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I didn’t set out to contribute to rape culture. Like all sensible people, I’m a feminist. Granted, the white, privileged kind who’s gone through life with easy access to education, well-paying jobs, sexual liberation, freedom of speech and the right to trash men and the patriarchy in the most general and vile terms every time something didn’t go my way in matters of life or love. In short, I never felt particularly personally oppressed.
Then I started working in TV drama.
The revelatory moment – the point at which my complacent-feminist innocence was violently taken from me, leaving me feeling exposed and violated, so to speak – came when I was writing on a series about cops who dealt with the mentally ill.
It might help to know how scripts are written on most TV shows, familiar to anyone who’s seen 30 Rock: A group of writers spends the morning discussing how pod coffee is bad for the environment but what else are we supposed to drink, segues into where to go for lunch, goes for lunch, then spends the afternoon trying not to eat the piles of junk food that seems to come with the furniture in these rooms. Somewhere along the way, we hash out character arcs and season arcs and put up dozens of colour-coded index cards to keep track of who’s sleeping with whom, and whom we want to get rid of when. (I’m referring to the show, but similar dramas in the writing room are not unheard of.)
Once the big picture is more or less sorted out, we focus on specific episodes. The room brainstorms ideas and, as the episode moves from pitch page to outline to script, the producer gives “notes” every step of the way, e.g., “Does our lead actor have enough to do?” or “WTF! I effing hate this! I don’t know WTF is going on!” Both kinds of notes can be helpful, since we writers are so mature and know to look for the “note beneath the note” that points to fundamental story problems.
Pitch pages, outlines and scripts also get notes from network executives. The series producer owns the show, but since the broadcaster is paying up to several million bucks per 43-minute-hour to actually make the show (in return for the right to air it first), the network executives get final approval on everything from cast and characters to writing-room staff. Everyone understands how important it is to please the network executives.
On the show about cops and the mentally ill, my loss of innocence began when I pitched an episode about an old lady who dies alone in a rundown mansion. In the opening scene or “teaser,” her corpse is carted off in an ambulance while neighbourhood kids dare each other to go into the “haunted” house. Two of them sneak in. Suddenly, the ghost of the old lady appears at the top of the stairs! She descends toward them, uttering gibberish. The children scream and run. One falls. She’s still coming! … Cut to title card and theme song. At the top of Act 1, our cops reveal it’s not a ghost, it’s another old lady who’s insane and secretly living in the attic. Like Rochester’s mad wife in Jane Eyre, the second old lady was stuffed up there years earlier owing to the stigma of mental illness. Our hero cops and mental-health workers must now solve the mystery of who she is and how she ended up there.
The room liked the premise and I, with a co-writer, wrote up the pitch page.
Except then the notes started. Do there have to be two old ladies? Do they have to be so old? Are the stakes high enough? Can we create an interesting bad guy to attract a big-name guest star? Et cetera.
By the time we went to camera, my dead old lady had turned into a thirtysomething adultress who gets her head bashed in, and my old lady in the attic had turned into a beautiful blond teenager in a basement being held captive by the world’s most adorable predator, Rossif Sutherland.
And I had just co-written a rape episode.
Over the next year, I went from feeling indefinably icky about that episode to rage over how much female rape there is on TV in general. The most notorious example is Game of Thrones, winner of nine Creative Arts Emmys last weekend and the most nominated show going into the Primetime Emmy Awards tomorrow. After the violent rape of Sansa Stark in Season 5, “geek girl” blogger Tafkar produced a “Statistical Analysis of Rape in Game of Thrones”: rape acts in Game of Thrones the TV series: 50; rape victims in Game of Thrones: 29; rape acts in the A Song of Ice and Fire books by George Martin: 214; rape victims in ASOIAF: 117.
GoT toned things down in Season 6, but there’s always a new show to pick up the slack, and this season, it looks as if it might be the new HBO series Westworld (premiering Oct. 2). In the first episode, set at a resort where humans can interact with lifelike robots, an android played by Evan Rachel Wood is dragged off by her hair to fulfill an older man’s rape fantasy.
Elsewhere, the female rape trope is a staple of shows such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, CSI and Criminal Minds, and sprinkled throughout other procedurals such as NCIS, Hawaii Five-O, Bones and The Mentalist.
