Alyssa Rosenberg writes about culture for the Washington Post blog Act Four.
It happened on her wedding night. On an ordinary afternoon at home. On her way back from an errand. On the floor of her boss’s office, in the gym where she was training for an assignment, in the parking garage where she left her car after work. The man who raped her was her husband. Her father-in-law. Her college sweetheart. Her name is Cersei Lannister. Claire Underwood. Skyler White. Gemma Teller Morrow. Jennifer Melfi. Joan Holloway. Elizabeth Jennings. Mellie Grant.
Almost every buzzworthy drama now on television features a female main character who has been raped. The frequency of the plotline has been criticized as lazy, “manipulative and damaging.” And it is in cases like “Downton Abbey,” which introduced a rape story line as just another cheap way to raise the stakes after a wrongful imprisonment, a jilted bride, and deaths inflicted by Spanish flu, childbirth and a car crash.
But shows such as “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “The Americans ” and “House of Cards ” have made rape survivors’ experiences and perspectives central to their storytelling and worldviews. The same shows that have been alternately praised and condemned for making viewers sympathize with difficult men have produced some of the strongest, richest recent depictions of women’s difficult choices following sexual assault.
Rape story lines of the past focused on defining perpetrators as monsters and cops as heroes. “In the 1970s and 1980s, detective programs depicted rape within a formulaic frame. Narratives featured brutal stranger attacks that were accompanied by extreme violence: victims were rendered mute and helpless by the attack; and detectives avenged rape by capturing and killing the perpetrators,” communications scholars Lisa Cuklanz and Sujata Moorti write. “Women became bit players in stories that were ostensibly about their violation.”
Even as subsequent shows incorporated ideas about sexual assault drawn from feminist thinking, Cuklanz and Moorti note, it was often men who got to teach those insights to women, and even shows such as “The Wire” and “The Shield,” which presented a more complicated view of policing, still concerned themselves more with detectives’ responses than victims’.
The new breed of prestige drama has upended that convention. These shows are interested in survivors, who are often among the central characters rather than extras. The attackers are not abstract monsters but respected members of society. The male leads are often complicit in the violence or are unacceptably oblivious to the female characters’ experiences. And no one gets rescued; no one gets a day in court. The drama is less about the process of killing, jailing or confronting a rapist, and more about how these women’s lives have been inflected by their rapes, often years into the future.
On “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s epic fantasy series, which returns Sunday for its fourth season, one of the most prominent characters is Cersei Lannister, queen of Westeros. She begins the series as a villainess who carries on an affair with her brother and arranges for the murder of her husband. Lena Headey plays Cersei as if she is always a second away from raking someone with her fingernails. Her smiles are contaminated by contempt or impatience. She is quick to threaten anyone she perceives as a challenger.
But we learn that the king she wanted so badly to love raped her repeatedly during their marriage, shattering her chivalric dreams (and the tropes of high fantasy) and complicating our understanding of her behavior. We can view the bloody war of succession that follows her husband’s death as a kind of punishment for the men who arranged her marriage and left her a prisoner in it. Her actions are a revenge fantasy on a grand scale. “Game of Thrones” strikes a deft balance: Learning about Cersei’s experiences does not exonerate her of her worst actions, but it does clarify her motivations and her view of the world.
While Cersei is freed from her abuser, she can do little to change the norms that made her rape, and so many others, permissible. Her own son begins to exhibit a streak of sexual sadism. And this season, Cersei must stand with her father when a prince from a neighboring kingdom reopens accusations that the Lannisters had his sister, Cersei’s predecessor, raped and murdered.
Cersei, like other characters in “Game of Thrones,” rages against the idea that female life and female safety are cheap. The horror of the show is not just that sexual assault is commonplace but that women like Cersei often have little choice but to work with the people who are the authors of their misery. And even cooperation is no guarantee of protection. When Cersei’s father tries to arrange another marriage for her, her terror is obvious as she begs him, “Don’t make me do it again, please.”
If “Game of Thrones” is a dark fantasy set in a world where women can be raped with impunity, AMC’s “Mad Men” is often concerned with how rape is defined. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the savvy, competent head of the secretarial pool, is raped by her fiance, Greg (Sam Page), in the second season of the show. “Pretend I’m your boss,” he tells her. That command allows him to avoid thinking of himself as a rapist. But his words also highlight that her co-workers’ behavior is on a continuum with rape. The advertising executives pull up secretaries’ skirts to look at their panties, coerce immigrant nannies into affairs and even force themselves on female clients.
Joan is a kind of forerunner to women who do not report their rapes today. She marries Greg, rather than prosecuting him, and tries to settle into life as a housewife. But as the marriage is breaking up, she is able to confront her experience and use it as a tool to drive Greg away. “You’re not a good man,” she spits out in the middle of an argument. “You never were; even before we were married, and you know what I’m talking about.” The clash between their versions of events is stark.
