Almost 50 years have passed since All in the Family’s Edith Bunker was the victim of an attempted rape on primetime television.
“Edith’s 50th Birthday” was a groundbreaking episode, all the more remarkable for the fact that the show was a sitcom. Despite laughs that would make most views cringe today, it remains the gold standard for portraying the sheer horror and fallout of sexual assault without turning viewers off. So why aren’t today’s television producers even coming close? As proof of just how badly current shows are missing the mark, consider these headlines from the last few years:
Game of Thrones Producer Defends Sansa Rape Scene
Downton Abbey Producer Defends Anna’s Controversial Storyline
Outlander Producer Defends Graphic Rape Scene
Reign Post-Mortem: Showrunner Defends the Show's Most Controversial Scene
Westworld: J.J. Abrams Defends Sexual Violence
Some people are under the impression that the problem is the lack of women writers in series television. But while it’s true that women are woefully underrepresented in Hollywood (a recent investigation by Variety showed that almost 80 percent of scripted-television writers are male), there’s more to it than that. In the book Archie & Edith, Mike & Gloria, author Donna McCrohan explains that Norman Lear, who created All in the Family, devoted more than a year to researching, writing and producing “Edith’s 50th Birthday.” As part of his research, he consulted with rape experts and screened the episode for legal authorities and social workers in multiple cities.
Nowhere in their defense of their rape scenes do producers of current shows mention discussions with experts, let alone victims. But it should really come as no surprise given the coverage of sexual assault in our current 24-hours news cycle. We see so much about rape, we feel as if we already know everything there is to discover about it.
If viewers’ complaints teach us anything, however, it’s that producers might be better off doing less defending and more listening if they want to portray sexual assault in a way that doesn’t feel exploitative.
Even the ones doing well — which includes most of the ones doing all that defending – have a way to go. Here’s some positive feedback on what they’re doing right — along with five tips on where they could improve:
1. Attractive, young, white women aren't the only people who get raped.
Who got it right: Outlander. Despite a mixed record, no show on television has done a better overall job of depicting sexual assault.
What it got right: Outlander showed us that anyone – even a strong man – can be the victim of rape. At the end of season one, the lead male character, Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan), was brutally tortured and sexually assaulted by sadistic 17th-century army officer Captain “Black Jack” Randall (Tobias Menzies).
This alone made it different from most television shows, which overwhelmingly portray sexual assault victims as young, female and white. While partially accurate (the vast majority of rape victims are young women), males and victims of color are notoriously underrepresented.
Just consider TV’s most well-known recent rape victims: Game of Thrones’ Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner), Reign’s Mary Stuart (Adelaide Kane), Westworld’s Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell), House of Cards’ Claire Underwood (Robin Wright), Scandal’s Mellie Grant (Bellamy Young), Downton Abbey’s Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), Mad Men’s Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) and two other Outlander characters, Claire Fraser (Caitriona Balfe) and Mary Hawkins (Rosie Day). All are attractive white women, for the most part quite young (or young when they were supposed to have been raped).
Some of this is doubtless due to the current trend of historical and fantasy series on television. When its “back then,” we tend to find rape less shocking, as if it was not still an everyday occurrence in modern-day America, where a sexual assault occurs every two minutes. And on TV, “history” tends to mean white history. Even in films, sexual assault on people of color tends to be in the context of slavery. It’s probably no coincidence that nonwhites make up a very small share of working series television writers. According to the Writers Guild of America, minorities made up just 5.5 percent of showrunners and less than 14 percent of writers for the 2013-14 television season.
Yet part of what made All in the Family so powerful was that Edith was a dowdy, ordinary-looking, 50-year-old housewife. So Outlander deserves kudos for showing that sexual assault doesn’t just happen to young, white women. Plus it deserves a special bonus for making the aftermath of that assault a season-long arc instead of a one-off episode.
What it could have done better: Part of the problem for viewers is how graphically and cinematically the rapes on Outlander have been shown. But an even bigger problem (traceable, in part, to the source material) is that Black Jack Randall is portrayed as an indiscriminate rapist of the “anything that moves” variety. We see him raping or attempting to rape women, men and, in one scene, a boy (in a brothel, no less).
By delving a bit more into what motivates Randall’s choice of victims, the sexual assaults might have come across less as the atypical actions of a monster of the past than as something that can happen in any time or place when men have an inordinate amount of power and speaking out against them carries serious consequences.
2. Triggers don’t just occur in sexual situations.
Who almost got it right: Outlander, again.
What it got right: Outlander showed us that PTSD existed long before the condition ever had a name. After his release from captivity, Jamie is tormented by repetitive nightmares, insomnia and difficulty performing in bed with his wife, Claire.
What it could have done better: Jamie’s abuse seemed to have no effect outside the bedroom. In real life, triggers aren't exclusive to sleep and sexual situations. Otherwise innocuous sights, scents and sounds can remind survivors of a sexual assault, often when they least expect it.
On All in the Family, Edith didn’t just shy away from being touched by her husband, Archie. A knock on the door had her running upstairs and hiding. Loud voices scared her. Outlander had so many places where it could have shown that the trauma of rape extends into nonsexual situations – Jamie’s conversations with Claire, an inability to know who to trust in business and so on. It was a missed opportunity to present the bigger picture.
