Sep 18th, 2015, 12:33 PM

Rape Is Trending on Television

By Melissa Payne
American Horror Story
Why are there so many rape scenes in television dramas -- from Scandal and American Horror Story to Game of Thrones and Downton Abbey?

Rape is trending on television. Everyone knows that Game of Thrones is one of top trending TV shows, but fewer may be aware of the debate about rape on the hit HBO fantasy series.

Like most viewers, I have found the rape in Game of Thones excessive and unnecessary. Over the course of five seasons, three main female characters have been brutally raped without repercussion. In Season 1, Daenerys is raped by her husband Khal Drogo on the first night of her arranged marriage -- followed by several more rapes. Despite suffering from repeated anal rape, she falls for him and mourns after his death the end of the season.

In Season 4, Jaime Lannister forces himself on his twin sister Cersei. For the first part of the series Cersei and Jaime have an unconventional (to say the least) but passionate love affair. Yes, love between siblings is freaky, and gross but viewers can take it. What they can't take is twin-rape.

A BuzzFeed article titled “Where Season 4 of Game of Thrones Went Wrong” argues that this rape scene was unnecessary -- and named it one of the worst examples of “meaningless rapes" in the show. But in Season 4, rape became the worst kind of background noise, peppered throughout with no concrete ties to the main plot. Yes, the TV-MA  nudity can be a bit much. But at least it's consensual.

The Huffington Post criticized the scene director, Alex Graves for rejecting criticism over Jaime’s use of force. “It becomes consensual by the end," Graves said, "because anything for them ultimately results in a turn-on, especially a power struggle." The post argues,  "While power is definitely a turn-on for most characters in GoT, it's a hard fight to win insisting that anything resembling rape can be excused as a turn-on. Let's not forget that in the scene Cersei continued to say ‘no’ and ‘it's not right’ while pushing her brother away -- not exactly consensual."

I agree. No means no, period. I was also alarmed that Jaime’s forced entry did not have any consequences, or damage their relationship, which continues to be romanticized throughout the series. “You don’t choose who you love,” Jaime says. Yeah Jaime -- and you don’t rape who you love.

The Game of Thrones rape-fest continues in Season 5, when  Ramsay Bolton rapes Sansa Stark on their wedding night. This surprised and angered a number of fans, prompting them to rant about it on Twitter. Some were so fed up they decided to stop watching the show. One user tweeted, “So that's THREE main female characters raped on #GameOfThrones who weren't actually raped in the books. I think I'm done with the show.” Another added “If your female characters have to be raped to be 'interesting', examine why the same isn't said for your male characters. Also stop writing.” There were several follow-up comments from both male and female viewers.  

The Guardian article echoes this view: “Game of Thrones walks fine line on rape: how much more can audiences take?” Personally, I don’t know. Especially since GoT is not the only show with multiple rape plots. Another one is American Horror Story. Every season of of AHS includes a lead female charater being raped by a man. In American Horror Story: Murder House, the female lead Vivien Hermon is raped by a ghost. In American Horror Story: Asylum, a closeted lesbian Lana Winters is kidnapped and raped by a male serial killer. In American Horror Story: Coven, a young witch named Madison Montgomery is gang raped at a frat party. 

Male viewers tweeted that they liked seeing the actress Emma Roberts, raped on screen.“So happy @RobertsEmma got frat raped in #AmericanHorrorStory her acting is so lame," tweeted one fan. "Emma Roberts getting gang-date raped, sweet," wrote another.

It's one thing when viewers watch a show with a rape plot. It's another, when they watch it for the rape. As  puts it, “They've found enough detachment from the word "rape" as they have from accepting Roberts is a real person.” When American Horror Story: Freak Show featured yet another rape scene, viewers began to get fed up. Vagenda, an online feminist magazine, argues that American Horror Story is too sympathetic towards the rapists. “Rape is not a tool to make a character more “complex." Yes, people have their flaws. They have their demons. But the kinds of things that make a character more interesting are the kinds of things that can eventually be forgiven, if they try hard enough. We want to see ourselves in characters, but that doesn’t mean forgiving every mistake either. Some things shouldn’t be forgiven in a four-episode story arc.”

Other shows, like Scandal, have been accused of overusing the rape-for-character-building shtick. Halfway through Scandal we discover that one of the lead characters, Mellie Grant, was raped by her father-in-law. A following episode features a female US Navy officer rape victim. Another show to jump on the rape-train is Downton Abbey. In season 4, the valet of one of the house guests unexpectedly rapes servant Anna Bates. We do not see the rape, though we see her get punched in the face, dragged off to the basement, her painful cries drowned out by the live music playing upstairs.The writers were forced to defend the story after recieving over 200 complaints from fans. “Having a rape on Downton Abbey is like having a murder on the Teletubbies”, one user complained.

I agree. I really enjoyed watching Downton, I watched it with my friends in college and at home with my mother. Like most fans, I was upset to see such violence on what I considered to be a nice family drama. I don't like it, other fans don't like it, critics didn't like it.

So rape is trending, whether its’ on a BBC period show, an ABC political drama, a gory HBO fantasy series, or a supernatural thriller like AHS. Why is it trending? Not all critics are keen on it, most viewers hate it. And yet sexual violence is trending. Particularly in cases like American Horror Story, where each season has a completely different story, context, and theme. And yet they still find room for rape. Why? Is sexual violence a basic part of American Horror?  Why do shows like Scandal and Game of Thrones insist on victimizing their lead female characters? Game of Thrones featured rape as a natural, though unpleasant part of medieval life and warfare. Even though GoT takes place in a fictional world featuring monsters, dragons, and other unrealistic factors, sexual violence is accepted as an essential dose of realistic medieval life. Downton Abbey reminded viewers that rape can happen anywhere, even at a grand aristocratic estate in England.

Rape is repeatedly portrayed as an unpleasant but essential part of a convincing story. And this bothers me, because it echoes the casual "it happens" attitude that we find in rape culture.

On the other hand, television can also be used to raise awareness, and start a dialogue about rape. Joanne Froggatt, the actress who plays Anna on Downton, made a tribute to rape victims in her Golden Globes Speech. The navy officer rape story in Scandal makes a strong point about US Military Law and sexual assault. The other rape victim character Mellie Grant pledges to create an independent judicial body for sexual assault claims as a US Senator. An episode of Law and Order: SVU raised awareness about untested rape kits.

There is nothing wrong with using television entertainment to talk about rape. As long as we don't turn rape into entertainment.