'Outlander' finale: Is there too much rape on TV?

Some viewers were outraged by a plotline involving sexual assault on HBO's 'Game of Thrones.' Soon after, the season finale of the Starz hit show 'Outlander' also included the theme. 

Ed Miller/Sony Pictures Television/AP
'Outlander' stars Sam Heughan (l.) and Caitriona Balfe (r.).

After a sequence depicting rape on the HBO series “Game of Thrones” sparked controversy, discussion around the topic has only increased following a rape plotline that was included as part of the season finale of the Starz hit show “Outlander.”

Are cable channels pushing the envelope of graphic sexual violence simply for ratings? Are we in an era where parents must be more proactive in protecting children from exposure to scenes of rape and pornography on television?

As The Christian Science Monitor previously reported, some fans were so offended by a scene in the May 17 episode of “Thrones” that they vowed to stop watching. A scene portrayed sympathetic character Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) raped by her new husband. The sequence was only the latest controversial depictions on the show.

And now much of the season one finale of “Outlander,” which aired on May 30, centered on main character Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) suffering a rape by his captor, Black Jack Randall (Tobias Menzies). 

As noted by Associated Press writer Frazier Moore, “Outlander” is only the newest show to include rape in its plotline, following not only “Thrones” but also “Downton Abbey,” which included an episode showing a maid being sexually assaulted; “Mad Men,” which depicted one of the main characters being raped by her husband; and “House of Cards,” which included a story about a character recalling a sexual assault against her while in college. 

For both “Thrones” and “Outlander,” the source novels included these sequences first (though in the book version of “Thrones” it was a different character who was assaulted). Both “Thrones” author George R.R. Martin and "Outlander" author Diana Gabaldon have defended the scenes, with Mr. Martin addressing the broader topic of violence against women in his fictional world.

“I’m writing about war, which [is] what almost all epic fantasy is about,” Martin told Entertainment Weekly. “But if you’re going to write about war, and you just want to include all the cool battles and heroes killing a lot of orcs and things like that and you don’t portray [sexual violence], then there’s something fundamentally dishonest about that. Rape, unfortunately, is still a part of war today. It’s not a strong testament to the human race, but I don’t think we should pretend it doesn’t exist. I want to portray struggle. Drama comes out of conflict. If you portray a utopia, then you probably wrote a pretty boring book.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Gabaldon told Vulture, “[The scene] is … a pivotal plot point in [the] story. I wanted to see what ['Outlander' actors] Sam and Tobias could do with it, and I wanted to see how they would handle such a controversial, emotionally draining, twisted scene that was going to be hard to watch, but so important.” 

But by the time the "Outlander" episode was aired, some viewers and critics were already upset about the sexual violence depicted in “Thrones.” How are they feeling now?

HitFix writer Donna Dickens wrote that she felt the show "lied to [her]."

"I came into this series under the impression it was a time-traveling historical romance with a heavy framework of feminist underpinnings," she wrote. "Then the slow slide into constant sexual assault and abuse began.... Just as Sansa’s wedding night in 'Game of Thrones' was the breaking point for some fans, this is the breaking point in 'Outlander' for me.... 'Outlander' saw the line between examining the impact of trauma and actively traumatizing the audience, revved their engine, and blew right over it."

Some fans were also displeased, writing,

“Hannibal” showrunner Bryan Fuller told Entertainment Weekly that the scene on “Thrones” “was handled tastefully, all things considered,” but added that he remained concerned about the use of rape as a plot device.

Fuller said of TV in general, “There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience. The reason the rape ... is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that it happens. But because it’s so overexploited, it becomes callous. That’s something I can’t derive entertainment from as an audience member – and I’m the first person in the audience for 'Hannibal.' My role, as a showrunner, is to want to watch the show we’re creating. And if something feels exploitative or unnecessary, I’ll try to avoid it. ‘A character gets raped’ is a very easy story to pitch for a drama.”

But some critics feel "Outlander" handled the sequence as well as it could have. The Daily Beast writer Amy Zimmerman felt that “Thrones” addressed the topic incorrectly but that “Outlander,” for the most part, made the case for the scene being there, though Zimmerman also found its inclusion indicative of a larger, more troubling theme.

Zimmerman also raised the question of the use of male-on-male rape as a plot point, asking whether the fact that the "Outlander" episode depicted an instance of male sexual violence against a man somehow changed the equation.

“In GoT, it’s not only the individual assaults that are rendered forgettable – it’s often the woman herself,” Zimmerman wrote. “The story of a male protagonist’s rape is not a common plotline, making this narrative noteworthy even in the 'rape glut' era. In light of 'Outlander'’s gender reversal, is this finale a valuable addition to the ‘rape glut,’ or is it an exception that proves and reinforces the rule?"

She went on to answer her own question, saying, "Realistically, it’s a little bit of both. It is inarguably important to show a mainstream-ish (sorry, Starz) audience that anyone can be a victim or a survivor, regardless of appearance or gender identity.… In 'Outlander,' the rape plotline is far from extraneous – it illustrates psyches, illuminates a love story, and ultimately strengthens a protagonist.… Still, challenging rape culture and traditional gender tropes doesn’t begin to address the rampant misogyny that makes the 'rape glut' so truly sickening in the first place.” 

Salon writer Sonia Saraiya called the sequence on “Outlander” “the most upsetting scenes I’ve ever seen on television.… As a feat of performance, [the episode] ‘To Ransom A Man’s Soul’ is incredibly successful. It’s hard not to feel entirely consumed by the brutality of the scene ... although this show is capable of great gore and violence, it has come to that violence in what is largely a considered way — and, crucially, balances out that violence with a lot of tenderness.”

AP writer Frazier Moore agreed that "Outlander" was different from "Thrones" in the way it handled the incident.

"Viewers with an open mind are invited to share an unflinching dramatization of violence – sexual and otherwise – that nonetheless reflects care and artistry," he wrote of the episode. "When depicted responsibly, rape is treated not only as a violent act but also as a storm of reactions by its victim ... that collectively drive home why rape has no place in a civilized world."

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