On Soap Operas, Rape Is Still Treated as a Crime of Lust and Passion

Genie Francis as Laura Webber and Anthony Geary as Luke Spencer on General Hospital (Photo credit: ABC)

In the 1970s, journalist and activist Susan Brownmiller and other feminists reframed our cultural conversations about sexual assault by laying to rest the then-common notion that the impetus for rape is uncontrolled sexual desire. In her 1975 book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, Brownmiller wrote that rape “is a crime not of lust but of violence and power.” Nevertheless, pop culture remains rife with depictions of men raping women because they just can’t contain their lust. Soap operas, in particular, are notorious for their use of rape as a plot or characterization device. And while many rapes on soaps are indeed shown to be acts of power rather than desire—most often an attempt to reclaim a threatened sense of masculinity—soap writers are far from blameless when it comes to perpetuating rape myths.

Luke Spencer’s (Anthony Geary) rape of Laura Webber (Genie Francis) on General Hospital in 1979 is still the most infamous soap-opera sexual assault. Read any feminist analysis of soap operas or of rape on the small screen—even now—and you will more than likely find a reference to it. I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s in a household of women who gathered around the TV every weekday afternoon to watch their soaps, so I’ve known the Luke-and-Laura story for as long as I can remember. But I’d never seen the rape scene until I began writing this article. Given Luke and Laura’s subsequent designation as a soap-opera supercouple, I’d always imagined the assault to be at least slightly ambiguous. I was wrong.

The scene begins when Laura finds a distraught Luke alone at the Campus Disco (he’s the manager; she works there). He tells Laura he’s been marked for execution because of a mob deal gone bad, and that he’s in love with her. Turning on the music, he says, “I’m not gonna die without holding you in my arms just one time. Dance with me, Laura.” She says no, but he insists. Finally, she reluctantly dances with him but soon says, “Luke, I have to go now.” We see the back of his head turned toward her face, as if he’s kissing her. “Luke, let me call a taxi, please,” she says, trying to pull away from him. Looking increasingly fearful, she says, “No! No! No!” Then, with absolute horror, she yells, “Luke, no!”

After 30 dialogue-free seconds, during which a camera pans unsteadily around the disco, we see Luke, now standing up with his shirt open. A terrified Laura is curled up on the floor, and recoils when Luke reaches his arm out to help her up. Looking dazed, he finally turns to answer the phone, and when he turns back, Laura is gone. He picks her abandoned sweater up from the floor, saying, “Oh my god. What have I done?” and then falls to his knees, crying. Two years later, they were married in a two-episode TV event that was watched by a record-setting 30 million viewers. The couple appeared on the covers of both People and Newsweek, and to this day are considered the most iconic couple in the history of American soaps.

And though their rape-to-romance trajectory has been widely condemned, it literally saved the show: In 1978, General Hospital teetered on the verge of cancellation, thanks to low ratings. But after the assault aired, the story goes, viewers clamored for more Luke and Laura. In a 1996 interview with Soap Opera Magazine, Geary pointed out that the showrunners “never expected the audience to respond to Luke’s side of it like they did…. We did a rape, and the audience fell in love with Luke. That wasn’t our fault.” The producers quickly reframed the rape as a “seduction,” in part by scripting Laura’s reaction to the rape as bizarre and inconsistent. At one point, she writes Luke a letter that reads, “Since the night that you raped me, our lives have been bound together by all the lies that had to be told.”

Other characters’ skepticism also fuels the was-it-or-wasn’t-it doubt: After discovering the letter, Laura’s husband, Scotty (Kin Shriner), accuses her of having an affair with Luke. When she reiterates that Luke raped her, he asks, “If it was rape, then why the love letter to the guy?” In effect, the showrunners not only negated Laura’s trauma but rendered her allegations false; Laura became the fall guy for the producers’ plot reversal. In 1998, the show directly confronted the rape when Luke and Laura’s teenage son, Lucky (then played by Jonathan Jackson), learns about it from his half-brother Nikolas (Tyler Christopher). But while the attack is now explicitly addressed as rape, you’d hardly know from the rest of the storyline that our culture had progressed at all in its understanding of sexual assault. While Lucky is outraged at Luke and moves out of their family home as a result, much of the blame is still directed at Laura.

The implication is that she must have wanted the attack because she came to love Luke. In fact, Lucky explicitly levels this accusation at Laura, telling her, “Maybe you need to be kidnapped or raped to feel important to somebody.” Insults like these read like a proxy for 19 years of criticism of Luke and Laura’s relationship arc. Yet again, Laura bears the brunt of the condemnation. When Laura later initiates a conversation with Luke about the rape, his demeanor is contrite and the conversation quickly turns into an indictment of the victim. “I’ve been like a man with a noose around his neck, waiting for the hangman to come ever since,” Luke tells her. “But he never comes.” Luke’s motivation for assaulting Laura has also not budged from the 1979 portrayal that it resulted from obsession—even love. In 1998, when Luke tells their daughter, Lulu, about the rape, he says, “I loved your mother from the first moment I saw her. I couldn’t get her out of my mind.”

What’s most incredible is that statements like this are never challenged by other characters—not in 1979, and not in 1998. General Hospital can at least be credited with calling a rape a rape, though, in comparison to an assault depicted on The Bold and the Beautiful in 2015. Caroline Forrester (Linsey Godfrey) has just been dumped by her much-older boyfriend, Ridge (Thorsten Kaye). Devastated, she takes one, then two, prescription sedative pills, and Ridge’s son, Thomas (Pierson Fodé)—who previously dated Caroline and still wants her—goes to her hotel room to comfort her. As the evening unfolds, we watch them drain bottles of red wine until, eventually Caroline is slurring, speaking irrationally, and ready to pass out. When Thomas, lying beside her on the bed, moves in for a kiss, Caroline doesn’t actively resist, but only barely kisses him back, not even lifting her head off the pillow. She remembers nothing the next day, and is horrified when Thomas tells her they had sex.

