There has never been any shortage of women getting raped in popular culture, but it seems to have reached a peak recently, from Broadchurch to Game of Thrones. In terms of narrative tropes, it occupies the place that freak memory loss did in the 90s, kicking off all the action and driving it forward; never mind how unlikely that scenario was. The logic seems to go: “If you create a drama with a rape in it that doesn’t get talked about, that must surely be because the character didn’t get raped enough times.”
From the hot-button issues of Paul Verhoeven’s Elle – were the rapes gratuitous? Or was the real crime its flagrant waste of Isabelle Huppert? – to the complicated disquiet fostered by BBC1’s Apple Tree Yard (is it squeamishness? Or something more profound?), images of rape assail us and leave a trail of unresolved conflict. Nina Raine’s Consent, currently on at the National Theatre, has nothing of the televisual explicitness to which we are accustomed, but tackles head-on the conversations about rape with which we have wrestled so unsuccessfully for so long: how does innocent-until-proven-guilty work, when to assume the innocence of the accused is to presuppose the guilt of the accuser? How do you tackle centuries of victim-blaming without turning it on its head, and trusting the victim from the outset? At the same time, the casual violence of a rape in Game of Thrones becomes ever more ultra, and has such a playful quality that one almost forgets that there’s anything to object to.
In 2017, rape on screen almost feels passe: it’s the suggestion that comes up when you’re stuck for a story arc on a slow afternoon in the writers’ room. You could argue that the relentless brutalisation of women – the sense that, without it, nothing is dramatic enough, the risible gender asymmetry – that it all just has to stop. Or at least, have a pause.
Last year, the actor Doon Mackichan made exactly this point, compellingly, in the Radio 4 documentary Body Count Rising. “I’m getting really angry about what I’m watching on television,” she said. “Can we stop seeing women being pulled down the stairs by their hair, followed, raped, can we just stop? Even if just for a year?”
What is it doing to us as viewers, and what does it do to the actors for whom being convincingly ravaged is practically a CV necessity, like horse-riding or speaking in RP? In person and in the documentary Mackichan is convincing, pretty much unarguable: if rape on telly is culturally necessary, we need to ask why. And if it isn’t, why don’t we stop it for a bit?
Yet within that (plus, plainly, we’re not stopping) there is room to consider, firstly, are all screen rapes equal, and all equally offensive; and secondly, why it is that we respond so vividly as viewers? There is a particular emotional and political recoil to sexual violence some viewers don’t get when a man blows another man’s arm off.
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