Is It Possible to Do Rape Well on TV?

"Game of Thrones," "Mad Men," and "The Killing" all attempted it. But only "Treme" did it right.
Publish date:
May 9, 2011
TV, hbo, treme

TV isn't traditionally the best medium for a sensitive portrayal of rape -- the characters are too one-dimensional, the commercials give a weird context to necessarily intense drama and the whole thing has to be wrapped up in 51 minutes at the most.

But lately a lot of one-hour dramas have been giving it a shot, from HBO "Game of Thrones," which made the rape of a young girl by her warrior husband seem sort of sexy and sensational, to AMC's "The Killing," which depicted a teenage girl being assaulted by two young men in the basement of her high school.

I was surprised to read that some other writers found the shocking rape subplot on "Treme"'s most recent episode "cheap" and "ugly," since I found it so much more realistic and heart-wrenching than those other cable network attempts. (Joan's rape by her now-husband on "Mad Men" a few seasons ago was done well, but never revisiting the issue again? Creatively, I get it. Emotionally, it sucks.)

The "Killing" scene in particular upset me, not neccessarily the fault of the showrunners; the scene had close parallels to my own adolescent rape. (And I know that mentioning my experience of rape so casually sometimes makes people uncomfortable, but I don't know how else to be about it. I was raped, so were something like 1 in 6 other women, and there's no reason we shouldn't talk freely about it, so don't look at me like I just brought up bowel movements at the dinner table.)

I never know how these scenes are going to hit me -- "The Killing" one had me so instantly upset that my boyfriend had his hand on the "power" button in 2.3 seconds, but I didn't blink an eye at "Game of Thrones." And I love the boyfriend for being willing to turn off a show we were watching just because I'm triggered, but I don't think it's bad for those feelings to come up. The repeated showings of the same snippet of upsetting scenes, however, showed a lack of recognition of how disturbing the subject matter was.

"Treme" didn't show Ladonna's actual rape, just the lead-up to it as she prepared to defend herself against two men who had pushed their way into her bar after-hours. But it was the follow-up scenes in the hospital that really rang true for me.

I never went to the hospital after my assault, in fact I didn't tell anyone until nearly a decade later when I unpacked my trunk of childhood trauma in therapy. (Maybe that's why I'm so gung-ho to talk about it now.)

So while I never had a rape examination or washed down Plan B in a hospital gown, I did recognize the hollow-eyed, defeated way she did those things. I recognized the childlike regression that had her plaintively begging her husband not to leave her bedside. Perhaps it's more a credit to powerful actress Khandi Alexander than anything else, but I felt Ladonna's pain.

And because of that, instead of feeling sexy, sensational or shocking, it felt real. Which makes all the difference.