It’s used as a back story (usually with graphic flashbacks) for characters such as Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans, raped by her Soviet trainer; Norma Bates in Bates Motel, raped in the pilot by a previous owner of the motel, after (we later learn) being raped by her brother as a teen; the gang-raped girlfriend Lumen on Season 5 of Dexter; Claire Underwood in House of Cards still traumatized by a college rape; Jessica Jones’s lead raped by her abductor/keeper; Mellie Grant on Scandal raped by her father-in-law.
Rape is also used as a device to motivate male heroes, from Tony’s anguish and need for revenge after the rape of his psychiatrist in The Sopranos to Ray Velcoro’s anguish and need for revenge – and also a paternity test for his son – after the rape of his wife in Season 2 of True Detective.
Even “quality” shows have rape aplenty: Anna Bates raped on Downton Abbey; police sergeant Catherine Cawood driven by the rape of her daughter, who died by suicide, in Happy Valley; Gillian recovering from years of marital rape on Last Tango in Halifax; Joan Holloway raped by her fiancé in Mad Men; Queen Mary raped by Protestant soldiers in Reign; Detective Robin Griffin dealing with fallout from her own prom-night gang rape while solving a child-rape case in Top of the Lake.
The current avalanche of female rape on TV has even become something of a joke. As in: “I joke, morbidly,” Sonia Saraiya wrote in Salon, “that my job title has changed from television critic to ‘senior rape correspondent.’” Meanwhile, Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller made headlines last season for not using rape, telling Entertainment Weekly, “It’s so overexploited, it becomes callous … You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation.”
Note how my repetition of the word “rape” becomes numbing after a while. It’s because seeing something over and over tends to normalize it, and eventually make it meaningless.
During my year of ranting about all this TV rape to anyone who’d listen, I was forced to think about what, exactly, I was mad about. Did I want the female-rape trope banned? No. Some shows used it in a way that was respectful to the victim and essential to the story. Even the rape factory over at Law & Order: SVU might be defensible: According to a 2015 study from Washington State University, SVU’s regular viewers demonstrated “decreased rape-myth acceptance and increased intentions to adhere to expressions of sexual consent.” (Viewers of the more popular CSI, on the other hand, indicated “decreased intentions to seek consent.”)
In any case, as a writer, I don’t believe in censorship. I’d never ban anyone from writing or directing rape scenes. What I object to is twofold. First: how the trope is overused as a plot device. The sin of bad taste and its potential contribution to moral degradation aside, let’s just say here that the young, beautiful, battered dead female is exhaustingly trite.
The second, bigger problem is with how the crime is aestheticized for the camera. Massive amounts of time and money are spent on hair, makeup and lighting to sexualize rape victims. Look at the first scene of the first episode of the lauded French series Spiral, which shows a dead, naked girl covered in blood on a garbage heap. I’m willing to bet many minutes, if not hours, were spent lighting her and positioning the camera in order to capture the silhouette of the erect nipple of her right breast against a background of black tires. The only onscreen rape I’ve seen that was presented in a believable – i.e., unsexy – manner was in the movie Deliverance. I’m not saying we need more scenes such as Ned Beatty in his underwear scrabbling in the mud while being treated like a pig, but at least it didn’t prettify the crime.
One show that really made me angry was The Fall, in which Gillian Anderson’s character pursues the world’s second-most adorable predator, played by Jamie Dornan. As he stalks his victims, the camera lovingly caresses their nubile, sometimes naked, sleeping bodies, and then, when they awake to find Mr. Grey in their bedroom, the lens captures all their tremulous, flailing, picturesque panic as he assaults and tortures them. Adding to the “sexy” vibe is how Dornan’s compelling persona teases and intrigues Anderson’s character right up to the end of Season 2, when, in a moment of charged intimacy, Anderson cradles a doe-eyed Dornan in her arms after he’s been shot. I believe creator Allan Cubitt is sincere when he says, “I was at pains from the start to make sure that there was nothing gratuitous or exploitative in the drama.” But there’s a disconnect between what he thinks he’s doing and what appears onscreen.
A fundamentally different approach is taken in Top of the Lake, in which Elisabeth Moss’s character goes after the man (or men) who impregnated a 12-year-old girl. There’s plenty of female nudity, but – shockingly – it’s of the non-rapey, slack-bummed, middle-aged-lady variety. The 12-year-old girl is beautiful, but she’s never sexualized. She appears clothed at all times, and in the poster for the show, she’s wearing a winter jacket with a rifle slung over her shoulder. She patently does not fit the classic, sentimentalized portrayal of a vulnerable, sexualized victim.
