The truth about TV’s rape obsession: How we struggle with the broken myths of masculinity, on screen and off - Salon.com
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“The Sopranos” did it in 2001, when Lorraine Bracco’s Jennifer Melfi was suddenly and violently raped in a parking garage. “Veronica Mars” made it part of the titular protagonist’s backstory, in the 2004 pilot. In 2006, “The Wire” introduced and then never confirmed it, when it showed us the story of Randy (Maestro Harrell) keeping watch as a girl named Tiff “fooled around” with two boys in the bathroom. “Mad Men” did it in 2008, when Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) was raped by her fiancé, Greg (Sam Page) on the floor of Don’s office.
A few shows were practically founded on it—“Law And Order: SVU,” which premiered in 1999, has dealt with rape in nearly every episode of its 16-season and counting run. “Oz,” the 1997 HBO show set in a prison, regularly featured male-on-male rape.
But starting around the turn of the decade, rape on television morphed from a delicate topic to practically de rigueur. In the last two years alone, shows as vastly different as “Downton Abbey” and “Game Of Thrones” have graphically portrayed violent rape—typically, but not always, perpetrated by men onto women—to the point that depictions of sexual assault on television have become a regular part of the national discourse. “SVU,” “Outlander,” “Broad City,” “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Orange Is The New Black,” “Tyrant,” “Stalker,” “Shameless,” “Scandal,” and “House Of Cards” have all handled sexual assault, in their own way—either by depicting rape, exploring whether or not a sexual encounter is rape, or making jokes about how often rape happens. For a crime that has a dismal 2 percent conviction rate, it certainly is getting talked about an awful lot.
I can identify that this is a phenomenon that is happening. It’s a little harder to explain why. Some of it is purely a numbers game: There’s more television than ever—and more and more of that television is not on broadcast networks, with their stricter censorship rules and mandates for reaching a mainstream audience. It’s certainly easier to depict and discuss sexual assault on television now than it ever was before.
But that’s not the whole story. I joke, morbidly, that my job title has changed from television critic to “senior rape correspondent” because I cover televisual sexual assault with alarming frequency. The cases, on TV, run the gamut from 14-year-old girls drugging 18-year-old boys into having sex with them and plots attempting to reconstruct hazy memories of late-night drinking to men raping other men as an act of war and husbands raping wives in the bedroom. It’s a topic that engages, uncompromisingly, with our notions of gender, sexuality, power, and equality. And despite the barrage of sexual assaults on television, it’s a crime that occurs far, far more often in real life.