When television critics, TV executives, and the creators and casts of new shows get together in Los Angeles every summer for the semiannual Television Critics Association Press Tour, you can be sure that a couple of things will happen. Critics will go stir-crazy after two weeks spent mostly in the confines of a hotel ballroom. A showrunner will speak a harsh and refreshing truth that sends everyone scrambling to file. And someone will say something inept about sexual assault.
I’m not at press tour this summer because I’m working on a couple of other projects. But I wasn’t remotely surprised to hear that Casey Bloys, the new president of programming at HBO, had worked himself into a verbal tangle when NPR’s Linda Holmes asked him about the frequency of rape plots on the network’s shows.
It’s remarkable that public relations departments aren’t briefing network executives and talent about this question, which has come up at every press tour I’ve attended. If nothing else, better answers, no matter how canned they are, would help advance discussions about the depiction of sexual violence, instead of leaving us stuck in the same frustrating intellectual morass. So here are seven sets of questions I’ll be asking next time I’m at press tour, or any other time they’re relevant.
1. Do you believe that sexual violence is fundamentally similar to other sorts of violence? If so, why? If not, what makes it different? In responding to Holmes’s question, Bloys tried to cast sexual violence as part of a generally violent aesthetic. But given that at least some audiences respond differently to a fistfight, a medieval battle and a rape, it’s worth teasing out how executives themselves feel about different classes of violence.
2. What are you interested in saying about sexual assault, either in the context of a single story or across your network or studio’s mix of programming? When you consider the overall mix of storytelling on your network, do you worry when plot elements recur across multiple shows, especially when those plot elements are used in similar ways in different stories? I think it’s completely reasonable to depict sexual violence if you’re telling a story about sexual violence. But saying that you’re depicting something because you want to discuss it in a meaningful way is not the same way as actually doing it. I’d like to see more executives and artists put their money where their mouths are and discuss the animating ideas behind the violence.
3. If you believe your exploration of violence is “not specific to women,” what stories are you telling, or do you plan to tell, about men’s experiences with sexual assault? Do you believe men and women’s experiences with sexual violence are the same or different? Jokes about prison rape don’t count.
4. Shooting rape scenes, or the aftermath of such scenes, is a challenging process. Are there rules your standards and practices departments have set for such scenes, or shots you try to avoid because of how they might cause a movie or episode to be rated? What conditions do you try to preserve on set when you or your showrunners are shooting such scenes? How should actors be prepared for these scenes? What, for you, causes a scene to feel violent rather than sexual? What we see on our television and movie screens is almost never determined by pure artistic inspiration. Making visible the conditions under which artists and executives do their work and make big decisions is important. And talking about specific craft decisions may get us further with artists and the people who produce their work.
5. What stories about sexual assault by other artists do you admire, and why? Can you name a story about sexual assault that you think was badly done or unnecessary, and explain why you feel that way about it? If it’s worrisome to see directors and showrunners treat rape like a spice that can be added to any story to give it added kick, I also don’t like the idea of starting from the assumption that depictions of sexual assault are bad until proved good. I’d like to hear more artists and executives talk about these stories as part of a genre that can be done poorly or powerfully, and to establish some markers for what works and what doesn’t.
6. Given the heated nature of conversations about sexual assault, do you have any hesitation about including rape plots in stories where sexual assault is not the main subject of the work? I think the key to a lot of these conversations is trying to understand whether artists and executives see sexual assault as a special class of violence or not.
7. Do you think the frequency of stories about sexual assault has made these stories less shocking to viewers? Do you assume audiences have certain levels of knowledge or shared ideas about sexual assault that they might not have had ten years ago? Are there things you can say about rape now that you felt you couldn’t say previously? I understand that the prevalence of stories about sexual violence is exhausting for some viewers. But it’s also true that the taboos around discussing sexual assault prevent difficult conversations about whom it happened to, who committed rape and what could be done to stop it. If artists and networks want to keep going back to this well, I’d be curious to press them on what they have to say that’s new or different.