It happened on her wedding night. On an ordinary afternoon at home. On her way back from an errand. On the floor of her boss’s office, in the gym where she was training for an assignment, in the parking garage where she left her car after work.
The man who raped her was her husband. Her father-in-law. Her college sweetheart. Her name is Cersei Lannister. Claire Underwood. Skyler White. Gemma Teller Morrow. Jennifer Melfi. Joan Holloway. Elizabeth Jennings. Mellie Grant.
Almost every buzzworthy drama now on television features a female main character who has been raped.
The frequency of the plotline has been criticized as lazy, manipulative and damaging. And it is, in cases like Downton Abbey, which introduced a rape story line as just another cheap way to raise the stakes after a wrongful imprisonment, a jilted bride, and deaths inflicted by Spanish flu, childbirth and a car crash.
But shows such as Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Americans and House of Cards have made rape survivors’ experiences and perspectives central to their storytelling and worldviews. The same shows that have been alternately praised and condemned for making viewers sympathize with difficult men have produced some of the strongest, richest recent depictions of women’s difficult choices following sexual assault.
In the 1970s and 1980s, detective programs depicted rape within a formulaic frame. Narratives featured brutal stranger attacks that were accompanied by extreme violence: victims were rendered mute and helpless by the attack; and detectives avenged rape by capturing and killing the perpetrators, communications scholars Lisa Cuklanz and Sujata Moorti write.
Even as subsequent shows incorporated ideas about sexual assault drawn from feminist thinking, Cuklanz and Moorti note, it was often men who got to teach those insights to women, and even shows such as The Wire and The Shield, which presented a more complicated view of policing, still concerned themselves more with detectives’ responses than victims’.
The new breed of prestige drama has upended that convention. These shows are interested in survivors. The drama is less about the process of killing, jailing or confronting a rapist, and more about how these women’s lives have been affected by their rapes, often years into the future.
On Game of Thrones, HBO’s epic fantasy series, which returned April 6 for its fourth season, one of the most prominent characters is Cersei Lannister, queen of Westeros.
She begins the series as a villainess who carries on an affair with her brother and arranges for the murder of her husband. Lena Headey plays Cersei as if she is always a second away from raking someone with her fingernails.
But we learn that the king she wanted so badly to love raped her repeatedly during their marriage, shattering her chivalric dreams (and the tropes of high fantasy) and complicating our understanding of her behavior.
We can view the bloody war of succession that follows her husband’s death as a kind of punishment for the men who arranged her marriage and left her a prisoner in it. Her actions are a revenge fantasy on a grand scale.
Game of Thrones strikes a deft balance: Cersei’s experiences do not exonerate her of her worst actions, but learning about them clarifies her motivations and her view of the world.
Cersei, like other characters in Game of Thrones, rages against the idea that female life and female safety are cheap. The horror of the show is not just that sexual assault is commonplace but that women like Cersei often have little choice but to work with the people who are the authors of their misery.
If Game of Thrones is a dark fantasy set in a world where women can be raped with impunity, AMC’s Mad Men is often concerned with how rape is defined. Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), the savvy, competent head of the secretarial pool, is raped by her fiance, Greg (Sam Page), in the second season of the show.
Pretend I’m your boss, he tells her. That command allows him to avoid thinking of himself as a rapist.
But his words also highlight that her co-workers’ behavior is on a continuum with rape. The advertising executives pull up secretaries’ skirts to look at their panties, coerce immigrant nannies into affairs and even force themselves on female clients.
Joan is a kind of forerunner to women who do not report their rapes today. She marries Greg, rather than prosecuting him, and tries to settle into life as a housewife. But as the marriage is breaking up, she is able to confront her experience and use it as a tool to drive Greg away.
Fast-forward to the 1980s and the FX Cold War spy show The Americans. In the pilot, we meet Elizabeth (Keri Russell) and Phillip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), deep-cover KGB spies who are tracking down a Soviet defector.
The man turns out to be Elizabeth’s former KGB instructor and her rapist, something her husband learns at the same time the audience does.
The first season of The Americans could have been structured as an extended hunt for Elizabeth’s rapist. But the show did something more unusual: killing him off in the first episode and focusing instead on the consequences of her disclosure for her marriage.
This season, Elizabeth also repurposes the details of the rape for a cover story, telling a young sailor that she wants the files of one of his superior officers so she can pursue a prosecution against the man. Her mark in that mission responds with a sensitivity and tenderness that Elizabeth has denied herself for so many years by keeping her attack a secret, and his kindness clearly affects her.
Executive producer Joe Fields explained: The idea that these emotionally inarticulate, repressed characters might accidentally stumble into a way to start expressing themselves unawares, while in disguise ... that was something very interesting to explore.
In its otherwise silly second season, House of Cards found a resonant note with a story that, like so many police procedural plots before it, was ripped from the headlines.
After encountering the Marine Corps general who raped her, Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) decides to identify herself publicly as a rape survivor and to become an advocate for reforming how the military handles rape accusations, in much the same way those in the documentary The Invisible War have done.