I’ve been a huge fan of Orange Is The New Black ever since it started two years ago. I was instantly hooked and I finished the first season in just 2 days. Just a few hours ago, I finished the third season and while it had its great moments, it was the worst out of the 3 because several plot-lines were introduced and then dropped without a real conclusion, and by the finale, I felt like the show didn’t go anywhere or move forward at all. However, one moment that resonated with me was episode 10, where Pennsatucky was raped by the prison Guard, Coates.
For a few episodes, the writers started developing a relationship between Pennsatucky and Coates while they’re assigned van duty. At the same time, they show flashbacks of Pennsatucky having sex with friends for gifts and her experiencing love for the first time. The episode ends with two back-to-back rape scenes: a flashback of a classmate forcing himself on Doggett at a house party, followed by CO Coates raping Doggett in the back of the van in the present day. Each time, the camera zooms in on Doggett’s face, focusing on her silent, defeated expression.
Now that I think about it, I don’t know when rape became such a popular plot point to use on females in popular entertainment. There are a lot of manga’s, television shows, anime’s and films that use rape now. For example, Berserk, Hannibal, Mad Max: Fury Road, Orange Is The New Black and Game of Thrones. I should first state that I’m not against the use of rape as a plot point in popular entertainment, nor am I against it being used more than once. If written properly, it can be an effective tool for the writer to further develop a character and improve the story. But I think we can all agree that at this point, regardless of its intent, it’s overused. Criticisms of rape in popular media are equally abundant now that the topic of rape culture is creeping its way into mainstream awareness.
But we’re now past the point of think-pieces that ask, “Is rape overused as a plot device?” We already know; the answer is yes. Now it’s time to dig a little deeper and ask, “How can rape be portrayed sensibly? Does it need to be present at all? Can the writer write the scene another way, instead of using rape? What’s the purpose?”
The main problem here is that the predominantly male showrunners who are guilty of overusing this trope aren’t really giving this much consideration. The most relevant example I can provide is Game of Thrones, which used to be everyone’s favorite show, but is quickly falling out of favor, due to criticism for its gratuitous violence between both genders. Sansa’s rape, whatever the showrunners’ excuse for including it, was clearly meant to elicit a shocked reaction (which it did). In addition, the scene wasn’t really even about Sansa; as Ramsey pushes her down and forces himself on her, the camera pans away and focuses in on Theon’s pained reaction. And this is my main problem with the show. They don’t know how to write rape well.
Game of Thrones is known for its gratuitous violence and is very unapologetic about it. The violence is used between both genders, and it’s equally disgusting for both. Indeed, one of the most baffling things about so many rape scenes in popular culture is that the people who scripted them felt qualified to do so, despite seemingly knowing nothing about rape except that it exists and it is bad. In short, anyone can write a rape scene—but should they? Chances are, the answer is no, and here’s the first reason why Game of Thrones get it wrong.
It’s simple. They don’t know what rape is. Take for example in season 4 when they filmed a rape scene without realising that it was a rape scene. After it aired, its director continued to insist that it was not rape, despite the female character saying “no” and “stop” while her assailant pushed her down, saying “I don’t care.” Instead, the director explained that the assault “becomes consensual by the end”—despite no clear verbal or physical indication of that—and that the coercion was actually a “turn-on” for the woman.
Furthermore, after reading an article, the series has courted controversy by depicting consensual encounters from the books as rape, twice — in the first season, Danerys’s marriage consummation with Khal Drogo; and again this season, when Jaime Lannister raped his sister Cersei beside the corpse of their son.
Those changes are significant because, for the most part, the story around them stays the same. As the website that I read the information from wrote, “The Daenerys Targaryen [from the books] who falls in love with a man [Khal Drago] who granted her respect when no one else would is different from the Daenerys Targaryen who fell in love with her rapist [on the TV show].” To make Jaime a rapist transforms him from a morally gray but ultimately sympathetic figure to a monster — but a monster who, in the context of the show, continues to live the same life and evoke the same responses as the literary counterpart who’s still on the other side of that moral event horizon. Which leads neatly into my second reason for why Game of Thrones gets it wrong.
