The Americans, a spy show developed by ex-CIA agent Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, illustrates the unique physical and psychological dangers that threaten women in espionage, the military, and law enforcement—namely, rape. On television and in real life, institutional sexism allows this behavior to go on. And this series in particular may suggest that unfortunately, for women, being in sexually hostile situations has for too long been a part of the job.
On The Americans, Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is a KGB officer who is deep undercover as an American housewife in a D.C. suburb. In the pilot episode (spoilers ahead, obviously!), she and her so-called husband Philip—also a Russian spy—are sent to kidnap Timochev, a Soviet defector. However, we find out in a flashback that, back in Russia, Timochev raped Elizabeth while she was training as a cadet. Philip doesn’t know about Elizabeth’s abuse and considers giving Timochev back to the FBI in return for $3 million.
But when Philip mentions to Elizabeth the prospect of turning in Timochev, Elizabeth shuts him down. Philip wants to turn the hostage in anyway, but when Timochev alludes to having hurt Elizabeth, her fear finally turns to anger and then to revenge: she swiftly beats the hostage nearly to death, and Philip husband kills him. After Philip and Elizabeth dump the body (and after over a decade of marriage), she starts to tell Philip about her past—about her life before the KGB.
In this show, the rape is treated not only as an injustice but as an institutional problem. We see a male coach who’s complicit in the violence; he casually leaves Elizabeth alone in the gym with her aggressor, Captain Timochev. We hear that Elizabeth was not the only victim; Timochev says that men of privilege having their way with the female subordinates was a “perk.” And when Elizabeth tells General Zhukov that Timochev is dead, Zhukov says hauntingly that she was “just a child”—he knew that she had been brutalized but he did nothing.
In real life, institutional sexism is rampant in comparable demanding and dangerous sectors including the U.S. military. Only last month did Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta lift a ban that forbade female troops, who comprise 15% of U.S. military personnel, from officially serving in combat positions. This new ruling opens up “hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after generations of limits on their service,” according to the AP.
But as Michelle Bernard of The Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy pointed out in The Washington Post, the more pressing reason to promote women isn’t simply gender equity but, as The Americans points out, prevention of sexual violence against women within the ranks:
The irony is that while Defense is ready to allow women to serve in combat roles, the Air Force (and probably other branches of the military) is still struggling with how to protect the women and men in its ranks from sexual assault by their peers and commanders during basic training….To date, 59 survivors of sexual assault at Lackland [Air Force Base in Texas] have been identified. Thirty-two drill sergeants and training instructors have been charged with crimes or policy violations that range from rape to inappropriate contact after graduation.
The Navy, too, has a documented problem with its culture contributing to sexual assault. Sabrina Rubin Erdely reported in the February 14, 2013 edition of Rolling Stone (subscription required) on the story of Petty Officer Rebecca Blumer, who was drugged and raped: “The military she’d trusted to care for her wasn’t interested in caring for her at all….It was Blumer’s first glimpse of a hidden side of military culture, in which rapes, and the sweeping aside of rapes, happen with disturbing regularity.”
This is not to diminish the work of the military nor to say that all women in the service are victims or that all male troops are by default hostile toward women. Rather, it’s crucial to call attention to a military culture that, until recently, segregated women from men and has long enabled women to be treated as second-class citizens—which, at its worst, entails sexual assault.
On television and in real life, sometimes the aggressor is not an enemy combatant but rather a male superior or peer who commits sexual violence against a female compatriot. But thanks to real-life women coming forward to tell their stories, new policy changes have the potential to address an injustice that, like the Cold War, should be a relic of the past.