Trigger warning: This article discusses sexual assault. Spoiler alert: This articles contains spoilers for Jessica Jones, House of Cards, Kimmy Schmidt, Downton Abbey, Gone Girl and Game of Thrones.
Over the past few years I’ve noticed an increase in the number of television shows and films that center around characters who are survivors of sexual assault, and initially I hailed this as a positive thing. The inclusion of survivors in pop culture narratives increases awareness of the issue. However, many films and shows often misrepresent or fail to accurately portray the experiences of survivors.
On the surface, many on-screen survivors seem to represent an empowered woman. Look to Netflix’s Jessica Jones or Lisbeth Salander from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. These women are easily described as badass. Strong, skilled, secretive and tasked with the goal of seeking vengeance on the men that wronged them, these women regain control of their own lives. Yet somehow their “dark and mysterious” pasts make them more appealing as love interests, as their trauma is used to sexualize them. Both Jessica Jones and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo center upon romances where the male character is drawn to the woman in part for her secretive nature. Damaged women are fetishized, and in effect, the trauma is no longer about the character development of the woman, but a way to make her more appealing to a male viewership.
Their assaults are catalysts for the stories: victims of assault then forced into heroism, only finding a cathartic release when they exact revenge on their rapists. This type of story defines the “Rape and Revenge” subgenre that many female driven action narratives, like Kill Bill and Jessica Jones, are characterized by. They also support the real life assumptions that survivors are all spiteful toward their perpetrators.
And even if they’re not solving mysteries or beating up criminals, survivors are often portrayed as distant and bitter. This is seen in characters like Jessica Jones and Claire Underwood of House of Cards, both of whom have experienced assaults that occurred before the show’s timeline and are portrayed as driven women but also emotionally distant until they confront their attackers. Their past trauma is used to justify their cold personalities, and to make the characters more sympathetic by creating their vulnerabilities.
While both of those characters have created interesting discussions about the recovery process from sexual trauma, probably the most notable has been from a comedy, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Unlike the dower depiction of survivors seen before, the title character, Kimmy, is upbeat and optimistic while still coming to terms with a traumatic past and the effects of PTSD. Not all survivors are bent on revenge. In fact, each survivor’s path to recovery is different, but that variety is often ignored. This show’s alternate taking of the standard narrative is refreshing for its representation of the healing process, as it is a radical departure from the vengeance plots we’ve seen before.
A greater, but all too common travesty is when a character is violated, and the act is used only to further the plot of another character, typically a man. One of the more recent examples of this can be found in Birth of a Nation from earlier this fall. The problematic history of the writer/director’s alleged sexual assault aside, the rape scene in the film does not address the real issue of rape of many women during slavery, and instead it focuses on the reaction of the men to the assault. Similar issues are reflected in Game of Thrones when the rape of Sansa serves as a vessel for Theon’s reaction, and in Downton Abbey where the main concern following Anna’s assault is how her husband will handle the news. These shows use sexual violence as plot points for another person’s story, trivializing both the act and the survivors themselves.
While real life rates of false reporting are relatively low, Hollywood does seem intrigued by the “liars.” Women who fake victimhood to gain sympathy is nothing new. While many victims of assault are depicted as being emotionally fragile, women who lie about assaults are depicted as two-faced and manipulative. No woman exemplifies this more than Amy, from Gone Girl, who, in an infamous scene, inserts a wine bottle violently into herself to fake the physical evidence of rape and frame her victim. And it’s not just dramas. Comedies like Chris Rock’s Top 5 from 2014 included a scene in which women falsely claimed they were raped to get Rock’s character arrested.
While some do interpret these scenes as feminist, using the patriarchal notion of women consistently being victims to instead empower themselves continues to fuel that idea that survivors are often liars. The fake victims use their falsified attack to manipulate people, gain sympathy or attack innocent men. This damaging narrative in fiction contributes to the struggle of many real life survivors who are accused of lying or attempting to unjustly ruin their perpetrators’ life.
The portrayals of rape on-screen today are often still patriarchal and trivialize the victims’ experiences. And when film and television don’t address something, often neither does society. How these writers, directors and actors choose to portray sexual violence in their work affects the public perception on the realities of rape. Rape culture is reinforced by not only what we say and do, but also what we fail to address, and sexual violence is complex and its depictions in media should reflect that.
The shows and films we watch can have profound affect on how the world sees survivors of sexual assault and often how survivors see themselves. There is no single narrative about rape, and people’s real life experiences are as varied as their responses. So while there have been realistic and honest depictions of rape on-screen, no single representation can ever be accurate to all victims of sexual violence. If film and television continue to pigeonhole survivorship into a few simple tropes, it will do neither the viewers nor the community of survivors any justice.