Updated: 26th February 2018

From Elle to Game of Thrones, why is culture obsessed with rape?

Fictional depictions of sexual violence are everywhere on film, TV and the stage, but do they take the wrong approach?

There has never been any shortage of women getting raped in popular culture, but it seems to have reached a peak recently, from Broadchurch to Game of Thrones. In terms of narrative tropes, it occupies the place that freak memory loss did in the 90s, kicking off all the action and driving it forward; never mind how unlikely that scenario was. The logic seems to go: If you create a drama with a rape in it that doesnt get talked about, that must surely be because the character didnt get raped enough times.

From the hot-button issues of Paul Verhoevens Elle were the rapes gratuitous? Or was the real crime its flagrant waste of Isabelle Huppert? to the complicated disquiet fostered by BBC1s Apple Tree Yard (is it squeamishness? Or something more profound?), images of rape assail us and leave a trail of unresolved conflict. Nina Raines Consent, currently on at the National Theatre, has nothing of the televisual explicitness to which we are accustomed, but tackles head-on the conversations about rape with which we have wrestled so unsuccessfully for so long: how does innocent-until-proven-guilty work, when to assume the innocence of the accused is to presuppose the guilt of the accuser? How do you tackle centuries of victim-blaming without turning it on its head, and trusting the victim from the outset? At the same time, the casual violence of a rape in Game of Thrones becomes ever more ultra, and has such a playful quality that one almost forgets that theres anything to object to.

Sophie
Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. Photograph: HBO

In 2017, rape on screen almost feels passe: its the suggestion that comes up when youre stuck for a story arc on a slow afternoon in the writers room. You could argue that the relentless brutalisation of women the sense that, without it, nothing is dramatic enough, the risible gender asymmetry that it all just has to stop. Or at least, have a pause.

Last year, the actor Doon Mackichan made exactly this point, compellingly, in the Radio 4 documentary Body Count Rising. Im getting really angry about what Im watching on television, she said. Can we stop seeing women being pulled down the stairs by their hair, followed, raped, can we just stop? Even if just for a year?

What is it doing to us as viewers, and what does it do to the actors for whom being convincingly ravaged is practically a CV necessity, like horse-riding or speaking in RP? In person and in the documentary Mackichan is convincing, pretty much unarguable: if rape on telly is culturally necessary, we need to ask why. And if it isnt, why dont we stop it for a bit?

Yet within that (plus, plainly, were not stopping) there is room to consider, firstly, are all screen rapes equal, and all equally offensive; and secondly, why it is that we respond so vividly as viewers? There is a particular emotional and political recoil to sexual violence some viewers dont get when a man blows another mans arm off.

Rape is often prettified: Verhoevens Elle glamorises both the act itself and the underlying psychodrama, going to epic lengths to create a character who wants to be raped in order to explore that as a fascinating new angle; yet the intricacy of the portrait is all about weaving the situation and not at all about making a plausible human being. Generally, though, when one thinks of the male gaze, one conjures up images of sensitive 70s art historians elegantly critiquing the Renaissance: yet its stark reality is that, when you see a violation played for its beauty, youre not just sidelining the perspective of the victim, youre erasing it, obliterating her personhood. Its quite a fundamental slap in the face.

Emily
Emily Watson in BBC1s Apple Tree Yard. Photograph: Nick Briggs/BBC/Kudos

What concerns me slightly, says Jessica Hobbs, director of Apple Tree Yard, is that women being attacked, being victims, are such a trope in our crime storytelling, and yet its very rare to see it from the females point of view. A different kind of light is thrown on it when you do that.

The rape in Apple Tree Yard was not without controversy, for its place in the narrative: we see this character, Emily Watsons Dr Yvonne Carmichael exploring her sexuality with an emancipation, and at an age, pretty much unheard of in the modern mainstream, then wham! she gets raped. It felt like a punishment. Hobbs rejects that.

What we were trying to do was to get the audience to consider that life comes at you sideways, she says. Shes dropped her guard. I think its an awful thing, but very true: that most women have antennae up about potential threats, and I do think that, as you get older, you tend to drop that guard a bit more. It was never devised as a punitive idea.

Amanda Coe, who adapted Louise Doughtys novel for TV, recognises that reading, but is irked by it. Some people felt very het up after the first episode, because obviously [they thought] shes being punished for being sexual, she says. But hang on, watch the subsequent episodes, because were going to talk about that. It was mildly irritating, that people wouldnt pay attention. But I did understand it, because of how often women are just on TV in order to be raped. The female perspective makes it easier to watch in the sense that its not yet another insult to an entire gender, but harder in other ways. As Coe recalls: You saw very little of the attack itself, it wasnt objectified, it was extremely subjective, from the characters point of view. The way it was edited and the editor brought that to it it was almost as PTSD flashbacks.

Jane Featherstone is executive producer of Broadchurch, whose third series has revolved around a rape. But you dont see it, she stresses. We start at the point at which she arrived at the police station. The point was to really explore, from the victims point of view, what the emotional consequences are. Sexual assault and rape in drama tend to be a prostitute found in a gutter somewhere; there is some sense of it just being a plot device. Broadchurch wanted to tell an emotionally honest story, on the one hand, and also to beat the drum for modern policing, which has a reputation for being insensitive to sexual violence: All the forces weve spoken to are really trying their best, Featherstone says.

Yet even with no representation of violence, rape as a subject for drama more or less guarantees controversy, as if we signal our disapproval of the act itself by heaping disapprobation on its fictional depiction.

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Julie Hesmondhalgh in Broadchurch. Photograph: Colin Hutton/ITV

Nina Raine, talking about her play Consent, whose subjects it is impossible to describe in detail without spoiling it, says ruefully: Thats what Im worried about. People are critical of any portrayal of rape, as if the portrait were the act. Simply, you couldnt write a play without complexity, ambiguity, competing perspectives, grey areas; but to allow any of that into a political or legal conversation about rape complicates things. As Raine says: Theres a world in which youre both telling the truth, where she can genuinely think it was a rape and he can genuinely think it was a mercy fuck. But this would be to kill off any possibility of justice for rape victims, already so slight and so painstakingly won. At some point, if an act is to be criminal, the grey must separate into black and white: one persons truth must supersede the others.

The question still looms: why is rape everywhere now? Raine wonders: Is it because of the whole Twitter and trolling and sexual violence online towards women? Rape is used more and more as something you say when youre pissed off with someone: You should be raped. This is a sub-stream: social media creating a sense of this great untalked-about truth that mainstream media ignores. Then the mainstream picks it up and starts talking about it: its recognisable from racist narratives. The far right peddles nonsensical Islamophobia, the mainstream sluggishly, dutifully, starts with recognising concerns, gathers steam by saying the unsayable, and ends by creating otherwise thoughtful dramas in which sorry guys, no offence but everyone brown with a beard is a psychopath.

This is not an injunction against rape as drama. If you allow any subject to become unspeakable in art, then you abandon that subject to those who would pretend it doesnt happen or that, when it does, it isnt that bad. But if youre going to portray it, do it right.

Broadchurch continues 10 April, 9pm, ITV; Consent is on at the National Theatre: Dorfman, SE1, to 17 May

Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/us

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