Popular Traumatic Plot Device

By The Elm - Nov 08,2013@4:29 pm

By Dana Panczenko
Staff Columnist

TV has become one the most common forms of entertainment for the American family. The 1950s and ‘60s were the era of the “TV dinner,” where families would gather in their living rooms to sit in front of the magical glowing box in the corner and eat as they enjoyed their “family time.” Recently, there has been a turn to bring the “reality” back into our shows, using plot devices that “real” people experience as a way to build character and maintain audience interest. While some of these “real experiences” can offer insight into how families and friends go on after tragedy, such as incorporating actor Cory Monteith’s death into an episode of “Glee.” Some of these plot devices, however, do more harm than good, mainly the recent trend of having female characters raped on screen.

While rape and sexual assault is nothing new in terms of human existence, seeing it presented gratuitously and graphically on our favorite TV shows is. In the pilot of American Horror Story: Coven, Madison Montgomery, played by Emma Roberts, is graphically drugged, and then gang raped during a party. The show employed use of different camera angles that put us at both the rapists’ and Montgomery’s point of view during the attack. It felt, as a viewer, that we were actually there in the room, and that we were either the rapist or the victim, depending on the camera angle. I can tell you firsthand that, as I watched the pilot of the new season, it was definitely shocking and terrifying, but it left me disturbed after the episode. In that way, I suppose the scene was effective, but I was shocked to see in the future episodes that Robert’s character seemed barely phased by the event. The assault did not seem to have any real lasting impact on any of the characters, or the plot of the overall show for that matter.

A rape scene being used as a plot device is not limited to American Horror Story: Coven. It has also been used in shows like Downtown Abbey, and Bates Motel. In all of these cases, the onscreen rape was used to import a shocking new twist into the show. By using something as real, and unfortunately common, as sexual assault as a way to build character and plot in a show, in this author’s opinion, writers normalize and trivialize sexual assault. We live in a world where one in four college aged women are raped (Roger Williams University Rape Statistics). That figure itself is shocking enough, without seeing the act committed onscreen on a basic cable television show. When we see rape in our living rooms on a regular basis, we become desensitized to the idea of rape and sexual assault. It becomes something that “just happens” to women (and men) in the course of a show. Having rape be ordinary in the world of our favorite shows makes us perceive it as ordinary in our world as well.

In the case of American Horror Story: Coven, Madison Montgomery’s rape was used as a catalyst for her flipping a bus with her rapists on it, killing them, and creating the concept of rebuilding one of the dead boys and bringing him back to life. While the after effects of her flipping the bus are relevant to the overall plot of the show, the question of “was the rape really necessary” is brought up. Did it have to be a rape that drove her to flipping the bus? Would her action of flipping the bus be any less horrifying if she had just been mad at the boys for throwing a drink in her face, or throwing her out of the party, or even if one of them had turned her down for a date? The endless possibilities of other scenarios that could have led to Madison’s flipping the bus do not change the overall plot of the show, so it seems that having her character raped was both gratuitous and unnecessary.

In seeing rape as often as we do on screen, it causes us, as viewers, to forget that rape is not as fictitious as witches are. It is a traumatic and disturbing reality of the society we live in, and using at as a quick and easy way to drive a character to do something horrendous or to cause dramatic tension or suspense trivializes the reality of what rape is: a disturbing attack on someone’s bodily autonomy and independence. One day, I hope that writers will start using more creative ways to build character and plot, instead of jumping to awful and painful attacks on people as a way to make their job of writing a show easier.

The Elm

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