wire” introduced and then never confirmed it, when it showed us the story of Randy (Maestro Harrell) keeping watch as a girl named Tiff “fooled around” with two boys in the bathroom. “Mad Men” did it in 2008, when Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) was raped by her fiancé, Greg (Sam Page) on the floor of Don’s office.

A few shows were practically founded on it—“Law And Order: SVU,” which premiered in 1999, has dealt with rape in nearly every episode of its 16-season and counting run. “Oz,” the 1997 HBO show set in a prison, regularly featured male-on-male rape.

But starting around the turn of the decade, rape on television morphed from a delicate topic to practically de rigueur. In the last two years alone, shows as vastly different as “Downton Abbey” and “Game Of Thrones” have graphically portrayed violent rape—typically, but not always, perpetrated by men onto women—to the point that depictions of sexual assault on television have become a regular part of the national discourse. “SVU,” “Outlander,” “Broad City,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Orange Is The New Black,” “Tyrant,” “Stalker,” “Shameless,” “Scandal,” and “House Of Cards” have all handled sexual assault, in their own way—either by depicting rape, exploring whether or not a sexual encounter is rape, or making jokes about how often rape happens. For a crime that has a dismal 2 percent conviction rate, it certainly is getting talked about an awful lot.

I can identify that this is a phenomenon that is happening. It’s a little harder to explain why. Some of it is purely a numbers game: There’s more television than ever—and more and more of that television is not on broadcast networks, with their stricter censorship rules and mandates for reaching a mainstream audience. It’s certainly easier to depict and discuss sexual assault on television now than it ever was before.

But that’s not the whole story. I joke, morbidly, that my job title has changed from television critic to “senior rape correspondent” because I cover televisual sexual assault with alarming frequency. The cases, on TV, run the gamut from 14-year-old girls drugging 18-year-old boys into having sex with them and plots attempting to reconstruct hazy memories of late-night drinking to men raping other men as an act of war and husbands raping wives in the bedroom. It’s a topic that engages, uncompromisingly, with our notions of gender, sexuality, power, and equality. And despite the barrage of sexual assaults on television, it’s a crime that occurs far, far more often in real life.

* * *

What we call rape is an entirely new phenomenon—barely 50 years old. For most of human existence, rape was not a crime committed against women but instead against the men who supervised them—husbands, fathers, brothers, lords, kings. The word “rape” likely comes from the Latin “rapere,” meaning to seize or abduct—to kidnap, to rob, to deprive another of property. Rape sullied a bloodline and damaged goods and/or services; it was a crime against private property. The implication of that language is also that rape happens to women, not men. Men might be violated, abused, tortured, yes, but not seized; they were typically not someone else’s property.

And though the Romans had their own word for sexual violation, “stuprare,” it was not necessarily immoral, criminal, or otherwise repugnant. Women were by and large not empowered enough to grant consent over their bodies, so the question of nonconsensual sex was rendered moot. Greek and Roman mythology is rife with gods raping maidens; in those stories, treated almost casually—an irritating fact of life, kind of like chicken pox.

The language of this era is extremely familiar, even today: Women invite sexual assault through their behavior; men have carnal urges they can’t control; people have to continue the species somehow. It’s reasoning that all hinges on the same logic—female desire is necessarily subordinate to male desire.

In 1975 Susan Brownmiller published her landmark work “Against Our Will,” which provided the foundation for the language of consent as a bulwark against the prevalence of rape. We rely on terms like “consent,” but consent can be silently or unconsciously given, and hard to prove after the fact. Intent is hard to prove in any context; the upside of a crime like murder is that at least there’s a dead body to point to. With sexual assault, it’s much harder to point to the aftereffects of trauma—either because the rape kit was mishandled or lost, as happens an awful lot, or because the aftereffects are more psychological than physical.

But primarily, what Brownmiller’s work did was center rape as a crime committed against women, not against property. “Against Our Will” fit into the feminist movement’s aims to recognize sexual violence and redefine it—both socially and legally. Before rape reform legislation of the 1970s, marital rape was an oxymoron, rape against men wasn’t illegal (or even acknowledged), and a woman’s reputation could be used as evidence against her accusation of rape in court.

