This story was originally published on May 1, 2017.
An adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale just dropped on Hulu, and it feels even more relevant now than it did when the book was first published in 1985. In an era when control over women’s bodies—whether through bathroom bills targeting trans women or the militancy of the anti-abortion movement—is a growing legislative and social theme, storytelling that explores the issue is particularly timely. Unfortunately, in a world where women are treated like objects, their stories often end up being used as a means to an end in media and pop culture. Instead of putting women in control at the heart of their own narratives, society talks around them, keeping them voiceless and powerless.
This is particularly true in the case of rape narratives, whether revolving around a theocratic imposition, an abusive marriage, or rape on campus. Five years ago, film critic Drew McWeeny commented that he’d finally lost his patience with gratuitous rape scenes used for cheap thrills, and yet, as Sansa Stark, Julia Wicker (The Magicians), and Tris (Divergent) can illustrate, nothing has changed. We must change the way we talk about rape, or we pass on and reinforce the exact same rape culture to the next gen of media consumers.
The Handmaid’s Tale, rooted in a victim-centered narrative told by the subject, for herself and her lost generation of women, is a standout. More commonly, we see stories like 13 Reasons Why, another recent streaming adaptation of a popular book, in this case a cautionary, moralistic tale of sexual assault and suicide that isn’t about the victim at all, but instead the character development of the boy who loved her. This theme, in which a victim/survivor’s rape becomes something about someone else and the people around her, is as old as time.
Because we live in a culture that wants to distance itself from culpability when it comes to sexual assault, many narrative structures surrounding rape are ones of dehumanization and depersonalization. The way we think about rape is fed by societal attitudes surrounding power and gender, pop culture, and rape culture in a self-fulfilling construct where rape, it turns out, is about the people around the victim/survivor; because putting a human being at the center of the scene means acknowledging the very intimate nature of sexual assault and the hard truth that behind every headline, there’s a person who experienced a profound violation.
The trend of telling stories about everyone but the victim/survivor was brought home in 2016, when the very high profile Brock Turner rape case highlighted the fact that the judiciary has a soft spot for the wealthy and privileged, with Judge Aaron Persky offering Turner a relatively mild sentence because “a prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.” Yet, it wasn’t the sentencing that caused the case to blow up in the headlines, as such judgment calls are not uncommon. Instead, it was the victim statement that ensured Turner’s name would become nearly synonymous with horrific injustice.
The document, originally published at BuzzFeed News, was a sharp, unflinching chronicle of sexual assault and its aftermath, in the victim’s own words. As other media outlets picked it up, they followed BuzzFeed’s lead, providing little context and instead allowing her to speak for herself. Even in anonymity, Jane Doe had an opportunity to retake control of the narrative, and to make it about her experiences and how Turner’s actions affected her, rather than Turner.
While many media outlets plowed forward with headlines referencing Turner’s socioeconomic status and athletic privilege, calling him the “Stanford swimmer,” her statement introduced a note of disquiet and jarring dissonance to the conversation. Doe wasn’t interested in letting this become yet another rape case, and by speaking out, she redirected the conversation away from the Brock Turner Story. The interest in Turner translated into a growth of interest in similar cases, and a larger conversation about rape and criminal justice, including a discussion of how calls for harsh sentences feed the incarceration complex.
In pop culture, the use of rape as a plot device or tool for character development is ubiquitous—we see more Brock Turner Stories than we do Handmaid’s Tales. When rape appears in pop culture, it comes with a serious load of baggage. Even so-called “feminist” media falls into this trap, as seen on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary. In the midst of paeans to the show’s feminist credentials, few mentioned one of the more egregious storylines on the show, in which the eponymous lead is sexually assaulted to further another character’s redemption arc, and this is bizarrely accepted as perfectly reasonable.
Breaking this cycle may feel impossible, because it’s iterated repeatedly all around us, but it shouldn’t be. Jane Doe provided a glimpse into how the media can reframe the way it reports on and discusses rape. Emma Sulkowitz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight) evolved from a senior thesis on rape culture to a national phenomenon as she took powerful control of the story of her sexual assault, and the conversation about campus sexual assault more broadly. The Hunting Ground used the same kind of victim-centered narrative in the documentary arena with intimate portraits of women working on campus sexual assault. Queen creator of TGIT who owns ABC’s primetime Thursday lineup, Shonda Rhimes, has explored victim-centered rape storylines on Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and Private Practice.
Advocating for more victim-centered narratives is met with fears of pushing a “feminist agenda.” Sometimes, the very creators and stars of those narratives voice fears of feminism—as in the case of the cast of The Handmaid’s Tale, which recently pulled an “it’s not feminist, it’s humanist!” However, victim-centered coverage and discussions don’t necessarily carry an inherent agenda, and are simply one way of presenting a story, as in the case of NPR’s striking investigative series on campus sexual assault, which is rooted in facts-based reportage that happens to put victims/survivors first. Conversely, rape apologism and stories in which victims/survivors are effectively erased aren’t accused of having an “agenda,” broadly accepted as the status quo in media coverage and pop culture even though it’s far from neutral.
Pop culture, too, has shown that it’s possible to tell a different story about rape. In Veronica Mars, the lead character’s rape is a persistent theme throughout the series and one that drives her own character development, rather than that of the people around her, as she seeks justice. With Lucky, Alice Sebold narrated the experience of rape in a deeply personal memoir. In House of Cards, Claire Underwood’s experience with rape informs her legislative agenda—and creates a complicated sticking point between her and her husband.
It’s clear, then, that people are telling victim-centered narratives and that people want to see them. Yet there’s a serious mismatch between the storytelling available and what people want, and the way people discuss the media that are available to us. Thus reams of op-eds on Turner’s sentence were penned when simply reprinting the victim statement would have been commentary enough, while rivers of ink were spilled over the atrocious handling of rape on Game of Thrones, but people didn’t delve into fantasy landscapes where rape is depicted well. Instead, the sexual assault on the show was turned into another block to beat it with, a prop for pageviews and bemoaning the state of rape culture without presenting meaningful alternatives for those thirsty for authentic narratives.
Until we can normalize victim/survivor-centered narratives in media and pop culture, we’re going to maintain a vicious media cycle that dehumanizes women. That’s particularly true of women at the intersection of several oppressions, like trans women who are erased in the stories of their own murders, women of color who are sexualized and blamed for their rapes, and disabled women, who are invisibilized from society altogether.
This is not just a question of centering more stories on victims and survivors, though. It’s imperative to explore which stories are centered, and why. Rape in pop culture often seems to surround white, conventionally attractive young women, while “perfect victims” in society fall out along similar lines. Revictimization via slut shaming, comments about a victim’s career or social activities, racist remarks, and similar judgmental actions try people in a court of opinion when they’re the victims, a reminder that justice is only accessible for some. Communities more vulnerable to rape, meanwhile, are rarely present in media or pop culture conversations because their healing and stories are even more complex and difficult to hold. It’s easier to gloss over them and choose another victim’s narrative that will more appeal to the masses and gain sympathy.
As consumers and critics of people consuming and criticizing media and pop culture, we of course have an ethical imperative to critique the handling of sexual assault. But that imperative comes not just with a requirement to call out bad media—we must also be uplifting the media that does it well and demand more of it. up good media, and talking about why we need, and want, more of it. Narratives that humanize and personalize rape, ones that confront people with a reality they’d prefer to avoid, are an extremely effective weapons against rape culture, but only if we provide space for them to flourish.