Pop culture remains rife with depictions of men raping women because they just can’t contain their lust.

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In the ensuing conversation, she is consistently accusatory but never utters the word rape. Instead, she yells at him, “How could you do that to me?!” and “I didn’t want that!” The on- and offscreen controversy about the scene—apparently—stemmed from the pills: Because Thomas didn’t know she’d taken them, he claims he’s not at fault. Watching this, one would assume the show’s writers deliberately depicted Thomas in the wrong. But, astonishingly, the show’s Executive Producer, Bradley Bell, seemed to side with Thomas in a 2018 interview with TV Insider, saying that, “Thomas was under the clear perception that the sex was consensual.” He continued: “We were careful to write it so that the audience knew Caroline had taken a pill and was a bit out of it, but Thomas did not know about that pill. Caroline was kissing him back. It was very much a give and take.”

Bell’s defense is full of familiar excuses and reveals a lack of understanding about consent that would be disturbing in anyone, much less someone with an audience of 3 million. As if this plotline weren’t retrograde enough, months after the rape, Caroline tells Thomas that she knows he didn’t take advantage of her that night and that she has shared his feelings, though she wasn’t ready to admit it until now. Even in 2016, “true love” could still nullify a rape on a soap. Since the 1970s, many feminists writing about rape—Beverly A. McPhail, Ann J. Cahill, and Linda Martin Alcoff to name a few—have pulled back from the “power, not sex” argument, calling it too simplistic. “The primary weaknesses of the Patriarchal Power and Control perspective is [sic] that it narrows perpetrators’ motivations to a singular goal of power/control and views rape solely as a violent rather than a sexual act,” McPhail concludes in the 2015 Trauma, Violence, & Abuse article “Feminist Framework Plus: Knitting Feminist Theories of Rape Etiology Into a Comprehensive Model.”

A 2015 Days of Our Lives storyline reflects the soap-opera genre’s shift toward a more complex understanding of what motivates rape. Chase Jennings (Jonathon McClendon), Ciara Brady’s (Victoria Konefal) former stepbrother who has harbored a secret crush on her for months, finally confesses his feelings. He then tries to kiss her, but she rebuffs him. The last shot is a close-up of Ciara, pinned beneath Chase on the couch with tears in her eyes, as she repeatedly says, “Please stop.” Devoid of context, the scene seems to depict yet another rapist motivated by unrequited love. But Chase’s backstory complicates this: He has just learned that his father is a criminal who’s now in jail. We see him unraveling in the weeks leading up to the attack, so the rape is clearly spurred by Chase’s bad circumstances and bad choices—not by a teenage crush.

After the rape, Chase confesses to Andre DiMera (Thaao Penghlis), who is exploiting Chase’s vulnerability for his own benefit, that, “Ciara is the greatest girl I’ve ever met. And look what I did to her. I hurt her so bad. And there’s no way I can ever make that go away.” Chase recognizes that he can’t undo the rape, and he also knows that his romantic feelings for Ciara have no bearing on the impact of his crime. “I raped her,” he says. “But you loved her, didn’t you?” asks Andre, to which Chase replies, “That doesn’t change anything.” The immediate aftermath of the assault follows the usual evolution of fictionalized portrayals of rape: Ciara tells no one and falls into a depression no one understands, but her subsequent catharsis is unnecessary and, in its excess, extraordinary.

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When Ciara’s friends—Claire (Olivia Rose Keegan), Theo (Kyler Pettis), and Joey (James Lastovic)—finally learn of the rape, they capture Chase, tie him up in an abandoned warehouse, and then bring Ciara there to confront him. Joey tells Ciara, “Do whatever you want to this creep. You’re in charge.” After some hesitation, Ciara tells her friends to wait for her outside. Then, in wide shots, we see Ciara all in black, holding a piece of rebar as she circles Chase. Crying, she yells at him, “How could you do this to me?” Chase responds with tearful “I’m sorry”s. “You heard me say, ‘No,’ you heard me say, ‘Stop’!” she shouts. Chase mutters some response. “Say the words!” she yells at him. “Say the words! What did you do to me, Chase?” Finally, he responds, “I raped you!” Ciara drops the rod and walks away.

Rape survivors have traditionally been portrayed onscreen as either helpless, mournful victims who now lack control over their lives or angry, self-destructive women who believe they could have thwarted the assault if they’d made better choices. Days of Our Lives offers an alternative scenario that empowers Ciara without the slightest implication that she could have prevented it. It avoids repeating past soap patterns but also refrains from giving Ciara’s rape a feel-good, Afterschool Special treatment. She gradually heals, and while others help her, she ultimately does it on her own. As her character continues to develop, the trauma is acknowledged but never defines her.

Have soaps evolved in their portraits of sexual assault and its survivors? Yes and no. But the Days of Our Lives storyline offers hope for more nuanced, sensitive explorations of sexual trauma. And the willingness of The Bold and the Beautiful’s active fan base to name Caroline’s assault for what it was when the show’s writers wouldn’t suggests that viewers are holding showrunners accountable to an extent they haven’t in the past. Women and their allies will only put up with dismissive, distorted, dressed-up portraits of rape for so long. Producers would be wise to listen up.

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by Amanda Hiber
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Amanda Hiber writes memoir and essays about family, place, and the body, and has recently begun writing television criticism. She lives in Detroit with her partner of 15 years.