Sexual Violence and Television.

I’ve gotten to the point where I basically check out of any show that uses sexual violence as a plot device. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a serious topic that needs to be addressed in our art and in our culture. But far too often, it’s used to cheaply give gritty backstory to a female character, or worse, provide dramatic motivation to male characters.

"Employee of the Month," featuring a tour de force performance by Lorraine Bracco.

“Employee of the Month,” featuring a tour de force performance by Lorraine Bracco.

The piece of television that I thought approached sexual violence in a mature, insightful way was ironically a series that was intensely problematic in its depiction of women most of the time. In the Sopranos episode “Employee of the Month,” Dr. Melfi was raped. But this episode deviated from the main character almost entirely. It instead focused in detail on the emotional and physical consequences of the attack. And at the end of the episode, she opts not to tell the protagonist of the show that she was attacked. In dealing with one of the worst things that can happen to a person, the show demonstrated an amount of pathos and understanding that is rare in most American television.

One of the most interesting books I read in Grad School was “Movie Struck Girls.” It was about female audiences during the Silent Era, and the films they watched. In an era where motion pictures legally did not have first amendment protection, straightforward depictions of female sexuality were almost entirely censored. Instead, sexuality was depicted in White Slavery films, where virtuous girls were abducted for a life of prostitution, only to be rescued at the last possible second. Shelley Stamp argues that this was literally the only avenue for audiences to see sexuality on the screen.


I think that this use of sexual violence to deliberately titillate audiences has persisted to the present time. I think that due to the weird puritanical history of American society, it is easier for contemporary audiences to accept depictions of sexual violence than female pleasure.

I thought the pilot of Game of Thrones was problematic, though I gave it a fair shake, and bailed at the end of Season 2. In those two seasons, I saw plenty of enslaved prostitutes and victims of sexual violence, but for a show that is known for its prolific sexual content, rarely did I see women actually enjoying sex. Honestly, what is so threatening about including that in our media? And I don’t mean to pick on GoT; I bailed on House of Cards two episodes into season 2 for very similar reasons.

I do think that American media has taken an excessively prudish attitude towards an important part of human existence. But I think that the way Hollywood depicts sexual violence does nothing but trivialize the experiences of survivors for the benefit of lascivious audiences.

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