A few months ago the LA Times ran a piece entitled ‘Women at the CW work to keep sexual violence off their shows’. It detailed the discussions of the ‘Running the Show: The Women Executive Producers of the CW’ panel held at The CW Summer TCA Tour in August. The panel featured a number of female showrunners from the US youth-oriented CW network – including Diane Ruggiero-Wright (Veronica Mars, iZombie), Caroline Dries (The Vampire Diaries) and Laurie McCarthy (Reign) – discussing their discomfort at having to write sexual violence narratives in the past and their decision, moving forwards, to try to avoid them.
Admittedly, I’m not as up to date with current CW teen drama series as I’d like. While I followed recent debates over a controversial rape storyline in the CW teen series Reign (deemed by many to be gratuitous), I have yet to watch it myself. However, my previous research has focused on representations of teenage sexual violence in a range of teen drama series, many of which were broadcast on the CW (examples include Veronica Mars, One Tree Hill, Gossip Girl, Smallville, Life Unexpected, 90210, The Vampire Diaries). All of these series include multiple sexual violence narratives, with Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries and Veronica Mars featuring representations of sexual violence from the very outset in their pilot episodes. The aforementioned panel discussion makes me interested to look at more recent CW offerings to see if there has indeed been a shift away from representing sexual violence as the showrunners assert.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog about my research findings for Zero Tolerance, an Edinburgh-based anti-violence against women charity. When I sent a draft of the blog to one of the charity’s employees, she asked me whether I was advocating that teens shouldn’t watch these shows. This question troubled me as it was the opposite of my intention. Indeed, my initial research came out of a frustration with the way in which scholarship on teen television often focuses on ‘role model’ debates, assuming young viewers to be largely passive, vulnerable and in need of adult guidance on how and what to watch. Not only does this approach over-simplify the complexities of viewer identification, but it is also often implicitly gendered, concentrating overwhelmingly on young girls. The small (but growing) body of audience research that exists on young viewers reveals that, far from watching passively, this audience often actively engages with these programmes (Driver 2007; Turnbull, 2008; Brooker, 2001; McKinley, 1997).
But while it is important not to over-estimate the influence of teen television and/or the naivety of young viewers, I do think representations matter. They are not reflective of reality, but they have the capacity to inform and educate. Indeed, in interviews carried out by feminist sociologists, teenagers frequently identify television as a key source of (sexual) information (Holland et al, 2004: 67). The teen drama series is a particularly conducive genre for representing sexual violence, concerned as it is with issues of sexuality as teenage characters gradually mature. Scholars such as Lisa Cuklanz (1996, 2000) and Lesley Henderson (2007) have identified fictional narratives of sexual violence (particularly those in drama series more widely) as better at engaging with feminist discourses in complexity than mainstream news coverage (see William Proctor’s previous blog for an example of the power of drama series – in this case, soap operas – in raising awareness of rape). Sexual violence narratives in teen drama series frequently foreground the experience of the victim, condemn the perpetrator and offer multiple perspectives on the abuse due to the presence of ensemble casts and interweaving storylines.
At the same time, when exploring these narratives, the same kinds of stories about sexual violence appeared repeatedly – narratives that ultimately worked to close down rather than enlarge feminist discourses on violence against women. In these programmes, sexual violence is predominantly framed as a personal problem for teenage girls, divorced from larger social and political structures. Perpetrators are typically non-recurring characters who disappear shortly after committing sexually violent acts and, thus, the need for social transformation is rarely acknowledged. Further, stark contrasts are drawn between these men and ‘normal’ male characters, who frequently display heroic masculinity by protecting and defending female victims (see Landry in seasons 1 and 2 of Friday Night Lights for an example of this). Ultimately, it is often male responses that are emphasised (and notably this was one of the key criticisms of the rape narrative in Reign). Rarely does sexual violence work to create a shared identity between women. This finding resonates with feminist scholarship on television depictions of sexual violence more widely (Moorti, 2002; Projansky, 2001; Cuklanz, 2000).
My research found that sexual violence representations in teen drama series were so common that they risked becoming normalised and, thus, invisible. Many people I spoke to were shocked when I told them quite how many examples I’d found. Of course, the question of definition is important here. The women on the CW panel, for instance, largely equated sexual violence with rape. In my research, I used a broader definition, including other instances of sexual abuse that prompted fear in the victim, such as stalking, obscene phone calls, sexual assault. In many cases, these narratives would build up slowly over several episodes, escalating into an attempted rape or rape storyline to end the season on a moment of high drama. Indeed, one of the main areas I became interested in was where these narratives sit in relation to broader series’ structures.
My first job upon completion of my PhD was at a practice/theory based institution and I had some rewarding conversations with script-writing practitioners whilst there, who helpfully challenged the textual emphasis of my work, arguing that the positioning of sexual violence narratives within series structures is not necessarily ideological but practical. Writers need to build up to exciting storylines at the end of seasons to ensure viewers return. This offered me an interesting insight into industrial constraints that I hadn’t fully considered. But, I’d counter: why does the ‘exciting’ cliff-hanger storyline need to involve sexual violence? Why is that the ‘go to’ narrative? The impression that the female showrunners gave on the panel was that sexual violence almost becomes a shortcut for expressions of teenage female vulnerability in conversations around the writers’ table. The very fact that these women feel that they need to go out of their way to avoid these storylines is telling.
I’d be disappointed if sexual violence narratives disappear from teen series altogether. The genre has the potential to play a really important role in challenging dominant myths around sexual violence as well as raising awareness of the prevalence of this kind of abuse (especially in light of recent news reports about the ubiquity of sexual harassment in schools). These narratives can be handled in interesting and provocative ways. Seasons 2 and 3 of The O.C. offer an interesting example of the long-term effects of attempted rape on the victim, stretching the storyline out over multiple episodes and across seasons; season 6 of Buffy draws provocative connections between hegemonic constructions of masculinity and gendered abuse (as Karen Boyle has written about previously (2005)) and Veronica Mars features several overlapping sexual violence storylines throughout, making it difficult to see this kind of abuse as a one-off, aberration of an otherwise functioning patriarchy.
But there’s something interesting about the desire of these showrunners to do something different. And maybe in doing so, when sexual violence is explored in these shows (and I am confident it will continue to be), it will be dealt with thoughtfully and as sexual violence, rather than used as a narrative shortcut to highlight another theme or issue. That can only be a good thing.
Susan Berridge is Lecturer in Film and Media and a member of the Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies at the University of Stirling. Her research focuses on representations of age, gender, sexuality and sexual violence in popular culture. She has published on these themes in journals including Feminist Media Studies, The Journal of British Cinema and Television and New Review of Film and Television Studies. Susan is also the co-editor of the Commentary and Criticism section of Feminist Media Studies.