By Meg Aprill
Society continues to normalize the objectification of women and glamorize sexual violence in modern television and film. Plots hinge on drama and screenwriters often use sexual abuse as a tool to make a storyline more interesting. It’s time for all characters to stop playing victims of abuse at the expense of entertainment and high ratings.
Popular shows on Netflix, Hulu, and HBO have played their part in romanticizing sexual assault and violence for a long time. In episode one of Gossip Girl, Chuck Bass attempts to rape young Jenny Humphrey. Throughout the series, Chuck takes advantage of his power and money to objectify women, paralleling the very real case of Harvey Weinstein. Damon Salvator constantly compels women to do whatever he wants and kills them when they are no longer useful on The Vampire Diaries. Both Khal Drogo and Ramsay Bolton rape and abuse their wives on Game of Thrones. Throughout the show, Game of Thrones features over 50 rapes. These characters sound like villains, right? Wrong. They’re bad boys that the audience ends up idealizing and admiring as these series progress, and their character development and redemption relies on their past of abusing women.
Glamorizing sexual violence in the media has resulted in normalizing it for young viewers. Experiencing sexual assault can even be a defining aspect of a victim in television, making cold, “bitchy” characters appear more human because of their assault. Characters that are sexual abusers are often rewarded by getting the girl and overcoming their challenges in television and film. This depicts sexual violence as acceptable and attractive behavior on and off screen. Research indicates that constantly watching abusers in the media instills the idea that sexual assault is normal.
A recent report examined how common depictions of domestic abuse and sexualized young women in the media impact the audience. The way sexual abuse is glorified in television and film can result in very serious and long last consequences for real life female victims. The study found that “media portrayals of sexual assault and rape have been shown to increase victim blaming and influence the way women, the general public, the police, the criminal justice system and in some cases, the way juries have perceived a female victim.”
The media has also constructed a social image of what a victim of sexual violence should look like. Nearly all victims of sexual abuse in television and film are innocent weathly or middle class white female characters. This image of the “normal” victim of sexual assault created by the media makes victims of other races, genders, sexualities, and socioeconomic backgrounds appear less important. In fact, one study says that the media has stereotyped Black women as sexual aggressors, Asian women as overly sexually submissive, and women from lower social classes as deserving of sexual exploitation. Meanwhile, male and LGBTQ+ victims of sexual assault are almost left completely out of the picture. The exclusive image of the innocent white female victim invalidates the reality that victims of sexual assault come from all races and backgrounds.
Not only does the media’s depiction of sexual assault impact the audience’s vision of victims of sexual assault, it also affects the way they see the abuser. As mentioned, Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and Game of Thrones are just a few examples of shows that glorify and redeem sexual abusers. By glamorizing sexual assault and rewarding abusers in television, the media could be inspiring potential abusers in their audience to act. After playing the toxic role Chuck Bass, Ed Westwick was accused of raping two women. By empowering characters that are sexual abusers on television, the media is inspiring and encouraging their audience and actors to embody that role in reality.
While media’s glorification of sexual assault is detrimental to society, producers and directors of new shows continue to use it as part of their plot. One of Netflix’s latest releases, 365 Days, has been criticized of glamorizing rape and eroticizing abduction. In recent weeks, it has become one of the most watched films in the U.S. on the streaming service.
However, some directors are challenging media’s glorification of sexual violence by uplifting survivors and calling out abusers. In the new HBO series I May Destroy You a female character was having consensual sex with her boyfriend until he decided to remove the condom without telling her. The situation escalated and eventually, the victim came forward saying, “He is a rapist, not rape-adjacent, or a bit rape-y, he’s a rapist.” One reporter says that this show, “has given me a more thorough education on sexual consent and trauma than I’d ever received in school.”
Some directors and screenwriters might finally be supporting victims of violence in their shows, but the media glorification of sexual abuse is still a problem in today’s television and film. Domestic violence and the objectification of women isn’t normal, it isn’t attractive, and it isn’t acceptable. For survivors, partner violence is a very difficult reality. It’s time to stop making abuse seem normal in television and film.
Day One provides free, confidential counseling and legal services for all victims of domestic violence aged 24 and under. You can contact us on our website, call us during business hours at 1-800-214-4150, or text us at 646-535-3291.