Clare Davies is currently studying the MA in Welsh Writing in English at Swansea University, having graduated with a degree in English Literature from Swansea University in 2013. She has a keen interest in constructions of masculinity in the works of Welsh women writers.
I don’t watch a lot of telly. I’m usually too busy reading/worrying about how much reading I have to do. So when I do sit down to watch telly, it’s a treat, and a bit of harmless escapism. However, when two shows I never missed portrayed rape scenes, I was shocked. Not only at the rape scenes themselves, but the context of the attacks. One of those was the Welsh-language soap opera Pobol y Cwm (don’t judge me – I’m learning Welsh. I watch it for educational purposes). While I don’t think it is right that writers should shy away from serious issues such as rape, I also don’t think rape storylines are treated with the level of gravity that they should be. My problem is with the representation of the victim’s behaviour prior to the event. I’ll roughly sketch what happens:
Sheryl goes out with Garry. Sheryl used to go out with Kevin. Kevin goes out with Debbie. Sheryl and Kevin’s friendship grows more flirtatious, which Kevin believes is a sign of Sheryl’s love for him. Garry gets jealous. Sheryl stresses nothing is going on. Kevin thinks he and Sheryl are falling back in love. Kevin rapes Sheryl.
This is clearly an issue that needs to be dealt with sensitively – but the whole story descends into melodrama. The way it was represented was just BAD (I’m no TV critic, so it isn’t really my place to judge acting) but it was just unconvincing. Sheryl is represented as not putting up any sort of fight, nor does she scream or move away from him. While she clearly says ‘No’, it was made to look that she simply let him and then cried rape at the end. I would argue Sheryl does not make a forceful refusal, and is made to seem passive, which creates uncertainty in the mind of her rapist – but perhaps even in the mind of the viewer too (the reason Sheryl gives for not crying out is that she didn’t want her “anger issues” boyfriend Garry, who used to hit her, to kill Kevin). Kevin doesn’t realise he has raped her – until he then makes comments indicating no one will believe her. So, obviously, she hits him over the head with an iron, and her and Garry aim to hide his body. Except when they go to check on it the next morning, it isn’t there! Because Kevin isn’t dead! He’s wandering around with a sore head, waiting to scare Sheryl! What should have been a serious story about rape turned into a farce. Another bugbear I have about the storyline is the complete lack of sisterhood – Debbie, despite knowing what has happened, marries Kevin in order to get revenge on him for sleeping with another woman. The fact that he raped another women doesn’t seem to concern her. As for Sheryl, she then nearly goes off with another man, just a few weeks later. As rape storylines go, it was uncomfortable to watch, mainly for the lack of real care given to the story. Don’t ask me what is happening now, I stopped watching. Soaps have to keep moving – but rape is never over and done within a matter of weeks.
The other rape storyline to rear its ugly head on our screens was the well documented instance in Downton Abbey. Indeed, the twittersphere went crazy (‘Why ANNA?’ was the cry. Why Anna? Why anyone?) and many declared they would never watch the show again. The representation was harrowing and realistic – but verged on the sensationalist (the camera cut from Anna’s screams and struggles with her attacker, to upstairs where everyone was listening to Dame Nellie Melba. How lovely!). Some have argued whether such an event should even have occurred in the idyllic world of 1920s aristocratic life – we all love Downton because it’s pretty, not because it deals with ‘real life’. It isn’t real life. If we are going to claim Downton has some sort of social function, we could argue that showing a rape in the 1920s only reinforces how it happened then and still happens today. However, it would have been more accurate to have someone from above stairs as the attacker, as class-based sexual exploitation would have been rife. But no, everyone in Downton is lovely to each other! Let’s get in a visiting valet (practically a stranger). And the lovely Anna Bates, the victim, is yet again seen FLIRTING with her attacker before he rapes her – is this a sign that we shouldn’t flirt with anyone, just in case? And why suddenly the dramatic change in character into a frivolous flirt – because that is exactly what they did with Anna (she’s happily married to the cuddly if gruff Bates! Why would she flirt with anyone?!) And yet again, the woman was side-lined while the story became dominated by men – the series ended with us unsure as to whether Bates had murdered his wife’s rapist. While I’m sure there were many silently (or perhaps not so silently) thinking that’s exactly what the man deserved, it did push Anna’s suffering to one side, while she worried about her husband’s reaction.
Both scenes made for unpleasant viewing, which made me wonder whether we should show rape on television at all (around 400 complaints in total were made for Downton. I don’t think enough people watch Pobol y Cwm for there to be the same sort of public outcry). It is unpleasant, but is it unnecessary? Showing this kind of violence against women (the vilest manifestation of gender inequality there is) will obviously upset rape victims (there was a warning of upsetting scenes before Downton but I think most of us thought we would see Mrs Hughes and Carson falling out, not a scene of sexual violence). But does this mean we shouldn’t deal with this issue at all? Has our outrage come from the fact we simply don’t want to face the horrors out there that do face women? Is putting a violent rape scene in one of our favourite shows, to quote Susan Brownmiller’s seminal work on the subject, ‘against our will’ as viewers?
Dealt with sensitively, rape storylines can be thoughtful and profound. It would be nice if we didn’t have to see these kind of things at all. But as long as people are raped, we have to deal with the unpleasantness. But if programmes are going to engage in a storyline of this sort, it should not descend into melodrama; they have a duty to stick with it in all its complexity.
 Susan Brownmiller, Against our Will: Men, Women, Rape (New York : Fawcett Columbine, 1993).