It was a victory, but one with an upsetting aftertaste. A change in legislation cannot change social attitudes to sex and gender overnight. A prudent study of history asks us to not impose our own perspective of what people are like onto peoples throughout history, which could lead to the argument that because it so radically redefined the concept, before Brownmiller’s seminal work, rape as we know it didn’t exist. But that part of us that does identify with people from the past—that part of humanity that both spins tales and listens to them, rapt—is forced to acknowledge something much more upsetting: Perhaps, instead of there being no rape, there was only rape. Perhaps human existence is built entirely on intimate violence.

* * *

When it comes to the history of rape on television, it boils down to two basic categories: TV meant for men, and TV meant for women. Primetime, network television was for male audiences (or a mixed-gender audience, which then, as now, defaults to appealing to men). Soap operas, TV movies, and niche cable channels appealed to women. The era between the '70s, when the rape reform movement was at its height, and the '90s, when the “golden age of television” began to take over, offers up an awful lot of one-off episodes about rape on primetime where a male protagonist encounters a female sexual assault victim and is heroic about it. The heroism was typically accomplished by both not raping and by avenging rape, through safely masculine methods like beating the crap out of a guy, arresting them, or killing them quietly.

There are significant deviations from the established form—Lisa Cuklanz, in her book “Rape On Prime Time,” notes astonishing examples from “21 Jump Street,” “All In The Family,” and “Barney Miller,” among others—but she ultimately concludes that rape on primetime is mostly a study in masculinity addressing itself, reframing rape as a failure of masculinity that can only be fixed with more rigorous masculinity.

Rapists are depicted as identifiably outside the mainstream through their language, clothing, habits, or attitudes. Each of these plot elements works to rein force sensitivity and desire for justice on the part of the male protagonist. In most episodes it is the male detective/ main character who provides the primary comfort and support for the victim. The stories end when the detective protagonist has completed his work, that is, when the rapist is caught or killed. The detective's sense of morality, and often his need for revenge on the criminal, thus culminate in a successful triumph of the "good guy," which is often accomplished through violence against the rapist. However, the further plight of the victim through the course of counseling or a trial are not included… In short, these plots are about the male avengers of rape rather than about the problem or crime of rape or the experiences and feelings of the victim.

Daytime TV and made-for-TV movies such as those on Lifetime, in their low-budget, melodramatic glory, was far more likely to offer a woman-centric narrative of rape. Where mainstream TV ran away from topics like domestic violence, prostitution, abortion, and of course rape, soap operas and Lifetime films almost reveled in it; presumably there was some cathartic release in watching crimes suffered mostly by women in the real world play out in exaggerated glory on television. Lifetime’s films, then and now, were characterized by lurid titles and grim scenarios: “The Burning Bed” (1984), “She Fought Alone” (1995), “She Cried No” (1996), “She Woke Up Pregnant” (1996). On the abuse and rape survivor advocacy site The Road To Anaphe, the site’s creator includes an exhaustive list of Lifetime films, adding: “Lifetime Television may be a ‘women's network,’ but it is one that shows a lot of good, informative movies on the subjects of child abuse, domestic violence, and missing children.” You could count on violence and exploitation in these films. The crucial difference is that you could also typically count on the point of view of the victim being central to the story.

Soap operas, unlike TV movies or even primetime TV shows, are not just serialized but heavily serialized. The short production time for soap episodes means that the shows can respond on the fly to audience interests, making the medium a fascinating one for measuring audience sentiment. And, uncomfortably, when rape shows up on soap operas, often those stories end up redeeming the rapist—indeed, in response to popular affection for those characters.

The best example of that might be the iconic Luke (Anthony Geary) and Laura (Genie Francis) on “General Hospital,” who have been one of that show’s foundational relationships. But their first sexual encounter, in 1979, was rape, when Luke drunkenly forced himself on Laura. She eventually fell in love with him and they were together for 37 years. Their wedding episode in 1981 remains to this day the highest rated soap opera episode in history. It was only in 1998, when their son learned of the rape, that the show really confronted the myth of “forced seduction” they had established nearly 20 years earlier, and reframed it as the assault it really was.

