Sunday, January 17, 2010

Primetime television and the continuum of violence against women

In this post, I will attempt to bring awareness to some of the ways women are portrayed in primetime television by mentioning a few examples of rape culture and women's sexual availability to men from recent episodes. I am sure there are hundreds of examples, and feel free to add any more you think of in the comments.

Private Practice
Addison and Mark, two doctors who have had a relationship in the past, are discussing some recent problems in their lives. Addison mentions that she wishes there was some kind of drug to help her cope, that she wants to put something on top of the pain. Mark proceeds to undress- to which she responds "I said put something on top of it, not put you on top of me." He continues to take his clothes off and talk about how horrible his life has been recently, and she has a change of heart and they have 'great' sex right there on the floor of her office. In this case, no means keep trying.

A female police officer is sexually harassed by a detainee (who was originally suspected of murder) with comments about her appearance and their potential compatibility as a couple. He persists, even after she angrily tells him to stop. Then, when he is not looking, viewers see her smile as though flattered by his persistence, leaving the impression that women enjoy mens' advances, even when we pretend we don't.

I don't know how detective Kate Beckett could have given stronger signals to author Richard Castle to back off. She repeatedly tells him to leave her alone, even threatening violence if he comes too close to her. She does not consent to have him nearby, but the mayor gave him permission to follow her on investigations, and she must now accept his presence in order to keep her job. He then goes on to give unwanted comments on her appearance and personality in every episode, and, unfortunately, it seems as though he is slowly winning her over. She is not the only woman who must endure his sexist remarks, as he makes similar comments about most of the hegemonically attractive women on the show, even, on occasion, murder victims.

Mad Men
There have been three rapes on this show now, by my count, and in many message boards, none of them are talked about as rapes. The first was between fiances, so it isn't really rape... it is often referred to as sort-of-rape, nevermind that marital rape has been a crime in Canada for 20 years. The second is often not referred to as assault because a relationship followed the initial attack. And in the third, a woman repeatedly (but politely) rejected a man's advances, even telling him not to come in to her house, but submitted when he came in anyway and forcibly kissed her. What is often ignored in message board posts about this particular event is that submission does not equal consent. I believe that the intent of the writers is to show real situations in which sex can be coerced, and therefore non-consensual. I am appalled (but not necessarily surprised) by how many viewers fail to label it as such.

That 70's Show
This specific scene plays through my mind often, annoying me further every time (especially since it is one of my favorite sitcoms). Kitty (the mother of the teenage main character, Eric) was grocery shopping, when Kelso (Eric's friend and classmate) grabs her buttocks, not realizing that it is his friend's mother because her back was turned. After some harsh words, she smiles and says thank you before walking away with a bounce to her step. This leaves the impression that women not only enjoy mens' advances, but that women like men to touch them, even when we pretend that we don't.

I'm not even going to touch on shows like Dollhouse or crime dramas, that portray sexual harassment and assault in various ways.

There are so many examples in pop culture where women submit to mens' advances after repeatedly telling them they are not interested, or are shown as being flattered by behavior that is actually quite threatening, that it normalizes these behaviors in our everyday lives. It teaches men that it is ok to persist, because we might change our mind, or we actually like it when strangers comment on our appearance when we are walking down the street... I mean, it is meant to be a compliment... we can't expect them to understand the power dynamics or the implied threat involved.

In Surviving Sexual Violence, Liz Kelly talks about violence against women as a continuum. This continuum includes many acts that western culture deems trivial, such as catcalls, pressure, and implied threats, and places them as no more or less severe than other forms of abuse. These acts are all connected to “the everyday aspects of male behaviour” (256) and therefore work to reinforce other behaviors.

All of these examples work not only to undercut women's power, but to limit acceptable forms of masculinity, thereby created a culture in which nobody is exempt from strict regulations on how to do gender.

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