Sexual Assault As A Plot Device In Entertainment – Addressing Its Portrayal In TV Shows

Córa-Laine Moynihan

TW: Sexual Assault 


With the recent release of Netflix’s Bridgerton, controversy has arisen surrounding its depiction of sexual violence between partners. This controversy has shone a light on the wider issues of the glorification of sexual assault in entertainment mediums, with many TV shows using it as a plot device.

TV shows have utilised sexual assault as a plot device for creating or prolonging conflict to hook viewers. Yet, they never stop to think about the glorification they are giving to the traumatic act. They avoid addressing the crime in a sensitive and educational manner lest they lose the supposedly much needed shock response that comes with it.

Sexual assault is any sexual act that a person is forced into and does not consent to, regardless of age, gender, or sexuality. It can happen to ANYONE and can be perpetrated by ANYONE.

When it comes to addressing this form of sexual violence in media, there have been many careful and perceptive portrayals of the act and its impact on victims; however, there have also been many that are insensitive and unacceptable.

Rather than presenting abuse as the appalling, life-damaging experience it is, quite often the assault is written off as an unfortunate event quickly forgotten about, and more often than not occurs to women alone.

Game of Thrones features around 50 different rape scenes

Shows like Game of Thrones, Tiger King, and Poldark all depict intimate partner violence, abuse, and sexual assault towards women in a way that normalises violence against women.

While Poldark displays the long-lasting impact of the abuse Morwenna experiences from her husband – because yes, sexual violence can occur in marital relationships -, Game of Thrones features around 50 different rape scenes, according to the analysis by one fan, the majority of which victimise women and depict it as a common occurrence. Although this may have been realistic to the time period and settings of the show, it opposes the values and morals of modern-day viewers.

However, similar violent events occur in Tiger King, a docu-series based in modern times, of which follow the same dynamic of powerful men preying on weak women.

In more recent years, shows have begun presenting men as victims of sexual violence

These violent scenes are usually used to make a character disliked by viewers or as a plot device for moving the story along, rather than addressing the issue of sexual abuse and gender-based violence themselves.

In more recent years, shows have begun presenting men as victims of sexual violence, something that could lead to more awareness around the non-discriminatory nature of abuse.

Outlander does not shy away from gender-based and sexual violence, having more scenes of assault than the dark and graphic Game of Thrones. Towards the end of season 1, the leading man, Jamie Fraser, is raped by Captain Jack Randell in a graphic and traumatising scene.

With around 12,000 men raped in the UK every year, and 632,000 experiencing some form of sexual assault since the age of 16, this scene opened up discussions around sexual violence against men and contributed to awareness of abuse in general.

The depiction did not end there either, Jamie continued to be affected by his assault long into the next season. While the scene was very shocking, and difficult to watch, it did not shy away from presenting the issue and its consequences.

Yet, in other shows, a double-standard exists in the portrayals of victims. Netflix’s latest hit period drama Bridgerton tackled the issue of sexual assault quite differently, having it occur to a male character and then completely abandoning any sort of commentary against it.

With a rating of 7.4 on IMDb and already greenlit for a season 2, Bridgerton highlights the struggles faced by women in the Regency Era, with their entire lives building up to the moment they marry and can finally have children.

She chooses to… force him to have sex until ‘completion’ against his wishes.  In other words, she assaults him

With her reputation potentially in ruins, the beautiful debutante Daphne sacrifices her hopes of a family to marry her love, the Duke of Hastings. Unknowledgeable about sex and reproduction, it is not until she has the act explained to her by her maid that she realises her husband, Simon, is actively lying to her about his fertility, opting for the withdrawal method to prevent her pregnancy.

Rather than having a conversation with him about it, she chooses to test her newly found knowledge and force him to have sex until ‘completion’ against his wishes.  In other words, she assaults him.

Following this breach of trust and consent, you would expect the show to explore the repercussions, and discuss the violation that occurred. However, the screenwriters chose to persuade the audience to sympathise with Daphne, the innocent and oblivious woman.

Daphne and Simon resolve their discord with proclamations of love and the assault is completely forgiven and forgotten about. Simon even changes his desire for children that he was against due to his own abusive childhood.

An opportunity to educate and raise awareness was missed in Bridgerton

Prior to this scene, the two were in marital bliss, loving their days as newlyweds, the majority of their conflicts having being resolved. The assault is then used as a wedge, a disruption to this, or, similar to the other shows mentioned, as a plot device to encourage more conflict.

Had the roles been reversed, there would definitely have been more uproar. An opportunity to educate and raise awareness was missed in Bridgerton.

Although a period drama, the show could have emphasised the importance of sex education through Daphne’s ignorance, it could have explored the pillars of a healthy relationship through Daphne and Simon communicating with one another, and it could have demonstrated the effects sexual violence can have on men and the healing journey all victims go on.

All this could have been done if these shows chose to explore the issue rather than use it as a mere plot device.

Sexual assault is a very real, and very traumatic, experience for someone to have. It should not be used in TV shows so nonchalantly and certainly not without the willingness to educate about and challenge it.

Córa-Laine Moynihan 

Featured image courtesy of Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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