“One Live To Live,” in 1993-1994, focused much of its storytelling on the gang rape and subsequent aftermath of a college student named Marty Saybrooke (Susan Haskell). The football jock who instigated the rape—a tall, handsome guy named Todd Manning (Roger Howarth)—was originally intended to be a serial rapist. The brutal honesty of the scene inspired both audience and critical praise; the series won Daytime Emmys for the plot arc, which unapologetically framed Todd as a sadistic villain.

But then the story took a turn: Audiences loved Todd. Their enthusiasm spurred the writers to instead build a redemption arc for the character, even as Marty struggled to rebuild her life. Todd lingered as a flawed character on the margins as the writers of the show tried to reconcile their desire to maintain that the rape was reprehensible with audience enthusiasm for the character. The situation was settled (sort of) in 1998, when actor Howarth decided to walk away from the show. Unfortunately, I can only find this quote from Soap Opera Digest in Wikipedia, but it’s so compelling, I’m reproducing it:

If the rape had been an unrealistic, soapy thing, then it wouldn't matter. But because it was so in-depth and so brutal, to show Todd and Marty having drinks together in Rodi’s — to show Marty feeling safe and comfortable with Todd — is bizarre… People have come up to me and said, 'My 7-year-old loves you.' What do I say to that? I'm not going to tell them, 'Don't let your 7-year-old watch TV.' But I have to say, it's disturbing.

Howarth’s departure from the show effectively scuttled any possibility of redeeming the character (though he did return for guest-stints on the show). Of course, this being soap operas, Todd was recast with Trevor St. John, who believed himself to be Todd but then turned out to be Todd’s twin brother, and in the meantime, Marty returned to the show with amnesia, and they had sex, which ended up getting dubbed “re-rape.” But it’s a plotline notable for never losing sight of the fact that what Todd did to Marty was unforgivable, in a landscape where, to quote the writer and unofficial soap expert Joe Reid, “The laundry list of incredibly popular soap characters who started off as rapists — or even just terrorizers of women — is uncomfortably long.”

Interestingly, by 2003, when the rape of Bianca Montgomery on “All My Children” dominated national conversation, the audience’s desire to see the rapists forgiven seems to have fallen off. Bianca herself, as the first openly lesbian lead on a daytime drama, became the subject of redemption; where some audiences had hated her for coming out of the closet, her rape—a “punishment” or “corrective” for her sexuality—and her subsequent struggle to keep her baby became objects of such audience fervor that the New York Times covered it in 2004.

* * *

The book “Prime Time: How TV Portrays American Culture” makes a stark observation that Cuklanz, includes in her own book I quote above. The authors state that rape is "a crime ideally suited to television. It is violent and therefore action packed. The sexual nature of the crime can easily be presented as the act of a violent, mentally unbalanced madman.” And after noting both a study on sexual assault finds rape to be “the only violent crime to be a matter of universal concern among women of all class and ethnic backgrounds” and the role that detective procedurals in primetime played in shaping socially acceptable performances of masculinity, Cuklanz comes to a conclusion that is, in its way, astounding: Rape on television is used to, more often than not, to redeem masculinity,

by offering a subtle redefinition that frames masculinity as the means through which women are protected and avenged rather than brutalized and demeaned. At the same time, protagonist males can engage in violence within certain parameters, such as when they become so morally outraged at criminals that they can no longer contain their anger. Masculine volatility is harnessed for acceptable purposes and never used against women. … Rape provides a subject matter for which these stereotypes are easy to maintain. Not only are victims clearly deserving of protection and care, but the extreme evil and brutality of rape also serve as a clear contrast to the detective's behavior and legitimize his use of force.

Rape on television is the theater through which both men and women grapple with masculinity—with the fact that in its most corrosive form, masculinity is a quality that wreaks violence on those closest to it. Destruction and power are built into our concept of maleness; rape plots on TV work desperately to allow men that access to power while also codifying when it’s acceptable to use.