My point is that the images TV uses to tell rape stories always, without exception, trump the dialogue or supposedly worthy aims of us, the writers. It doesn’t matter how much rationalization or feminist rhetoric we cram into our actors’ mouths. When rape is lyricized as something that happens to attractive young women, it becomes conflated with sex, which reinforces rape culture.
Since The Fall was created by a man (Allan Cubitt) and Top of the Lake by a woman (Jane Campion), this offers an excellent segue into blaming the usual suspects: Men! The patriarchy! And I can offer evidence that sexism is alive and well in writers’ rooms across the land. On one show I worked on, after various male writers kept suggesting we rape the female lead to “raise the stakes,” I suggested we rape the male lead instead. They went nuts – calling me “sick” and referring to me as “Man Rape Vanstone” for the rest of the week. (I laughed. But still …) As one anonymous female TV drama writer told Variety’s Maureen Ryan: “Every single year we get dudes pitching ‘rape the women’ stories and every season I have to stomp my foot in the writers’ room and say no, which I probably shouldn’t do, for the sake of my career, but dammit, NO. If rape were so illuminating, such a great story, then you know what? They’d be pitching to rape the men. But that never happens and never will happen, so it’s this blatantly internalized misogyny that drives me nuts.”
“You’re never more aware than when you’re in the room of just how unconscious it all is,” writer Marsha Greene says. “Say you have a story with two people who are business partners. One screws over the other. In a male-dominated room, if the characters are two men, it’s probably money. If the characters are a man and woman, it’s like: ‘He didn’t like her, or she was in love with him, or he had an affair with her and broke up with her and then to get revenge, she tore down his business.’ The default in the room is always that she was motivated by some romantic feelings for this man.”
Some women use a term for making sure a female POV is present when crucial decisions are being made in the writers’ room or on set: “accountable vagina.”
Anecdotal evidence aside, hard data tell the story of a rigidly sexist TV and film industry in Canada and beyond. Women In View, a Canadian non-profit organization that promotes gender and cultural diversity, reports women make up 38 per cent of TV writers. The Canadian Unions for Equality on Screen just released a study reporting that less than 16 per cent of all directing jobs go to women. A study by the Annenberg School at University of Southern California analyzed 11,927 speaking characters for gender roles in film and television, which showed female characters wore “sexy attire” more than three times more often than men and had exposed skin more than three times more often than men. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has funded a mountain of research showing men onscreen hold better jobs than female characters.
The female-rape trope comes as no surprise when women behind the camera are treated as second-class citizens, and women on camera are seen primarily as sex objects.
Unfortunately, I cannot in good conscience blame my own rape episode on men. Yes, there were a lot of them: male producer, director and showrunner and a 5:2 male-female ratio in the writers’ room. But they were, to a man, committed to a nonsexist workplace and open to ideas from all of us. Further, it was my male co-writer who flagged the potential misogyny of the evolving rape plot before I did. And the network executives who approved the script were female.
It’s also true that the episode itself had no onscreen violence. No rape scenes. No nudity. The victim’s story was given more time and weight than the predator’s. And I have to hand it to Rossif Sutherland – he made the unusual and morally courageous choice of delivering a straight-up evilly banal character, sans any softening mystique. The episode might even win approval from the Washington State University researchers.
So who was I supposed to be mad at?
Alas, after a year of angry, defensive stewing, I figured out it was … me. I was the one who ignored my own vague misgivings, who deep down was afraid of rocking the boat with female complaints about feeling “icky” and risking a reputation for being “difficult.” Part of it was moral cowardice and part of it was my own warped, male-identified, patriarchy-pleasing brain.
It made me think of the old Pogo cartoon: We have met the enemy and he is us.
What really happens in writing rooms is something you’ll never see on 30 Rock or anywhere else, because it’s too much like real life – an extended, futile search for meaning where none exists, punctuated by inexplicable moments of transcendent clarity. It’s a strange thing, but even in rooms in which people don’t particularly like each other, it’s intensely collaborative and trusting – we all understand our job is to open the kimono and let it all hang out. We share excruciating details from our private lives – heartbreaks, humiliations, weird hygienic issues – in the struggle to shape or explain our characters’ foibles and motivations. The entire process is messy, soul-sucking, inspiring, funny, and sometimes there are tears.
