#WWACTV – Rape On Television: How The Newsroom and Reign Got It Wrong

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*Trigger Warning: This post will discuss the rape scene in episode 9 of Reign‘s second season and a discussion of rape between two characters in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.

As a woman, I find rape hard to talk about. It’s difficult because, growing up, I was told by many people in my life that, as a woman, I would have to be vigilant in not getting raped. “Don’t get raped” they’d say. Don’t. Get. Raped. Ridiculous, right? A crime with an assailant who is active in their choice (most often “his” choice) to commit the crime against a victim who has no say in the matter. They are being acted upon. There’s a reason why we punish those who commit crimes. Why we’re supposed to go after murderers and not the murdered. Seek justice for the one who was stolen from and not the one who stole. The perpetrator and not the victim.

It’s logical.

However, logic has never been a friend to sexual assault survivors.

This past week has been a shit storm for rape related stories whether on TV or off. Scratch that. It’s been a very loud discussion on rape and sexual assault in the last few weeks with the match being struck by Jian Ghomeshi, followed by renewed interest in the allegations against Bill Cosby, and, most recently, a major journalistic fuck up involving Rolling Stone.

There have been vocal discussions about and internet anger directed at a particular show and its use of rape recently. This past Thursday, Reign (a show I enjoy very much) decided to write in a rape scene involving its main character. Mary, Queen of Scots (and Queen of France via marriage), was raped by a protestant man who broke into the castle with his fellow protestants to kill King Frances. Why? The King signed a law that forces people to officially declare their faith and, as a Catholic country, it means systematically hunting down, beating and even killing the Protestant population in France. Throughout the season, we’re shown Frances being blackmailed (for committing regicide) into doing things like signing laws that he morally opposes, which causes a rift between himself and Mary. Dressed as royal guards, the group of Protestants sneak into the castle with the plan of killing the King but instead find his wife and soon realize that the King is nowhere to be found on the premises. They should leave, right? Their target is not here and time is running out as the dead bodies they’ve left lying around will be found at any moment. Amongst these men, however, is the father of a man killed and publicly displayed on the cross. Everyone was told it was the King who did this. In reality, it was a radical Protestant faction who made a martyr out of him to give their people a push into revolt; into action. The father, of course, doesn’t know this. So what does he do now that the object of his hatred, the King, is not here? He rapes his wife.

Reign. The CW. Acts of War. Season 2 Episode 9. Original Air Date: December 4th, 2014.

I don’t have an issue with rape on screen. I have an issue with how rape is shown on screen and, most importantly, why it is shown. Shock factor, showcasing someone’s villainy, and retribution against a male character are the worst reasons to have a character be raped. Apparently, the real Mary was raped, but let’s be honest, historical accuracy has never been CW’s mantra nor should it be the defense of scene like this. Our fictionalized Mary, Queen of Scots, was not raped because she was seen as too powerful or due to the decisions she made. Her rape was a way for a male character to get back at another male character. It’s an opportunity to showcase man-pain. A woman in refrigerator moment if I’ve ever seen one. Frances will now be spurred into retribution mode with the blessing of his Queen (she asks him to find and kill them) and this is a problem because Mary’s rape was never about Mary. That’s the real issue of this rape scene and why fans are right to feel angry. This show sets up a Queen who is very active and admirably powerful in her role as a ruler — despite the societal expectations of the time — only to be downgraded into a tool in the story of her own rape. I’m extremely disappointed in you, Reign.

And I’m beyond furious at The Newsroom which has taken a stance that has me shocked and disgusted. Here’s looking at you, #NotAllMen.

On the Dec. 7 episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, Princeton University student Mary (Sarah Sutherland) tells Don (Thomas Sadoski), an executive producer on the fictional news program Right Now With Elliot Hirsch, about how she was raped. He listens to her story, and he tells her that she is credible, that he has spoken to her less-than-credible alleged attacker, who maintains that it was not rape but consensual sex. “I’m obligated to believe the sketchy guy,” Don tells Mary. “I believe I’m morally obligated.”

– “The Newsroom,” UVA, And Our “Moral Obligation” To Believe Alleged Rapists by Ariane Lange from Buzzfeed

The Newsroom. HBO. Oh Shenandoah. Episode 5 Season 3. Original Air Date: December 7, 2014.

This is the end of their episode long discussion, which was interwoven with stories featuring other characters from the show. Emily Nussbaum from The New Yorker has done a fabulous write up on the episode and I highly recommend checking it out because I won’t spend time recapping it. I will say that The Newsroom creator, Aaron Sorkin, has drawn his line in the sand, which states: he doesn’t believe a woman who reports rape on principle. Why? Because the legal system is there to protect the accused and “beyond reasonable doubt” is the name of the game in the court of law. We don’t want people falsely accused of a crime to go to jail, am I right? Well, Mr. Sorkin, it seems you haven’t been brushing up on your sexual assault stats but don’t worry, there’s a media pack for that. Did you know that your lovely justice system looks for an “ideal victim” when it comes to rape — virgin, not intoxicated, modestly dressed/not asking for it, perpetrator is a stranger (definitely not family, friends and especially not husband/boyfriend/sexual partner) etc etc etc — but even then for every 100 rapes:

40 are reported

10 lead to an arrest

8 are put in front of a courtroom

4 lead to a conviction

3 will spend at least a day in prison

– Stats from RAINN

Let’s not forget the second victimization that occurs to those who decide to report. They’re called liars, slut shamed, and thanks to the internet, they can be doxxed or have hundreds of social media users rip them apart, all because they spoke out. If they’re one of the few men who are sexually assaulted, their trauma is written off as non-existent. “Men don’t get raped.” There’s more to lose as a survivor of rape than there is of someone accused of rape. So no, Mr. Sorkin. You’re not morally obligated to believe the accused. Facts tell you otherwise.

Television has upset me this week in its approach to rape and the survivors of rape. We can do better.

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About Author

Former senior editor for WWAC. Part-time contributor. BA in criminals (a minor in daydreams). Batman seeks her advice constantly. Bylines at Book Riot, Teen Vogue, Slate, Quill & Quire and Hyperallergic.