I’m reminded of one of the most shocking and iconic rape episodes on primetime television—“Sylvia,” a two-parter on the family-oriented “Little House On The Prairie,” in 1980. The episode is horrifying, drawing on slasher-film imagery to tell a story of a girl whose “bosoms” came in “too soon,” resulting in horrific violence at the hand of a man in town. Sylvia herself is a one-off character who is introduced at the beginning of the two episodes and dies by the end. The episode is not about her; it’s about the men around her—her father, her rapist, her boyfriend, and most importantly, Pa Ingalls (Michael Landon), the show’s continued figure of masculine righteousness. What would have happened if Pa hadn’t been around is a chilling possibility left unrealized.

Underneath the archetype of the righteous man, the myth of the redeemed rapist, and the specter of the girl who was “asking for it,” in “Little House On The Prairie” or elsewhere, is a far greater fear, a far bigger problem. If good men don’t exist, if rapists can’t reform, if it’s not ultimately the woman’s fault, then something much scarier bubbles to the surface: This world, and masculinity in it, is very, very broken.

* * *

In this long examination of rape on television, it is hard not to think of HBO’s “True Detective,” which both consciously borrows the bones of the detective procedural and its unsubtle discourse on righteous masculinity. In the first episode of the second season, we learn Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is a man tortured by the fact that his wife was raped; it is almost farcical, given the work we have done to center women in their own victimization. (I remain convinced, perhaps naively, that it is farcical, but that’s another story.) “True Detective” is a show with many faults, but it does attempt rather dramatically to tell a big story about masculinity in this world. And what it seems to tell is that the myth of masculinity we currently are all invested in is purely unsustainable. The men of “True Detective,” the ones consumed by the warring ideas of both destruction and violence but also righteous, proper violence, are erratic, addicted, and tortured; they fixate on violence done to the innocent because they know that on some level, they are responsible for that violence. The men of the first season of “True Detective” both have to confront their own monstrosity in order to come out the other side of a case that they could not solve; the confrontation leaves them both desolate and broken. If the mythos of masculinity is a beautiful, irresistible supernova, “True Detective” offers a vision of the collapsed, soul-sucking black hole it really is.

And if men struggle with it, women struggle with it, too; the story of soap operas and Lifetime movies is overall the story of women attempting to come to terms with the fact that that which they love is always capable of violating them. Women’s television offers either redemption for the abuser or an open-and-shut justice, via Olivia Benson (Mariska Hartigay) in “SVU”; neither happens with any notable frequency in real life. Rapists keep raping, with premeditation and without recourse, and we can barely admit it to ourselves.

There’s a point in Cuklanz’s work, which focuses on TV between 1976 and 1990, where she argues that as television is a more formulaic medium, it’s unsurprising how this standard detective-rape plot is produced and reproduced. It’s 2015 now, though, and we don’t live in a world of formulaic television. The past few years have yielded an incredible number of rape plots that often push the envelope in ways we’ve never seen before—exploring their violence, their frequency, the insidiousness of acquaintance rape, and the less-discussed phenomenon of male-on-male rape.

My complaint with these plots, over and over, is that the stories—usually written and directed by men, despite progress in gender equity—is that so often they focus on the feelings of the men in the story, at the expense of the victims’. But I can see why they focus on the men; the men, as the overwhelmingly more likely perpetrators, present a greater puzzle for us. It would be simpler to dismiss all rapists as monsters, but when so many are fathers, brothers, friends, boyfriends, it becomes harder and harder to do. Sexual assault has only existed the way we think about it for a few decades, and we are still trying to figure out how to address it—how to change the way this world functioned for millennia, and still functions in pockets of untouched refuge all over the world. I don’t particularly have a solution for how to “fix” rape on television; it’s graphic, brutal, violent, and horrible, to the point that it is very difficult to watch, hard to explain, confusing to discuss.

But one thing is clear: I’d rather we dealt with this than we didn’t. I’d rather discuss rape on every TV show than not discuss it all. I’d rather see the world convulsing with outrage over Sansa or Anna or Mellie or Claire or Pennsatucky—who are all, by the way, white women, suggesting an erasure of experience for women of color that has yet to be addressed—than pretend that this isn’t a crippling social problem, an epidemic that we appear to lack the political will or interest to fight. This is what we do with stories; we imagine not just what happened then, and what happened now—but what happens next.

By Sonia Saraiya

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