Fast-forward to the 1980s and the FX Cold War spy show “The Americans.” In the pilot, we meet Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), deep-cover KGB spies who are tracking down a Soviet defector. The man turns out to be Elizabeth’s former KGB instructor and her rapist, something her husband learns at the same time the audience does.
The first season of “The Americans” could have been structured as an extended hunt for Elizabeth’s rapist. But the show did something more unusual, killing him off in the first episode and focusing instead on the consequences of her disclosure for her marriage. Series creator Joe Weisberg and executive producer Joel Fields give her a clear trigger for intense anxiety. When someone approaches her from behind, the way her rapist did, Elizabeth’s fingers tighten around a kitchen knife. In the most recent episode, she urges her husband to have sex with her in the guise of an identity he relies on as part of his spycraft, only to end up hysterical after he uses a position and force that recalled her rape. The scene is effective not just because it is upsetting, but because Elizabeth has worked so hard to learn to build a closer, more trusting relationship with her husband, and we see her find herself up against the limits of that trust.
This season, Elizabeth also repurposes the details of the rape for a cover story, telling a young sailor that she wants the files of one of his superior officers so she can pursue a prosecution against the man. Her mark in that mission responds with a sensitivity and tenderness that Elizabeth has denied herself for so many years by keeping her attack a secret, and his kindness clearly affects her. Fields explained to me: “The idea that these emotionally inarticulate, repressed characters might accidentally stumble into a way to start expressing themselves unawares, while in disguise . . . that was something very interesting to explore.”
This particular story line gave Elizabeth a chance to imagine a real prosecution, not just a revenge killing, and a different path for how she might have survived and healed.
In its otherwise silly second season, “House of Cards” found a resonant note with a story that, like so many policeprocedural plots before it, was ripped from the headlines. After encountering the Marine Corps general who raped her, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) decides to identify herself publicly as a rape survivor and to become an advocate for reforming how the military handles rape accusations, in much the same way those in the documentary “The Invisible War” have done.
It is rare for pop culture to put rape survivors in conversation with each other, but “House of Cards” does that when Claire begins working with another survivor, a much younger service member named Megan (Libby Woodbridge). Claire pushes Megan to speak publicly about her assault, then profoundly disappoints her after brokering a deal to pass a much more limited bill than the one they advocated.
Megan’s subsequent breakdown reaches through Claire’s implacable exterior. She had believed that, like her husband, the vice president, she was a canny, detached political operative, capable of cutting deals without attachment or regret. But after visiting Megan, Claire sobs on the steps of her townhouse. The story line illustrates the cruel power of rape, an experience that can isolate survivors even from each other. It is one of the rawest emotional arcs in “House of Cards.”
All of these shows have viewers who are just in it for the transgression — or as New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum describes them, “the ‘Sopranos’ buffs who wanted a show made up of nothing but whackings . . . the ones who get furious whenever anyone tries to harsh Don Draper’s mellow.” Without women in the frame, those fans might get what they want: a version of “Game of Thrones” that is all about the battles, a “Mad Men” that is a celebration of the days before sexual harassment laws.
Those shows might be intermittently entertaining, but they would not be nearly as good and as thoughtful as the series we have instead. Rape survivors once served to make male characters feel good about themselves. Now the women in these dramas are a testament to the idea that men may build the world, but the rest of us have to live in it.
More Golden Age television dramas with major sexual-assault plot points:
In the 2001 episode “Employee of the Month,” Tony Soprano’s (James Gandolfini) therapist Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is raped in a parking garage. As she struggles to recover from the experience — and considers enlisting Tony’s help in obtaining justice outside the law — the show meditates on the dangers of being seduced by Tony, both for her and for us.
In the third season of FX’s breakout drama about corrupt Los Angeles cops, precinct captain David Aceveda (Benito Martinez) is sexually assaulted, becoming the most prominent male survivor in Golden Age dramas.
The 2005 season of the HBO drama had a running subplot involving Francis Wolcott (Garret Dillahunt), a serial killer of prostitutes who believes he has the tacit approval of his employer. When he is exposed, Wolcott commits suicide.
“Sons of Anarchy”
In the second season of “Sons of Anarchy,” Gemma Teller Morrow (Katey Sagal) is raped by members of a white-supremacist gang who are trying to intimidate her husband and son. Her effort to conceal the attack helps protect their motorcycle gang but takes a toll on her psyche.
In the fifth season’s “Madrigal” episode, Walter White has sex with his wife, Skyler, without her consent. He has been sexually aggressive to her in the past, an assertiveness spurred by his move into crime.
The season-three episode “Everything’s Coming Up Mellie” revealed that first lady Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young) was raped by her father-in-law, and as a result, she is unsure of the parentage of her first child. The subplot explains some of the coldness between Mellie and her husband (Tony Goldwyn), who is carrying on an affair with crisis manager Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington).
Callie (Maia Mitchell), who has bounced between foster homes, finally begins to grapple with a secret she has been keeping: Her foster brother in a previous household raped her and told her to keep quiet about it so she would not be removed to yet another family.