They’re scenes all too familiar to any TV viewer: A woman is shoved down, she screams or sobs, her eyes grow wide and then blank as she wills herself anywhere else in the world. Lately the small screen has felt particularly thick with such moments of sexual horror, as writers have been churning out story lines in which our saints, our heroines, and our hard and cruel women too, are raped or forced to relive their nightmare of it. Try to imagine a singular abuse endured by an equivalent number of male characters. And yet it seems whenever a female character needs a juicy arc or humanizing touch, writers fall back on the easy, awful crime of rape.
In a particularly cold-blooded move, Julian Fellowes & Co. went after Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), the beloved lady’s maid on Downton Abbey, earlier this season. Was there really nothing anyone could think to do with her character now that she and her husband, Bates, were enjoying a spot of happiness? Fans were subjected to a scene of Anna being viciously taken down by a visiting valet — a man, incidentally, her husband had repeatedly warned her against, but she was too naive and soft to heed his spider sense. We were spared a scene of Anna’s actual rape, but the before and after were brutal. Her disheveled hair and busted lip, her cry that she’d been soiled and would kill herself if she became pregnant. When she recoils from her unknowing husband’s touch, Bates assumes he must have failed her in some way. “It must be my fault, because she is incapable of fault,” he says. Yes, Anna is a flawless character, and such goodness doesn’t always make for interesting drama, so the writers opted to rip off her dress rather than peel back some layers of her decency.
No one would accuse Scandal‘s First Lady, Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), of being a saint, and God bless that woman for her rich and weird tangle of needs and motivations. She had established herself as one of the show’s best characters — so wounded in one moment and callous the next — when we were given a flashback episode to Fitz’s early gubernatorial run: Mellie, her eye firmly on the prize, tries to engage in a late-night strategy session with Fitz’s drunken bull of a father. Suddenly the man forces her down on the sofa and rapes her.
Many fans found the act a cruel device to trigger viewer compassion for a woman it isn’t always easy to like. This strikes me as problematic. One already felt so deeply for Mellie’s toxic and vulnerable brew, so why subject the audience to yet another scene of a woman’s physical humiliation? The crime here is of unnecessity. Granted, this is a show that burns through plot, but Mellie’s rape seemed like the cheap landing of a writers’-room story-line wheel. There are countless plot-generating life obstacles that don’t involve sexual assault (see: The Good Wife or, for that matter, almost any show with a male protagonist). We didn’t need to see Mellie on her back to know or like her better.
And why must female characters be likable in the first place? Take terrifying Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) from season 1 of House of Cards, for instance. You think she cares if we like her? Talk about someone who’s never complained to her book club that she’s sick of people-pleasing and doesn’t know how to take any “me” time. So how strange, how disappointing, to learn in season 2 that Claire was the victim of a rape in college. It’s not that women like Claire don’t get raped. Or that stories of abuse and survival and the cost of resilience aren’t important ones. But on the flip side, can’t we enjoy standing aghast in the face of Claire’s ruthlessness without saddling her with such an excruciating foundation? “You think I don’t want to smash things?” Claire snaps at her husband, Frank, after he flies into a rage when she identifies her attacker. “I know what that anger is more than you can imagine.”
Here’s something else to imagine: the idea that there are stories to tell about the sources of a woman’s anger, her ambition and fear, her brokenness and resolve, that don’t involve pinning her under some man’s heaving chest.