I watch a lot of television. One of my mother’s favorite stories involves her coming home from work and finding a three year-old me on her couch, pointing to a schedule grid in her TV Guide and asking to watch a primetime Scooby Doo special. As such I have a vast amount of useless pop culture knowledge. I can remember who shot J.R., when Sam first kissed Diane, and why I still want to kick Damon Lindelof in the balls over the Lost finale. I also remember a lot of really, really unnecessary rape scenes.
Like Laura Spencer’s rape on General Hospital. Krystle Carrington’s rape on Dynasty. Liz Spencer’s rape on General Hospital. Kelly Taylor’s rape on Beverly Hills 90210. Naomi Clark’s rape on 90210. Joan Holloway’s rape on Mad Men. Tara Thorton’s rape on True Blood. Gemma Morrow’s rape on Sons of Anarchy. Gillian Darmody’s rape on Boardwalk Empire. Buffy Summers’ almost-rape on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Madison Montgomery’s rape on American Horror Story: Coven.
And last night’s rape of Mellie Grant on Scandal.
Through a series of flashbacks to the early days of Fitzgerald Grant’s political career, viewers learn that Mellie Grant—currently one of television’s most reviled characters—was raped by her own father-in-law during a drunken fireside chat. Mellie, in turn, uses this as leverage to pressure Rapey Father-in-Law (played with relish by Spin City’s Barry Bostwick) into convincing his son to make a run for the California governor’s mansion.
He succeeds, and the sexual assault is all but forgotten until this episode, where we find a frazzled Mellie begging an apathetic Fitz to assist in her quest to repair her damaged reputation. “If you knew the pieces of myself that I have given away for you,” Mellie tells Fitz, alluding to the incident but never making the confession viewers were dying to hear.
And that’s it. Of course now there’s a paternity matter afoot, as we see Mellie shrug off a glass of champagne before telling her husband she’s with child at a celebration announcing Fitz’s gubernatorial run. Fitz jokingly tells her to name it Jerry if it turns out to be a boy. Awk-ward. She smiles uncomfortably and then it’s on to the next scene, just like that. As a member of a small, yet vocal, cabal of Pro-Melliers I didn’t find her that odious to begin with, so I wasn’t sure why this particular device was being used to engender sympathy.
Earlier this year, Vulture writer Margaret Lyons wrote about the difficulty of finding a television show without rape or murder. She could only count 16 trauma-free series. SIXTEEN. (For the record, a third of those shows have since been canceled, and Downton Abbey has joined the Gratuitous Rape & Murder Club.) She also found that constant exposure to rape and murder made her even more sensitive to them. It’s made me more sensitive to them as well, especially as a parent.
Having a son changes your perspective on a few things, including media that relies on tired rape tropes.
And instead of the subject being treated with the gravitas it warrants, rape is thoughtlessly tossed into episodes with nary a trigger warning. When Daenerys is raped by Khal Drogo on their wedding night it is presented in such a matter-of-fact way that you’re left feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Hell, the average primetime drama follows a formula: normal scene normal scene murder scene normal scene sex scene normal scene RAPE SCENE poker scene Fin. And it’s happening more often than we realize.
I get the idea of wanting to create great, multilayered characters. I think doing so makes for great television. Well-developed characters like Walter White, Frank Pembleton, Buffy Summers, etc., made me invest hours of time into watching them try to save the world and/or destroy it. But none of them had to be raped in order to be likeable. (Sadly, that didn’t stop Buffy’s writers from throwing in the almost-rape scene between her and Spike.)
I’m sure, had the writers given it a little more thought, they could’ve come up with a better way to make Mellie more sympathetic, more human. I would’ve been totally fine with some rare terminal disease that could only be cured by enjoying Fitz’s penis during a full moon, or her losing her mother to a bizarre lumberjack accident. ANYTHING BUT FUCKING RAPE.
Why? Because it’s a lazy and incredibly shitty plot device that—nine times out of ten—ends up being handled in such a hamfisted way that it makes me throw things at the screen. It snatches the power away from the characters, makes them objects to be acted upon instead of human beings dealing with a traumatic experience. Gemma’s rape by aryan skinheads only serves to repair the fractured relationship between her husband and son. Liz’s rape is used to transform her character from Uber Bitch to Disney Princess so that viewers were more willing to stomach her budding romance with Lucky. And Tara? I’m guessing for shits and giggles, because it did absolutely nothing for her storyline.
And what makes this whole thing even more perplexing is that Shonda and Company know better. Though I have my issues with the fact that—once again!–another annoying female character is cut down to size in an extremely violent way, when Private Practice’s Charlotte King is brutally raped in Season 4, it is handled with such thoughtfulness and care that you almost forget it was done to make her more amiable. We even get a big ole trigger warning at the beginning. And KaDee Strickland’s performance was Emmy-worthy.
Other shows have gotten it right, too. When The Sopranos’ Dr. Melfi finds the man responsible for sexually assaulting her in the stairwell of her office building, the writers are deliberate in their refusal to turn her into Tony’s vigilante project. Dealing with the violation of her person is depicted as an ongoing process, one not so easily wrapped up in a couple of episodes. Of course, they were still guilty of sandwiching the rape scene between two innocuous ones, but at least I didn’t throw my phone at the screen.
Can’t say I wasn’t tempted last night, though. What was, up until now, a fun communal viewing experience has turned into an overwrought melodrama that—judging from the Twitterverse—people are ready to leave alone. If the writers want to stop the mass exodus, they should reconsider how they use female television characters.
For help on how to navigate triggering scenes, RAINN has a few suggestions.