Special mention: The CW’s Reign, for its multi-episode handling of the (fictional) rape of Mary, Queen of Scots, by a group of dissident Protestants. After Mary is raped, she can’t bear even to sleep next to her husband, whose breathing reminds her of the assault. Unfortunately, the bedroom is still largely the only place where Mary is triggered. Given the number of times that as queen she is forced to interact with the court (while hiding the fact that she was raped), it was a lost opportunity to show how difficult every aspect of life can be post-assault.
3. Inadvertent victim blaming is a frequent aspect of survival.
Who got it right: The show that did the best job of showing the extent of unintentional victim blaming was the Netflix series Stranger Things, even though it didn’t deal with sexual assault.
What it got right: One of the main characters on Stranger Things is the young girl Eleven, aka Elle (Millie Bobby Brown), who was imprisoned and emotionally abused by her father. When Elle acts out, the boys she’s befriended call her “weirdo” and shun her, something that happens all too frequently to victims of abuse and sexual assault.
What it could have done better: Not much. Stranger Things gave us a child raised without normal social interaction and showed the abuse from her point of view. We didn’t just see her friends calling her “weirdo” and avoiding her — we saw why she was the way she was and how much her friends’ rejection hurt her. It made all the difference to our understanding of her loneliness and the long-term effects of her abuse.
On most television shows, the friends and family of victims are portrayed as completely supportive and understanding. On Reign, Catherine de’ Medici of all people reacts to Mary’s ordeal with compassion, and Mary’s husband, Francis, tells her to take as much time as she needs. It’s a nice prescription for how people ought to behave when someone they know has experienced trauma.
But it doesn’t reflect reality, where even well-meaning friends are likely to comment that it wouldn’t have happened if the victim had just done something differently, or to suggest the survivor put it behind her and move on. In the 16th century, Mary would have been sequestered until everyone was sure she hadn’t gotten pregnant. Then she’d have been ordered back into her husband’s bed to produce an heir. Even a few scenes showing less than fully understanding friends would have illustrated how hard getting on with one’s normal life (not just love life) after rape can be. Another wasted opportunity from a show that handled so much so well.
4. “Nice” guys are rapists, too.
Who almost got it right: Outlander — sort of.
What it got right: Cases like 2016’s Stanford rape case show that sexual assault is often committed by “nice” guys like Brock Turner — the star athletes, the model husbands, the boys next door.
Yet on television, rapists are, more often than not, portrayed as unrepentant psychopaths, like Game of Thrones’ Ramsey Bolton (Iwan Rheon) or Ed Harris’ creepy Man in Black on Westworld. On Outlander, we were teased with another side of Black Jack Randall when we saw his love for his dying brother. Yet even that was little more than an excuse to get him back together with the victims he had tormented.
Where Outlander really shone was in the character of Jamie’s narcissistic uncle, Dougal MacKenzie. While Dougal has little respect for women — he’s cheated on his wife with his own sister-in-law and tried to accost Claire — he’s not remotely one-dimensional. Willing to sacrifice his life for Scotland, his code of honor, warped though it may be, makes him a refreshingly complicated and nuanced character, if not quite a nice guy.
What it could do better: If Outlander had presented even one of the many characters that have engaged in sexual assault as a regular guy than an aberrant monster, the assaults might not have put so many viewers off.
What made“Edith’s 50th Birthday” so remarkable was less that the rape didn’t happen but that the would-be rapist was a handsome, well-spoken married man who was not entirely without compassion. As such, he wasn’t simply a monster. And that made us realize not only that rape is something that can happen to anyone but that anyone might be a rapist. In other words, sometimes it’s not what television shows but what it suggests that makes an episode effective.
5. Sexual assault survivors act out.
Who almost got it right: Stranger Things.
What it got right: In real life, people who’ve experienced abuse often act out in disturbing ways. From drug use to multiple casual sexual encounters, the desire to numb awareness or exercise control can easily take over a victim’s life. People who have been sexually assaulted can be irritable and vent their anger and frustration at what seem inappropriate times.
On Stranger Things, Elle acts out in ways that seem bizarre. Her room has to be just so, with no enclosed spaces and good sightlines, a challenge considering she must be hidden. She yells at people for no apparent reason and stalks off in the middle of conversations. She alienates her friends.
What it could have done better: Not much. Stranger Things hit a perfect balance between showing us what happened to Elle and the long-term effects of it.
Current shows that portray sexual assault tend to go in for the grand revenge gesture – Sansa feeding Ramsey Bolton to his dogs on Game of Thrones, Mary Stuart setting her attacker on fire on Reign. That can be satisfying for fantasies and historical fiction, but it doesn’t always work as well for shows trying to be more realistic.
Going back to “Edith’s 50th Birthday,” what really drove the effect of the assault home was watching the normally kind and easygoing Edith obsessively doing housework, including ironing “no-iron” sheets. When she slapped her daughter, Gloria (herself a sexual assault survivor), the stunned silence of the live studio audience proved how powerful it can be to show how a character’s personality changes after an assault.
In a world in which modern special effects can show us almost anything, producers might want to remember that it’s the small things that count. Especially when dealing with a subject as large as sexual assault.