Op-Ed: How OUTLANDER Handled Sexual Violence Better than Anyone Else
Listen: no one likes to talk about sexual violence. It’s a hard subject to tackle — and without the right, nuanced language and understanding of the power dynamics, ramifications, and subsequent damage at play, it is very easy to create a moment of insensitive torture porn rather than a character-building hardship that engages both the story and the person involved. Which is funny when one considers how much sexual violence — and rape in particular — has become a mainstay in dramatic television tension-building. But on Saturday night, Starz’s original series Outlander tackled not only rape, but male rape (a seriously under-discussed topic) and managed to take a revolutionary stance when it comes to depicting sexual violence: how it affects the person subjected to it.
The immediate fallout of the rape of Jamie Fraser by Black Jack Randall is evident and visceral. It’s hard to watch and traumatic — something that, by definition, polarizes the audience viewing it. And it should: because nothing about rape, regardless of its depictions, is easy. It’s not easy for the person experiencing so it shouldn’t be easy to watch, either. Which is when it gets tricky because, while there is definitely a need for stories like this to be told (this is real life. It happens), it must be fully served and done with a lot of different things kept in mind. (Something that’s pretty hard to do on network television with its strict standards and practices.)
What makes it such a hard subject to put on screen well is the fact that the full reality is complicated and different for everyone, but its biggest damage is done internally. If rape is to be featured on a series, it should be two things: non-gratuitous, and fully examined. Too often, rape is used on television to service an outside character or titillate and scandalize without any sort of look at the serious mental and emotional fallout of the victim. Which is exactly where Thrones sometimes missteps, which spurs these discourses we see online. When using the rape of a female character to spur a male character into action, to shock with no real reveal, or to excite an audience without even hinting that there are real mental ramifications on the person after the fact — like the Cersei/Jaime twist last season, or even more recently with the odd juxtaposition of scenes inGilly and Sam’s storyline last week — is an abridged take on something that ultimately shapes our understanding of the act. To have someone who was raped or nearly raped cut from a scene of emotional trauma to, say, having sex with another person with no feeling about the event that just went down? In the words of Pete Campbell? Not great, Bob.
Which is why we commend when it’s done well and the reality (at times brutal as it sometimes is) services the characters’ evolution on all ends. Like these last two episodes of Outlander. Rape is treated with the seriousness it deserves. Even times where it is subverted, the gravity of the situation is never belittled or eschewed. When Outlander subjects its male lead to graphic, horrific rape, it’s not simply to shock anyone (we all saw this coming), or titillate the audience (there’s nothing sexy about this — regardless of your feelings about Tobias Menzies’ and/or Sem Heughan’s faces), it’s done to honor just how truly horrific and life-changing this event was for Jamie. It showed the true nature and evil of Randall. The show’s creator, Ron Moore, has said as much in interviews: we will see more of how this has affected him. Jamie will not just go back to being the Jamie he was before, because there is a heck of a lot of mental machinations that are now going to come into play. PTSD is real.
Thankfully, we’re not alone in our desire for sexual violence to be handled delicately. Last week, Hannibal showrunner Bryan Fuller discussed this very subject (particularly because — Hannibal spoilers ahoy — he’s dealing with Red Dragon in season three) with Entertainment Weekly and pinpointed the main issue with the prevalence of rape storylines on television. “There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience,” Fuller said in the interview. “The reason the rape well is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that it happens. But because it’s so overexploited, it becomes callous.”
He also added that rape storylines come “with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. … And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in 42 minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape. … All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience.”
This. This is why the conversation of televised rape cannot be cast with a generic mold or opinion. This is why every time a rape that does not honor the victim and the violence they’ve endured (and how it will ultimately manifest itself mentally) becomes a major discussion on websites the world over. Each and every rape — and its depiction — is different, but until we handle them all with the same amount of respect, we have to dissect and discuss the merits of portraying these stories. Because it is, and sometimes should be, hard to watch: so shouldn’t we all want it to be done right?