Rape should not be sexy. This is a hard task to execute because most men in popular media look at women primarily through the lens of sexual attractiveness. Most men objectify the female characters that they’re watching, and most don’t realise it. It’s hard to admit, but women are exaggeratedly—and always—sexy. They’re sexy on the phone. Sexy on the job. Sexy fighting. Sexy tortured. Sexy dead. Sexy raped. I shouldn’t have to say this, but if a movie or TV show can’t visualize a woman in non-sexual terms even for the brief duration of a rape scene, it has no business depicting rape scenes. It’s a rape scene, and we’re not supposed to be aroused by it. We’re supposed to be turned off by it, reject it and hate the rapist afterwards.
Furthermore, rape is not a shortcut to narrative substance. While rape is widely viewed as a very serious negative topic, there’s a tendency for writers to use it as a plot device for maturity, edginess or shock. One of the reasons that creators of media like to include rape in their work is specifically because it elicits strong feelings towards the viewer (story + rape = instant emotional reaction). Rape has been so overused and misused in Game of Thrones that adding yet another manipulative sexual assault to the world just to heighten the stakes of a story or have a very special episode is not just one of the most offensive things a writer can do, it is also one of the most boring. It’s just bad writing.
Rape acts in Game of Thrones the TV series (to date): 50
Rape victims in Game of Thrones (to date): 29
Rape acts in ASOIAF the book series (to date): 214
Rape victims in ASOIAF (to date): 117
The books contain over 4 times as much rape as the show
When I first saw Sansa being raped near the end of season 5, I was instantly turned off and I rolled my eyes because there was yet another poorly written rape scene. My problem wasn’t that she WAS raped, but that Sansa had to suffer, again, to humanize Theon/ Reek. I questioned; Why use rape as a plot point? Can’t the writer write something else to humanize Theon? Why do they have to use rape? I asked these questions because in reality, millions of other bad things happen to women every day. So unless there is a highly specific and deeply considered reason to use rape, it’s better to not use it. And if rape is the only tool someone has in their bag for creating “complex” female characters, it’s time to get another bag. And finally, this leads me to my last point.
Why use rape? Why not something else? Yes, there are stories about rape that are worth telling. But without extensive research into the problems, stereotypes, and struggles that rape survivors face—including what makes sexual assault different from other forms of violence—it’s too easy for fictional depictions to contribute to those issues rather than combat them. With so many other narrative tools out there, using sexual assault is almost always unnecessary. There are better ways to tell nearly any story, so why use the one that tends to be both the laziest and the most harmful?
To quote TV Tropes, “Take a good look at your story. Why do you think a rape is what you need for it to progress? Is there something else that could fill the same function? Unless you have a damn good reason to include rape in a story, you probably shouldn’t.”
By contrast, here’s why the rape scene in Orange Is The New Black did the rape scene right, and Game of Thrones so far hasn’t. Simply, the rape scenes in Orange Is the New Black kept the focus and empathy on the victim. Whatever its intent, it wasn’t meant to shock. It wasn’t sexy. It wasn’t glorified. And the writers knew that they were writing about rape. This was written by a woman, for women. It may have fallen into the trap of using the trauma of rape to humanize a character (like it did for Theon/ Reek), especially as this season sees Doggett transition from a caricatured right wing Republican, Jesus loving conservative villain to a likeable character with an interesting context; but whichever lens you choose to view it through, it can’t be denied that the writing was conscious. That’s how rape should be written because that’s what rape is. Just think about it for a minute.
Finally, who faces consequences for careless depictions of gendered violence? Game of Thrones remains one of the most-viewed shows on television, despite the controversy it creates with each new episode. In his defense of the story’s gratuitous depictions of rape, George R. R. Martin has said it’s “fundamentally dishonest” not to portray sexual violence, and that it’s “realistic” during the medieval time period. While that’s true and I applaud here’s the kicker—the viewers and readers are aware of sexual violence because you’ve written about it 214 times in the books and the television show has shown it 50 times already. Our parents taught us this fear when we were children. We live in fear of it every day. We don’t need to be reminded of that fear every time we watch TV, and it’s honestly callous for male writers to assume that showing teenagers getting raped in a sensationalized medieval fantasy show is doing anything for anti-rape advocacy.
TL;DR: Do not write a rape scene. While there are exceptions to this, everybody tends to think they are one of those exceptions, when more likely they are the reason the advice exists.