Calling out rape denial in the media
Man breaks into woman’s bedroom, woman screams at him to leave her alone and that she “despises him”, man initiates sexual contact nevertheless, fade to black. To many people, and particularly to survivors of sexual assault, there’s no way to look at that scene and think “ah, a sex scene.” Instead, you’re more like to think “um, that was rape.” Not according to the writers of Poldark, who instead informed audiences that it was “consensual sex born of long-term love and longing”. Pardon?
In TV and film, it seems there two different issues that arise with content involving sexual violence – it’s condemned within the media but is presented in an explicit and gratuitous manner, or it’s considered acceptable within the media and may differ in terms of how much is actually seen on screen. Poldark falls into the second category in this context.
The world is presently desperately poor at both discouraging and punishing sexual violence. Survivors are frequently blamed for their own assaults or not believed, perpetrators walk free or into mediocre jail sentences, and patriarchy encourages male entitlement to women’s bodies as well as the idea that sex is about power and domination instead of mutual desire and enjoyment. With this in mind, portrayal of sexual assault within media should be done carefully, remembering that whilst other kinds of violence are generally roundly condemned, there is still a curious blind spot in people’s moral judgement when it comes to rape. Survivors of sexual assault aren’t just flat-out not believed or told they “deserved it” for being intoxicated/out late/wearing something revealing, they’re also frequently told that what occurred didn’t count as rape. This is what happened in Poldark.
In terms of TV shows, Game of Thrones has particularly come under fire for frequent scenes of graphic sexual assault amongst all the other ghastly action of stabbings, beheadings, and sundry removal of body parts. But at least in this case we’re meant to know rape is bad – I have further issues with the frequency of its portrayal, but at least when that scene happens with Sansa, we know it’s because Ramsay is a monster even if there is an unfortunate focus upon the feelings of another male character in the scene. The issue with Poldark is that it doesn’t seem to realise that rape is bad. Or at least, that writing a scene so it looks exactly like a rape scene and not “loving, consensual sex” is bad. In fact, given the amount of recent attention on society’s poor attempts to deal with sexual assault (anyone remember a certain Brock Turner? How about Mr Donald Trump?) it should be considered a total fucking travesty that the writers didn’t know better. Especially since apparently, it is considered rape in the books the show is based off. Why on earth not condemn it as such within the show?
Sarah Green, a spokeswoman for the UK’s End Violence Against Women coalition told the Guardian that possibly, “the creators were uncomfortable with the idea that a ‘usually heroic or moral man’ could commit rape”. After all, Poldark IS the hero of the show, and so far by all accounts has made a compelling protagonist. Nobody really wants to try and root for a rapist (hopefully). Whilst this might be an idiotic and cowardly way to deal with the reality that even heroic men can commit sexual assault, it also seems infuriating for other reasons. If they weren’t going to stick with the canon of the books, why not just portray the scene as being obviously consensual? Then Poldark isn’t a rapist, the show goes on, and there’s no media firestorm. It just seems to imply that by making the scene appear to be a rape scene and then refusing to condemn it as such, the show implicitly assumes viewers are fine with the idea of “consensual, loving” sex involving violence and anger.
If you want to have a scene where two characters have sex and nobody has cause to assume it was anything other than “consensual” and “loving”, make it damn obvious it was consensual. There should be no room for ambiguity, and if there is, you’re a bad writer as well as ignorant about sexual violence. I don’t think that the writers are rape apologists or misogynists, but I do think they are totally incompetent when it comes to portraying a healthy sexual encounter if that was what they intended to do. Every day, those who experience sexual violence are told that what happened was not a problem, or that they “actually did want it.” A TV show doesn’t need to be a bastion of feminist rhetoric, but it should do better than merely add to the whole repulsive mix of attitudes that uphold rape culture and unhealthy attitudes towards sexual interactions.
[Morgaine Das Varma]