To complicate things further, virtually all writers are now wrestling to break away from conventional, unconscious, all-too-often misogynistic points of view – including male writers. One man told me he hated being in all-male rooms: “I finally got into a room that was mostly women and to be honest, it was a huge relief. When it’s all or mostly guys, you get in and the posturing begins, the pissing contest. I go to work to get the job done, not to prove I’m better than you.”
But old habits are hard to break. One writer told me a funny story about network executives who always want them to justify why a character is gay, or in a wheelchair, or trans, or female or aboriginal – i.e., why isn’t this character “normal”? Ha-ha, dumb network executives – except, damn, I’ve thought that way, too. Patted myself on the back for adding “diverse” characters to a script as if they were ornaments on a Christmas tree, instead of seeing that my experience is not the default.
Writer Noelle Carbone told me about her own recent learning experience. On Saving Hope, she’d pitched an arc for a main female character, who was previously engaged to a man, to fall in love with a lesbian patient who dies at the end. The producer and network liked it, and the scripts moved forward – except then the “bury your gays” controversy exploded. LGBTQ characters were getting killed off on shows such as The Walking Dead and Empire, with Lexa’s death on The 100 being the final straw for many. “And here I was,” Carbone says, “a queer female writer, leading the charge on killing another one. How did it happen? Ignorance, in part. But mostly because I was trying to make good TV. And death makes for good drama.”
The Saving Hope room had a choice: Change course or lose two months of work. Despite many convincing arguments to keep the dead lesbian, she says, “we didn’t want to perpetuate a trope that is damaging to the queer community. It took a lot of work, and I know a lot of the people in the room were frustrated because we had to go backwards before we could move forward, but ultimately, we came up with an even better version of the story.”
I thought about all this in terms of the female-rape trope. I get why it’s used so often. Rape happens in real life. It’s an important issue. And it’s a lot more “stakesy” than the overly subtle scenarios I tend to come up with (I once pitched a story about two cops who run into a really stressful filing problem in the police evidence room; the other writers suggested I go away and create a show called The Pro Filer). Yes, I’ve facetiously suggested raping a male character instead, and shows such as American Crime, Game of Thrones and Outlander are doing just that (commendably, albeit ironically, with much empathy for the victim). But flipping genders – raping men and arming women – often leads to more clichés.
As writer Patrick Tarr says: “You see the kickass female hero with all one-liners, and maybe some back-story problem that made her that way, and it may have started as a way of empowering that character, but it’s now become such a boring trope.” The challenge now, he says, is to come up with an “interesting female lead who has flaws and idiosyncrasies, and try to make sure you aren’t playing into old stereotypes or the new stereotypes.”
This week at TIFF, Transparent’s Jill Soloway talked about women using the female gaze “to call out these fucking storylines on those procedurals that are meant to work as public service to educate us about rape, but are actually just more rape.” She went on to eloquently define the female gaze but for those of us acculturated by the male gaze, it’s not obvious how to put it into practice.
I ran this conundrum past Lisa Cuklanz, a professor at Boston College and author of Rape on Prime Time: Television, Masculinity, and Sexual Violence. “To the extent that representations of rape on television can help us think about sexual assault from a new angle or in a way that we have never done so before,” she said in an e-mail, “they could be considered to be contributing to social change.” Her list of remedial portrayals includes more depictions of would-be victims who thwart perpetrators’ intentions; more consequences for sexually violent and coercive behaviour (guilt, shame, remorse, damage to reputation and relationships, ostracism, loss of relationships or employment, and so forth); more images to show how power, threats, and coercion can pressure people into sexual contact.
Which is all very well. Except it’s not actually our job as TV writers to follow a lesson plan, no matter how noble our goals might be. All we can do is pay close attention to our lives and do the best we can at portraying them accurately, truthfully and artfully. As Soloway also said, “Art is propaganda for the self.”
Thankfully, funders are getting on board. The National Film Board of Canada has committed at least half its production spending on movies directed by women within the next three years; CBC TV now requires female directors on at least half the episodes of Murdoch Mysteries, Heartland, This Life, Baroness Von Sketch Show and Workin’ Moms; Telefilm aims to fund an equal number of male- and female-directed projects by 2020.
With more women telling stories, and more women directors translating those stories into images that impact viewers’ emotions and attitudes, we can at least convey one giant truth: That rape culture – founded on the belief that women are less valuable, less deserving, less believable – is based on a lie.