Sorry to bring down the usual levity, but I have something I want to discuss. And, on a blog devoted to strong female friendship, rape culture is something we should discuss.
Spoiler alert for Switched at Birth and trigger warning
Television has the ability to deal with current social and political topics in a way that films cannot. While this often results in a rough draft for later pop culture treatments, it can provide a useful forum for us all to think through issues circulating in the zeitgeist. For example, I distinctly remember The West Wing‘s September 11th episode “Isaac and Ishmael” providing 13-year-old me with some simplistic explanations for al-Qaeda terrorism. Re-watching the episode (like so much of Aaron Sorkin), I am appalled by the way it obscures so much of Middle Eastern history and politics, but when it aired, in October of 2001, it was exactly what I needed.
So, to my current point: recently there has been a lot of attention on the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses. This is not a new problem, but it is rightfully moving to the forefront of many people’s minds.
Television shows are taking up the issue. In fact, some TV shows are part of the problem; one only has to look as far as Cersei’s rape in the last season of Game of Thrones–which the director did not identify as such–to see the problem.
Some shows have not handled campus sexual assault well. The Newsroom, ever problematic on on gender issues, made a failed attempt that unfortunately coincided with the Rolling Stone article controversy this fall. While I appreciated the fact that the Newsroom gave the rape survivor a forum to make her case, ultimately it was a more minor storyline to the episode. And, as per usual, one of the main characters (in this case Don) had to win the argument.
Frustrated with these depictions, I was thrilled when I saw that Switched at Birth was tackling the issue. SaB has proven it is capable of handling complicated issues about race, class, and ability with nuance. Last season’s storyline about Regina’s well-intentioned efforts towards ultimately gentrifying her former neighborhood is but one example.
Yet when I watched the episodes, I was upset. To recap, Bay wakes up naked next to her ex-boyfriend Tank, not remembering the night before. It takes her most of the episode to figure out that it was in fact rape–she was not sober the night before, and therefore could not consent. She’s afraid about how to deal with the issue because she can’t decide how she feels about it, and she’s overwhelmingly concerned that she cheated on her boyfriend Emmett. I think they handled this confusion well–these are realistic feelings an 18 year old would have. And, like most rape survivors, Bay knows and cares about the man who raped her. She doesn’t want him to get into trouble.
But then the show takes the complicated issue into troubling territory, giving dangerous messages to survivors or potential survivors. Bay tells her brother, who is roommates with Tank and dating an administrator at Tank’s university. Her brother tells his girlfriend, who notifies the school in an unprecedented breach of privacy and university policies. This sets off a disciplinary investigation without Bay’s consent that eventually suspends Tank.
The message is this: if you tell people about your rape, particularly if that person is a college administrator (or dating one), then it will set off a chain of events that publicizes your rape and punishes your offender even if you don’t want that. This is a troubling message.
I recently watched The Hunting Ground, an excellent documentary about the ways colleges around the country handle sexual assault. The documentary argues convincingly that universities have a financial interest in suppressing cases of sexual assault because they threaten their brand and ultimately their endowments. Most cases of rape that are reported to university administrators do not result in expulsions, especially when the perpetrator (like Tank) is a football player. It is horrifying, and it happens everywhere.
While I appreciate Switched at Birth‘s attempt to demonstrate a fairer university administration in which perpetrators of sexual assault are swiftly brought to justice, it instead sends a message that administrators will investigate even if asked not to. Switched at Birth airs on ABC Family, and is marketed towards a teen and young adult audience. Their episodes did a good job educating these viewers about the definitions of rape and consent, the way rape often seems unclear to survivors, and stressed the importance of bystander prevention. But throughout the season, Bay was punished for telling people about her rape: they treated her differently, expelled her friend, broke up her relationship. Universities have overwhelmingly not handled reports of rape well, but the solution is not to stop reporting.
Hopefully the U.S. Department of Education’s Title IX investigations will lead to substantive change. But while we wait, I would like to see a TV show present the complications of campus rape cases, demonstrating the existing problems with reporting and rape culture, in a way that does not demonize the survivor.*
*As per usual, The Good Wife did a pretty good job with “Red Zone” this season, but buried it in an episode loaded with Cary’s trial and Alicia’s campaign. I want to see a show put campus sexual assault front and center.
Shout out to my friend Dena, with whom I discussed many/all of these ideas.