Evil men lurk in the shadows of most television worth watching. Pick up the remote, and you’ll soon find a woman being attacked.
The choices are limited for those not seeking the very worst of human nature during their leisure time. Most successful dramas, from ABC to AMC to HBO, can’t resist the urge to throw in at least a threat of sexual violence.
Our appetite for crime procedurals and savage worlds in turmoil is partly to blame. “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” rips its stories from the plentiful real-life headlines, but even the women battling zombies are terrorized by their fellow survivors.
Fans of “Criminal Minds” and “SVU” know what they’re getting — a weekly dose of bad guys taking aim at female targets. “The Killing” returns Sunday with the violent rape of a homeless teen. But even outside grim whodunits, too often men are reduced to predators and women their prey.
The sheer number of rape tropes clogging the TV listings begs for scrutiny. Are these stories just honest attempts to depict a harsh reality, a result of lazy showrunners pushing the “edgy” button, or cynical pandering to a misogynistic audience?
“Who’s gonna book a room in the Rape-slash-Murder Motel?” — Norma Bates, “Bates Motel”
Sexual violence is how the sword-and-shield gangs on “Game of Thrones” celebrate a successful siege. But even far from battle, the threat exists on HBO’s critical darling whenever a woman or girl is isolated and outnumbered.
Damsel-in-distress Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) was once rescued from rioters, only to be married against her will. King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) walked her down the aisle, then hissed, “Maybe I’ll pay you a visit tonight after my uncle passes out. How would you like that? You wouldn’t? That’s all right.”
The idea of rape as an inevitability — or at least a constant threat — also gets trotted out often in the apocalyptic constructs of “Revolution,” “The Walking Dead” and “Battlestar Galactica.” The History channel’s scripted serial “The Vikings,” despite endless source material, has been more restrained with its carefully parsed scenes than most of the fictional worlds TV has created, which, to be fair, have not re-imagined human nature.
“Sons of Anarchy,” FX’s drama about biker gangs, created a formidable female lead in Gemma (Katey Sagal) in its first season. Gemma was gang-raped at the begging of Season 2, the attack depicted with an especially upsetting use of sound and tight close-ups. Sagal’s award-winning performance as a survivor trying to cope while keeping her trauma a secret was revelatory, partly because Gemma was given more to do than the usual TV options.
Sexual violence usually ends up making things worse for a female character. She can become frigid, or she can have lots of risky sex. She can become a drunk or a man-hater, workaholic kickboxer or jittery pill-popper. She can obsessively seek revenge, maybe with the help of our male hero.
Or, if she’s Norma Bates, she can fly off the handle. “Bates Motel” was only halfway through its pilot when Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) was stalked and attacked. It was a shocking scene that set many train wrecks in motion. But Norma deserved better. The same show that handcuffed her to that table has since made her fascinating for other reasons.
Like Veronica Mars and Dr. Melfi on “The Sopranos,” Norma Bates didn’t need to be raped to be interesting, but they threw it in there anyway. And don’t forget about the sex slaves in the basements all around town in this series.
Rape is an easy, “gritty” way to instantly make a woman evil, motivated or crazy. It’s also an efficient way to establish a man’s place on the continuum from honorable to despicable.
“When we make camp tonight, you’ll be raped. More than once. None of these fellows have ever been with a noblewoman. You’ll be wise not to resist. They’ll knock your teeth out.” — Jaime Lannister, “Game of Thrones”
Rape does a lot of heavy lifting in the fantasy genre. Even in realms where dragons lay waste to cities of slave masters, it epitomizes a special brand of evil. And men who don’t participate get a gold star.
“Game of Thrones” villain Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) can claim no honor after killing the king he had sworn to protect. Even for this show, he’s detestable, the kind of guy who pushes little boys from tower windows.
But events this season have created a redemptive arc for him. How can you tell the Kingslayer’s heart is melting? He actually exerts himself to prevent a gang rape.
And despite his traveling companion Brienne (Gwendolyn Christie) having been established as a fierce warrior, she remained in danger from the same men for five episodes, with Jaime showing up one last time to yank her out of a literal bear pit before her captors could take turns attacking her.
Shows based on medieval history back up HBO’s fantasy version. (Rewind time further to “Rome” or “Spartacus” and the examples become too depressing and explicit to list.) Why did Jane Rochford betray the Boleyns on “The Tudors”? Revenge for wedding-night brutality. On “The Borgias,” Lucrezia’s husband forces himself on her on a regular basis.
Even critical favorites use marital rape to flesh out characters. On “Homeland,” Brody (Emmy winner Damien Lewis) violates his wife in the pilot to establish just how screwed up he is. “Mad Men” fans are relieved that Joan (Christina Hendricks) is free of the creep they called “Dr. Rapist.”
