Even though it’s always in the news, rape is difficult to talk about. According to the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, half of all people in Ontario who are victims of sexual assaults are between the ages of 15 and 24. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), 70 per cent of rape victims suffer moderate or severe distress and 33 per cent of women who survive a rape contemplate suicide. Seeing realistic examples of sexual assault in visual media can teach people about resources. It can also serve to validate victim’s experiences. Incorporating rape into a story can be beneficial to viewers, but only if done right.
The way rape is portrayed in the media is poorly done. Instead of looking at how a rape victim copes and recovers from sexual assault, often the story shifts towards other characters. When stories about rape focus on the survivor, and spend time with them during their recovery, it makes for a more rewarding viewing experience.
While big screen works like The Birth of a Nation uses rape as a dramatic tool to poor effect. Other media such as Netflix original Jessica Jones and ABC network’s American Crime TV series are able to get to the heart of the issue by having a first-person perspective.
The film The Birth of a Nation uses the rape of main character Nat Turner’s wife as the motivation for Turner to lead a slave rebellion. The film also includes a second rape of another slave, which leads to her husband helping Nat with the slave rebellion. Both of these scenes focus on the men’s reaction to these women being assaulted. While one of the women voices her pain over her assault, she is not given as much screen time as either of the two men. The problem with this is that it takes the abuse of female characters to make the male lead react to them. This becomes the main catalyst of conflict with the slaves and their owners. What’s also troubling about the film is even though it’s based on an actual person, the film’s writer and main actor, Nate Parker, inserted a rape that has not been historically documented. What this means is that the rapes in the story are there solely for plot convenience. Not out of necessity. Not out of history, as with the main plot points and themes.
Other stories, like Netflix’s Jessica Jones, have been able to incorporate rape and expand on it in interesting ways.
The original Netflix series focuses on superhero Jessica Jones, a woman traumatized by an abusive relationship. Jessica was raped and controlled by show’s villain. Though the show takes place in a superhero world, we see Jessica struggle in her daily life with depression and severe stress. Even though she is a superhero.
While still in a relationship with her abuser, Jessica is suicidal. By the end of the story, she is able to confront her abuser and grow. While her story shows a more surreal take on a rape story, others are just as effective by looking at rape through a realistic lens.
In ABC’s American Crime, main character Taylor is a male high school student who claims to have been raped by a male classmate. The show succeeds in its portrayal of rape and the culture surrounding it due to how the characters react to the assault. The show explains how a rape kit is used and reveals how uncomfortable adults are talking about rape, especially one that includes minors. American Crime also shows how people of varying ages, races, and sexual identities believe it’s impossible for a man to be raped.
Media has the power to expand people’s views on important issues in society. But if writers are going to use rape in their stories, they need to avoid exploiting it. Nat’s does not need a rape to motivate him to freedom. To add a rape benefits no one in the story if unexplored. A character like Jessica Jones shows how trauma can stay with a victim long after assault despite superhero strength. A story like Taylor’s shows the result of questioning the truthfulness of an assault.
A lot of truths can be fully realized in media when the focus is on the right character – the one fully affected by the issue.