Periscope Depth

I’m not calling you a liar; just don’t lie to me

I can’t recall a steeper loss of interest in a series than the one I suffered after watching S2E1 of Sons of Anarchy.

Without spoiling too much, S2E1 ends with one of the stronger female characters on the show being sexually assaulted by the S2 villains. They do this as an intimidation tactic, to get to one of the male members of SAMCRO and convince them to back off their gun-running business.

As I watched this playing out on screen, I could feel my engagement in the show draining off me like water in the shower. I just had no interest in watching further*.

On the Great Wheel of Unfortunate Fates that writers spin whenever they need something bad to happen to a protagonist, there are several entries for men:

  • Losing a job or a source of wealth;
  • Getting hurt;
  • Getting scarred;
  • Losing a loved one;
  • Having a loved one kidnapped;
  • Having a loved one used as leverage for a threat;
  • Being arrested;
  • Being seduced by nefarious people;
  • Being betrayed;
  • Being watched by nefarious people;
  • Being lost far from home;
  • Etc.
If your protagonist is female, however, there are only three:

  • Sexual assault;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Pregnancy.
I’m exaggerating for comic effect, but not that much. Mad Men, a show widely and rightly praised for its nuanced treatment of women’s struggles in a male workplace, has inflicted an unexpected pregnancy on all three of its noted female leads. It’s also depicted women dealing with career ambition (Peggy) and women returning to work after taking time off (Joan). But it’s reached for the PREGNANCY card as often as any soap opera.

(Edit: because it’s the Internet, and anything that can be taken literally will be taken literally, I should add that there are lots of shows where women don’t suffer these fates. Downton Abbey is a popular example that springs to mind, where there’s lots of drama surrounding men and women without resorting to the Three Female Fates. Yet when a drama wants to get “edgy” or “gritty” or “real,” those are typically the fates a woman will suffer)

And let’s set aside for now the argument about popular depictions of women, or the notions of male vulnerability vs. female vulnerability, and reinforcing gender roles. That’s a whole other issue. I just want to address how boring this is.**

As soon as I saw that [name redacted] had been raped on Sons of Anarchy, I knew how the next few episodes would pan out. She wouldn’t say anything, out of a mixture of shame and fear. She’d grow increasingly distant and erratic. Eventually, she’d either snap and say something in a heated state, or she’d be confronted with proof of what happened and admit it. This might take all season; it might take a few episodes. Either way, one of the chief joys of Sons of Anarchy – that grim anticipation of what was going to happen next – had been lost. Why bother watching another minute?

I don’t think Sons of Anarchy‘s use of rape as a plot device was any more egregious than any other show’s. And I think the female characters on Sons of Anarchy are still richer and more interesting than in most other TV series. Maybe this was just the final straw. Maybe this was what burned me out after years of watching women shoved up against chain link fences, tied up in basements or covering their mouths as they look at pregnancy tests.

I wasn’t offended at seeing rape on screen. I was just bored.

To jump on another pop culture icon that’s making buzz recently: in the newest Tomb Raider game, Lara Croft is “turned into a cornered animal,” according to the game designers. She’s cut off from her friends and kidnapped. And then her kidnappers try to rape her.

Many, many other bloggers have tackled the immensely uncomfortable notion of “a game that rapes its protagonist” already; see Kat Howard’s excellent post as an example. I don’t have anything to add to that, other than, “yes, definitely.” Rather, I want to address the complete creative vacuum here.

From the Kotaku article:

“We’re not trying to be over the top, shock people for shock’s sake,” [says executive producer Ken Rosenberg]. “We’re trying to tell a great origin story.”

Picture the brainstorming session in which the new Tomb Raider game is being written. They want to show how Lara Croft got so tough. To do that, they want to tell a dark origin story in which bad things happen to her. She triumphs over these obstacles and becomes the badass that Americans know and love today. So what’s a bad thing that could happen to her? How about kidnapping? How about rape?

If you don’t yet get how reductive and stultifying that is, consider another pop culture icon who has a pretty dark origin story: Batman. Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered in front of him as a young boy. After withdrawing into brooding, adolescent obsession, Wayne travels the world, studying with masters of forensic science and martial arts experts. He hardens himself into a living weapon against criminals.

Note that he doesn’t get raped.

Here’s another kinda dark origin story: Iron Man. While touring a battlefield and demonstrating the weapons he’s designed, Tony Stark gets wounded by a hand grenade and kidnapped by terrorists. He’s presented first hand with evidence of the chaos that his life’s work has caused. Racing against the clock, he builds a suit of life-saving armor, with the aid of a newfound friend and colleague who sacrifices his life. Once he returns to the real world, his former business partners and customers turn against him as he tries to dismantle his weapons empire.

At no point in this sequence is Tony Stark raped.

Why is it writers** are never at a loss for bad things to inflict on male protagonists, but keep drawing the same three cards for women? Why are rape, kidnapping and pregnancy not just the worst things that can happen to a woman in drama, but the most frequent things?

When a writer inflicts one of the Three Female Fates on a woman, I can predict the next few episodes, scenes or chapters with ease. And that takes me out of the story. It shatters the immersion that a good writer should sweat to create. It’s a tired trope. And, to revive the argument that I set aside earlier, it limits women to a very narrow set of roles.

I’m not saying that writers can’t depict sexual assault or unplanned pregnancies. Let’s just add some other disasters to the mix. And yes, I said “let’s,” as in “let us”; as someone who writes books that people seem to like, I need to be the change I want to see in the world.

* It didn’t help matters that the writers took the huge conflict that they’d set up at the end of S1 – the simmering conflict between the President and VP of SAMCRO – and kicked that can down the road. “We can’t have this confrontation yet,” is almost literally a line of dialogue.

Why would I want to watch a show about people avoiding risky choices? I work behind a desk. I do that myself every day.

** As the author of a thriller novel in which a female character is sexually assaulted, yes, I’m fully aware of the hypocrisy here. I’m getting better.

Comments are closed.