How often are scenarios carried out in popular entertainment around rape, sexual assault and violence against women? I can think of five popular shows off the top of my head that have used this plot device more than once: Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Outlander. I can think of several movies. It’s like an entertainment standby, “Oh, we need a plot catalyst? Let’s hurt a woman.”
And I have to tell you all, I’m tired of it.
Don’t get me wrong. I used to accept it. I even used to shrug it off when I would read books and I noticed that nearly every woman would face threat of assault or was straight up assaulted. I used to be one of the people thinking well, “it’s the way it was.” But then, I also noticed that there was magic. Maybe even a little bit of a fairy-tale like feel. And then I got to thinking that maybe it wasn’t really about historical accuracy at all. Which brings me to my next point.
Historical accuracy is fine and definitely has its place but since a lot of historical shows and books hold to the genre historical fiction (aka not real) their strict adherence to historical fact is a concept that is sometimes overruled in favor of creative and artistic license. Except when it comes to rape. Except when it comes to “how women were treated.” That is always adhered to.
“It’s the way it was. Women were viewed as property. It happened a lot,” is always the fall back reason for scenes like those. There are droves of people defending rape, abuse and sexual assault with the reason of historical accuracy and plot integrity. So many historical fiction pieces have other (sometimes glaring) historical inaccuracies, including the appearance of the actors, costuming, dialogue, etc. This is not an argument that violence against women didn’t happen, doesn’t happen, or isn’t an important topic to talk about. What I want call into question is why rape is the historical accuracy that people become so passionate about preserving in the face of other historical inaccuracies.
For a specific instance, my real issue is currently with the show Outlander. Let me say, I loved this show. However recently, yet another of its characters was raped, and since this show is based off of a set of novels there was an expectation for it to occur. However. However, the historically accurate argument and the “it was in the books” standby only holds ground if the story adheres strictly to historical accuracy and plot integrity throughout. Both of which have NOT been done. The writers have taken creative license. They’ve added and subtracted things. But they made the decision to keep this. At it’s heart Outlander is a story based on time travel – something that is 100% fictional. Therefore, the fact that it is based on a concept that is fantastical, at this point the continued use of rape as a plot device is gratuitous, unnecessary and uncomfortably out of place in a show that claims to be feminist. (“Feminist” until proven guilty, and I’m over here screaming the guilty verdict. Shows claiming they are feminist because of their “strong women” but continuing to be complicit in normalizing violence against women in society. Why do women have to overcome an obscene amount of suffering, including sexual assault, to be considered “strong?” Yes, sometimes it’s based on books but this is me also throwing massive shade at authors for obsessive use of rape/sexual assault as a plot device. NOT COOL.)
I’m tired of “it’s historically accurate” as an excuse for continued portrayal of violence against women in entertainment in general.
All it makes me feel as a viewer is scared, deeply sad, powerless, and disappointed. All it makes me think as a woman is, “I would have hated to be a woman back then.” And then makes me question my safety as a woman now and wonder why this continues to be allowed to happen in popular television for the sake of plot development. Honestly, sometimes it has nothing to do with the plot. They just put it in there. Because they can. And I’m tired of it. All the reasons for it feel incredibly empty, tired, and disconcerting. And it makes me incredibly sad. Especially since this was a show I loved and the writers had the chance to make a different choice but they didn’t.
In closing, as my eloquent friend put it:
“It blows my mind how ferociously people will demand and defend historical accuracy in regards to violence against women in shows that literally have magic, dragons, and time travel. We know it happened, and continues to happen, and there are shows and movies that depict it in a way that sheds necessary light on the subject and create important dialogue. But using it as a plot device just to move a story along is something totally different and, at this point, just lazy.”
And we say, enough is enough.
Written by B. Diaz with editing & quote contributions by G. Aguilera