TW: discussion of rape, violence against women
The frequency and relish with which ‘historical’ television shows (primarily made by men, for men) fetishistically represent women being brutalised, tortured, and raped by men is disturbing. The ease with which people defend these representations as ‘historically accurate’ is equally disturbing *yeah, I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones*. ‘Historically accurate’ has become a get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s become a way of shutting down legitimate criticisms of a visual culture obsessed with seeing women degraded. It’s become a way to stifle a necessary discussion about why our culture sees this as unproblematic entertainment.
If these shows are so committed to ‘historical accuracy,’ then why are their women characters’ legs and underarms waxed into oblivion and their faces impeccably made up? Why do the characters all look so manicured and blemishless and clean and glossy? Please. Unless the GoT universe has a Brazilian Butterfly salon hidden down some secret alleyway, these elements are incongruous. So, really, it’s ‘historically accurate when it suits us.’ I’m not saying that we should ignore or censor this aspect of representing history, nor am I saying that there aren’t other aspects of the show that are interesting, challenging, or enjoyable; rather, I think we should be calling out the status quo fetishised representations of women as inevitable victims, the lazy and casual use of rape as a plot device, and how this feeds into misogynistic cultural discourses.
One of the major problems with the representation of rape in these shows is that it is in service of a male plot point – so the hero can save the day, or have a reason to go to war with the perpetrator, or finally realise how much he cares about the woman etc, etc, etc. Rarely, if ever, do these shows deconstruct or indict the manner in which women’s oppression is maintained through sexual violence. Rarely, if ever, are these shows committed to examining the toxic masculinity that maintains rape culture, and how it impacts upon every moment of women’s lives. It is the carelessness and nonchalance with which these extreme acts of violence against women are represented that disturbs me. Women’s pain should not be a mere plot device for the growth and heroism of the male lead. I can’t believe that this still needs to be said. It is the ‘business as usual’ treatment of it that is so wrong. I mean, I love Outlander more than life itself, but the fact that Claire is in constant danger of rape and sexual violence a thousand times during the first season reads as a shortcut to create narrative tension/suspense/ opportunity for Jamie to heroically rescue her. I think Outlander does a great job in providing an empowered and powerful feminine perspective, but it frustratingly falls back on worn out, clichéd tropes like this too often and I sometimes find this disappointing.
There are shows that do a great job deconstructing and critiquing this violence. For me, The Fall is a brilliant example. Detective Stella Gibson, magnificently played by Gillian Anderson, articulates a powerful critique of rape culture and VAW. In monologues that launch an incisive critique of issues like slut shaming, fetishisation of women’s suffering, and discrimination against sex workers, Gibson gives voice to a perspective that refuses to treat these acts of violence as normal, or defendable.
Orphan Black is another smart show that really delves into important issues like the control exercised by patriarchal institutions over women’s reproduction, and how this control supports women’s oppression. Furthermore, Orphan Black is hopeful because it represents a group of women coming together in order to challenge this power, and to support one another – The Bletchley Circle is another great example of this collective power as well. This alternative narrative of women’s collective agency in the face of oppression is one way that the representation of violence against women can begin to unravel, pushing women’s narratives into new territories.