What Are Rape Scenes Really For?



Photo credit: HBO public domain

Film will have you believe that it’s better to “show, not tell”, but I’m inclined to disagree after half an hour into any episode of Game of Thrones. Rape scenes in media are often gratuitously drawn out, uncomfortable to watch, and wholly unnecessary as a plot device. We don’t need to actually see the incident of assault in order to understand how it affected the victim. While I definitely encourage narratives that discuss sexual assault, it should be done so with respect and sensitivity to the issue at hand. Somehow I get the feeling this wasn’t HBO’s method of operating when we had to sit through yet another five minutes of women crying for help during sex.

But wait, you may say, how will people know if someone’s been raped if I don’t shove it in their faces? Audiences should be given more credit, and writers should have faith, that their viewers will be able to understand what has happened based on contextual clues, perhaps even in the form of a character saying they were raped if you’re really worried people will miss it. For example, Mad Max: Fury Road includes a group of women escaping their abductor and rapist. Through visual clues (there is a scene where one of the women cuts off her chastity belt) and dialogue between characters, it becomes clear fairly early on that they have all experienced extensive abuse. And yet; we never explicitly see any of these women being raped to drive home how bad of a character Immortan Joe is or what he has done; we understand.

The thing is, many writers likely know the audience will understand, but will choose to include a graphic rape scene anyway. Rape scenes are often included purely for the shock value, which I find incredibly distasteful. The fact that sexual assault has occurred at all should be shocking and upsetting enough, let alone having to watch footage of it. To draw out the incident and force us to watch it feels like pain voyeurism, trauma for the sake of trauma. Obviously sexual assault in real life does not occur to fuel any kind of character development or plotline, but that doesn’t mean writers should treat it as such in the narrative of a story. A story isn’t real life, and scenes should exist to move the plot along. If sexual assault is present, it should ultimately be because it is relevant. If your story isn’t interesting or engaging enough unless a rape scene is included for no discernible reason, the issue is the story.

Another example of better handling sexual abuse is Marvel’s Jessica Jones which, although marketed as a superhero series, is also ultimately a story about recovery. Although there are certain graphic scenes that more than spell out what is happening, there isn’t a single rape scene. There are no gratuitous flashbacks to when she was being sexual assaulted, nothing to pull the focus repeatedly back to the shock of the rape.  By focusing on how Jessica’s year of sexual and emotional abuse has affected her and how she continues to work through her trauma, the series moves away from cheap shots and expresses a concern for survivors rather than what they have survivors. If sexual assault is included in a narrative, it should convey the idea that although it certainly impacted its victims, it does not define them. There should be more stories about what rape does, not what rape is.

I leave you with this; include sexual assault in narrative appropriately.


2 thoughts on “What Are Rape Scenes Really For?

  1. Thank you for this post. You make a compelling point that the gratuitous nature of these scenes is a cause for concern. While this painful crime is important to recognize, as you say, it is important that it be used artfully or as a teaching moment rather than pure titillation.

  2. Rape scenes are distasteful. Providing something the production team deemed as necessary for emotional reactions. Nonetheless it provides rawness to the reality of rape Especially within the time frame. There is truth behind the scenes of rape and history that can be proven.

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