A difficult topic on television is often one that has real-world impact. And with this, the depiction of highly sexually violent scenes on television can often leave viewers uncomfortable; not only with the scene itself, but also with the way in which television studios have handled a very serious issue. Rape on television has been frequently used over the years as a plot device as a way to further the story by saying “look at us, we’re all dramatic and stuff.” But it should never be like this. What so many studios seem to forget is that rape and sexual violence are serious issues that people experience in real-life; they are not something to be depicted and used so trivially.
In case you are now trying to think of some examples of the above, you need look no further than several high profile shows. True Blood is unfortunately guilty of this, with the rape of Tara Thornton leaving viewers angry as to how this furthered her character development or gave any sort of meaning to the plot line. In addition, American Horror Story: Coven’s depiction of the rape of Madison Montgomery was completely unnecessary, and just a way for the character to display her power (by killing her rapists).
Downton Abbey recently made waves with the rape of Anna Bates. Downton differs from the previous programs in the way it handled this situation; the effects of this traumatic event on Anna were not swept under the rug, or left unshown like so many other shows do. It was made clear that it was a grave situation and that it needed to be handled carefully. Actress Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, spoke specifically on The Jonathan Ross Show about this stating that she thought it was “a really brave thing to do” and that she believes the way it is written “is not gratuitous at all”.
Creator Julian Fellowes has commented on the issue stating: “The whole point of the way we do things on Downton is we don’t do them gratuitously. We are interested in exploring the resultant emotions and the effect these things have on people”.
It would seem that the intention behind the use of these plot lines differs when it comes to different networks and channels, and in Downton Abbey’s case this appears to be handled in a more appropriate manner; highlighting the devastation sexual violence can have (after all, raising awareness of this can have positive effects on the real world) and how important it is to talk about issues like this. So, whilst some television programmes struggle to handle sexual violence appropriately it is evident there are efforts to make this a more understood and talked about topic, as opposed to just a device used for drama.