“Breaking Bad” toned down a chilling, much-discussed bedroom scene between Walter and Skylar White last season, but Walt had long ago tried to rape his wife in the kitchen. At least Skylar loathes her husband for it.
“She’s just in the next room. Why don’t you go in there and rape her? I’ll hold her arms down.” — Betty Draper, “Mad Men”
Soap operas, supposedly made for women, burst at the seams with sexual violence, some of it graphic. “General Hospital’s” Luke and Laura, that iconic meant-to-be couple, got together after he drunkenly raped her in 1978.
In 2005, at least seven rapes were featured on “Passions,” which kept it up until it went off the air — a character named Fancy was raped, stalked, then raped again in just two months.
Daytime soaps are in decline, but their faith in rape as a go-to storyline remains unshaken. Just ask Sam on “General Hospital” and Marty on “One Life to Live.” And prime-time soaps continued the tradition: “Private Practice” advertised its sweeps-week rape storyline in fall 2010 — and was rewarded with ratings and two more seasons.
Soaps take things a disturbing step further than most shows, reforming attackers quickly back into leading men with slapped-together excuses. After all, he was drunk/possessed/brainwashed/his own evil twin/a different guy back then.
Adolescent “Game of Thrones” heroine Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), her original age upped from 13 to 18 to make her sex scenes legal, was taken by force, sobbing, on her honeymoon. But Dany eventually falls in love with the nomadic warlord who bought her from her brother, making them the Luke and Laura of their fantasy realm.
“Dennis, our bar is in south Philly in a scary alley might as well call it ‘Rape Bar.’” — Dee, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”
Those who grow weary of seeing women brutalized might want to DVR some comedies instead, right? Maybe not.
Hannah (Lena Dunham) finds out the hard way on “Girls” that date-rape jokes don’t belong in job interviews. Some contend that rape can never be funny.
A lot of comedians disagree, from George Carlin (“Picture Porky Pig raping Elmer Fudd”) to Sarah Silverman (“I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl”). Her celebrated contribution to “The Aristocrats” is also about rape.
The nothing-sacred view leads otherwise-thoughtful comics to reflexively circle the wagons around their vile peers. Louis CK and Patton Oswalt fell into that trap last year after Daniel Tosh hatefully responded to a heckler, protesting a rape joke, by musing, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”
Tosh has a show on Comedy Central, also home to “The Jeselnik Offensive” and its barrage of rape-related material that is arguably more nuanced — and funny — than any of Tosh’s. Anthony Jeselnik’s latest one-hour special is titled “Caligula” for a reason.
But when Comedy Central was preparing to roast Charlie Sheen, it refused to let Jeselnik verbally target Mike Tyson at the event for being an actual, real-life convicted rapist.
Rainn Wilson of “The Office,” who has a Dwight Schrute spinoff cooking, recently tweeted that “If I were ever date-raped I would want it to be to “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin.” He got websmacked, deleted the tweet and apologized, but his feed is full of similar jokes.
In a “Family Guy” bit about Elizabeth Smart, her father tells an interviewer, “It’s so wonderful having her home again, she’s brought music back into the house, playing songs on the harp. ‘Course, most of them are about rape, but it’s still nice.”
The same show has spent years telling us to giggle at its “Quagmire is a serial rapist” motif as he drags unconscious women off-screen. Petitioners on Change.org want the jokes halted, but they’re asking Seth “We Saw Your Boobs” MacFarlane to have a crisis of conscience.
“Somebody date-raped me and I didn’t think I’d live through it, but I did, but now I am stronger and still needy,” a mocking Max (Kat Dennings) declares on “2 Broke Girls.” CBS’ sorta-hit sitcom, co-created by Whitney Cummings, has plenty of women writers.
But Caroline (Beth Behrs) is naively paranoid about being attacked on the subway in Brooklyn (is that paranoid?) while her buddy jokes about the topic frat bro-style, usually in unfunny ways that come out of nowhere. (Max and Caroline are also racist in unfunny ways, but that’s another story.)
If something so awful demands the catharsis of dark humor, it deserves more effort than shows like “2 Broke Girls” are giving it. And since almost everyone is kidding about it, just how edgy is it?
If dramas could take more care before depicting rape as an inevitable fate for women, so can comedies. The “good” jokes about rape — and the funny ones — make us cringe at its awful realities.
“Who’s going to complain about rape jokes?” Silverman challenges her fans. “Rape victims? They barely even report rape.”
To reach Sara Smith, call 816-234-4375 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her at Twitter.com/sarawatchesKC.