[warning: this post discusses sexual violence, and also has The Fall and Top of the Lake spoilers!]
I just finished The Fall on Netflix. Gillian Anderson’s a kick-ass lead who doesn’t conform to sexual gender norms. Jamie Dornan’s a creepy-handsome Irish serial killer with adorable children (confusing, I know). And there’s a good amount of sexual violence too, of course.
Where there are TV dramas, there are scenes of sexual violence. There’s an entire Law & Order franchise about it. Special Victims Unit is about sexually based offenses, and the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies. These are their stories. Bum-bum.
Could I argue this cultural connection has to do with the dramatic horror of sexual violence?* Sure I could. But I’d like to offer another interpretation. TV dramas with sexual violence are prevelant because they’re sexy. The shows aren’t sexy. The sexual violence is. Media producers make it that way.
Let’s bring in Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding, shall we? Media producers encode shit into media so that we—the viewers—relate, get excited, desire, and most importantly, continue to watch. In contemporary Western culture, a great way to get us invested in a TV show is to populate it with naked bodies. Thin ones that are muscled, and hairless, and beautiful, and light-skinned, and cisgender, and able-bodied. You know, hegemonic bodies. This is the tactic of all of HBO shows, no?
This tactic is not new. Burlesque, anyone? Contemporary Burlesque is actually an offshoot of historical U.S. Burlesque, which was an offshoot of U.S. Variety when Variety began transitioning into the family-friendly genre of Vaudeville. Burlesque shows were plays, stories, or a series of tableaus. Did I mention that the predominately White, curvy, women who performed in these shows did so flesh-colored leotards, or in other states of undress? They did. So audiences would get their entertainment, and get their sexy too. And guess what? This method still employed by media producers today!
Carl’s Jr. commercials say this: “consumer: pay attention to this ad! We will purchase your attention through the presentation of this woman’s idealized body for your sexual consumption. This is our gift to you. Now go buy our garbage food.” Even if we are not sexually attracted to women’s bodies, society hardcore pushes us to see these types of bodies as universally beautiful and sexy. Something to pay attention to. Something to enjoy.
Wanna know another popular way producers get this product into their shows? Through scenes of sexual violence. These scenes almost always contain a little T&A. Generally, both T and A is connected to a hegemonically beautiful woman. Who is being sexually victimized. In The Fall, the antagonist targets pretty, dark-haired professional women; and part of his crazy is that he cleans and poses them after he kills them. Did I mention that the bodies are cleaned and posed naked? And that we are treated to shot after shot of this naked body? And that when the cops come to collect the corpse, we get more shots of the victim’s naked, femininely posed body?
Want more evidence that our media encourages us to sexually ogle women as they are being or after they have been sexually victimized? At the 85th Oscar Awards, Seth MacFarlane sang “We Saw Your Boobs,” a song listing instances where MacFarlane (and the rest of the world) got to see the breasts of famous and accomplished female actors. Specifically, he lists four—yes four—instances where he got to see breasts during scenes of rape and sexual violence. He sings that these boob shots “made us feel excited and alive.”
There are two more things I wanna say, then I’ll be done. First, you can show the horror and degradation of sexual violence without also showing the naked body of the victim or survivor. Take another Netflix gem, Top of the Lake. In a flashback, we witness the protagonist—played by Elisabeth Moss—being gang raped. The producers could have shown Moss’ clothing being ripped off, revealing her body, her breasts. Moss is pretty popular, and this would have undoubtedly warranted a line in MacFarlane’s boob song. Instead, we see her trying to get away by running into darkness. We hear her screaming. And we watch her boyfriend laying on the ground after being beaten by the rapists, terrified and unable to help her. It’s a horrific scene. Later, we do see Moss’ breasts. In a consensual sex scene with her boyfriend.
Second, when producers create a scene of sexual violence that simultaneously encourages the ogling of the undressed female body, it trivializes sexual violence. It both normalizes these acts as mundane, and disassociates these acts from the actual people who are victimized. Law & Order: SVU used to be my guilty pleasure. Yes, this show is built around the display or description of bodies during and after acts of sexual violence. T&A with your L&O. But I really didn’t think too much about it. But if you follow The Saucy Scholar, you’ll know there was a shooting at my University last year. It was motivated by misogyny and sexual violence. And they made a Law & Order: SVU about it. I haven’t watched an episode since. I’m literally terrified I will accidently run into this episode. You see, I no longer have the privilege of separating this real act of sexual violence from that which is presented to me in my media.
Producers encode fucked up things into our media. Obv. But Stuart Hall also says that viewers can be active in how they decode their media. That is, we can recognize why unclothed female bodies are displayed so often during rape scenes. We can see how this works to desensitize us to the horror of the act, and encourages a rape culture where sexual violence appears to be a commonplace, thus lesser, violation. And we can be disgusted rather than titillated by this media tactic because of our consciousness about how it affects rape culture, and the affect it has on survivors of sexual violence.
*Just FYI, sexual violence absolutely does not include consensual sex acts such those practiced within BDSM.