Everyone two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted. And that’s just in the United States.
In fact, more than a quarter-million Americans 12 and older are victims of sexual assault, according to RAINN – the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
But when you turn on the television, it seems statistics are even higher. Sexual assault has become such a common writing trope for many different series that when Variety‘s Maureen Ryan sought out looking to do a story on rape and television, the list of producers who avoid gratuitous sexual assault was much easier to generate, because of how small it was.
Not that there isn’t need to bring attention to such violence – it’s just that many in the industry think Hollywood is getting it all wrong, as one veteran female writer who asked not to be named told Ryan.
“For male showrunners, sexual assault is always the go-to when looking for ‘traumatic backstory’ for a female character. You can be sure it will be brought up immediately, like it’s the obvious place to go when fleshing out a female character.”
And even the times where there’s opportunity to showcase the true horror of a rape, like when Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark was raped by her new husband in HBO’s Game of Thrones, writers just miss the mark. In this case, it seemed the concern was more on the reaction of the other man in the room – Alfie Allen’s Theon Greyjoy – than what Sansa was going through.
“A guy actually came back at me and said, ‘Fine, would you rather have seen (it from Sansa’s point of view)?’ And I said yes, actually. If you’re going to do it, show it, and show it from the (point of view) from the woman, and don’t use it as a way to motivate a male character.”
Some producers are now taking a very proactive approach to cutting down on the number of depictions of sexual assault. Jeremy Slater, an executive producer on Fox’s The Exorcist, told Ryan that when he was looking for people to join the series’ writing room, he knew one thing in sample scripts he read that would immediately put them on the chopping block, calling it a “plague on the industry.”
“One of my hard-and-fast rules when reading spec scripts was, the second that there was a rape that was used for shock value and that didn’t have any sort of narrative purpose, I threw the script aside. And I was shocked by the number that had it.
“I would say out of those 200 scripts, there were probably 30 or 40 of them that opened with a rape, or had a pretty savage rape at some point.”
Another producer who has embargoed sexual assault is Bryan Fuller, the showrunner of Starz’s upcoming Neil Gaiman series American Gods. Fuller called such writing something that “stains a story” while at the same time “prevents you from being able to celebrate different aspects of sexuality.”
“As an adult, as a gay man, looking at my own sexuality and looking at how complicated it is, it’s hard to project a total experience of that kind of story and not be overwhelmed by the reality that this happens every day. It’s hard for me to evaluate as entertainment.”
But having a handful of producers outright ban non-narrative or unrealistic rape situations isn’t enough, according to many in the industry. Instead, it takes a broader understanding of the long-term effects of such assaults, and the fact that just because someone suffers a traumatic event like this, she is not “damaged goods” for the rest of her life.
Fixing it could simply start by listening to everyone in the writer’s room, especially the women – a group that is often overlooked, at least what one writer told Ryan.
“A lot of the time, the female voice in the room isn’t strong enough, or there are too few women, or the one woman in the room isn’t allowed to express that point of view.
“More female voices are needed, obviously, but what’s also crucial is that men learn how to listen to women and let go of their perceptions. People need to push back against these assumptions about what makes a female character interesting, especially in prestige TV, where these ideas seem to be ever-present.”
To read more of Maureen Ryan’s in-depth exploration of sexual assault in Hollywood, check out her recent story in Variety.
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