Friday, November 5, 2010

Private Practice: an example of how sexual assault is depicted on television

Last night on Private Practice, one of the main characters, a doctor named Charlotte, was sexually assaulted at work. People making the show were in close contact with rape victims and an anti-sexual assault organization. Still, I had a few problems with this episode. I am not going to embed a video of sexual assault on my blog (for reasons that will be discussed further in this post), but if you feel the need to see what I am referring to, there is a video here.

The biggest problem is the "type" of rape that was shown. The perpetrator was a patient at the hospital who appeared to have a mental illness of some sort (people with mental health problems are more likely to be the victim than the rapist). It was an extremely violent case of stranger rape. The woman involved had no prior relationship with her rapist, she was not drinking, not walking alone outside at night, nor was she dressed provocatively or doing anything else that a "good" rape victim doesn't do. So, this episode really didn't push any boundaries to help people conceive of rape differently. I thought it could have been much more useful to depict a type of rape that isn't often seen as such, rather than playing into stereotypes of what constitutes "real" rape.

So many shows on primetime tv (think CSI and Law & Order), can show various forms of sexual assault in ways that can help people become more aware of sexual assault, but they generally depict scenes in a way that make rape look a lot like sex. The act of rape is typically more about power than sex, but that can be difficult to depict on television. Private Practice did show parts of the rape, which sexualizes it to a degree. I prefer when the scenes show enough to imply what is happening, without graphic images when "No matter how well-motivated, a rape scene is a sex scene, and TV shows are fantasies."

The part that bothered me most was her hiding the rape. At every commercial break, I expressed my frustration with her silence to the person I was watching the show with. She told people she was mugged, only told one person what actually happened, and refused a rape kit. I understand how horrible the criminal justice system can be, but it is not a he-said-she-said trial, so I personally cannot understand why she wouldn't report it other than a fear that other people will look at her differently. And this is an area that I hope they focus on differently in upcoming episodes.

Charlotte said "he took my wallet. He didn't take anything else" to the one person she told about the rape. I personally tend to agree with this statement... but not in the way that she meant it. He didn't take anything, he raped her. I don't like thinking about rape as taking something from someone. My opinion is that conceiving of it as something being taken from you is linked to patriarchal notions of purity and innocence and considers rape victims damaged in some way, which I completely do not agree with. I don't mean to erase some people's experiences with this last paragraph, as some people do experience it as something having been taken from them... this just doesn't make sense to me, personally.

One thing I did like is probably best articulated by entertainment journalist Emily Nussbaum
In what was clearly Rhimes’s mission statement, Charlotte contrasted her rape with rapes in "made-for-TV movies." In these gauzy victim narratives, she says mockingly, the woman rocks in the shower crying, and when the rape happens, her eyes go blank so she can go somewhere else. “It’s nothing like that,” she says bitterly. “It's dirty and sweaty and he licks your face and he wipes himself off in your hair and when you try to scream he punches you so hard you see God.”
I'm not sure that narrative is any more true for all victims than the made-for-TV movie shower crying scene, but it is good to see this depicted in a different way.

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