Rape and sexual assault are so poorly represented in mainstream media that for a worryingly long time I thought it could only happen when a girl walked down a dark alley alone and was attacked by a stranger. Of course, this kind of assault exists and is awful, but this representation completely ignores the reality that 7/10 rapes are committed by someone the victim already knows. I get it, representing this kind of thing is uncomfortable and nobody likes to think of themselves as unsafe around the people they care about. But it is damaging to continuously show this one form of sexual assault and ignore the realities of so many people. It feeds in to the feeling that there is one “correct” way to be raped and everything else is some kind of grey area.
So here are my top 3 fictional pieces that deal well with the realities of rape, abuse and trauma. There may be spoilers ahead.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)
This book is far more than just a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy going through high school that was turned into a great film with an awesome soundtrack and an American Hermione. Firstly, I want to say how much I love that this is a Young Adult book. I think that the themes and issues addressed in it are important for people of all ages to understand. If it helps young people come to terms with abuse they have suffered or to recognize abuse when they see it then I don’t understand how people can dismiss it simply for being YA fiction.
- There are so many different kinds of abuse represented in this book and all of them feel real. Charlie witnesses the physical abuse of his sister at the hands of her boyfriend. His close female friend opens up about sexual abuse she has suffered at the hands of men close to her. His close male friend suffers severe physical and verbal abuse from school bullies because of his sexuality.
- The book is written from the point of view of a male survivor of sexual assault. Shame keeps so many men silent about what they have been through that the statistics about male survivors cannot be anywhere close to accurate. Giving a voice to those silent men opens up a conversation that should have started long before this book came out.
- Charlie deals with repressed memories. He cannot remember the details of his abuse and so the trauma comes out in other ways. He eventually stops repressing his memories and addresses the realities of what he went through. Addressing repressed memories is powerful because it is a very natural and common way of dealing with trauma. Our brains try and shield us from horrible things by making us forget all/part of them, this does not make the traumatic experience any less real or valid.
- Charlie’s abuser is someone he loves. It is someone in his family and he has to come to terms with his two opposing ideas of that person. His abuser is also female. This representation is extremely important because it shows that not only can a person close to you be abusive, but that abuse and sexual assault know no gender. Women are also capable of it and the experience of people who have been abused by women is real and valid.
- As Charlie comes to terms with what has happened to him and the backstory of the woman who abused him he recognises that abuse as a cycle it is up to him to break. His abuser was also abused and it is the uncomfortable burden that many survivors are faced with. At some point some people go from Victim to Survivor to Abuser and Charlie actively chooses to let go of his anger and work on himself so that he breaks the cycle of abuse. Although this doesn’t happen to every victim/survivor it is important to remember that abuse is a cycle and to always strive to break out of it.
The Fall (BBC- specifically Series 3)
Although this show centres on the capture of a serial killer in Norther Ireland, it still finds time to deal incredibly well with the issue of consent. The crime-drama came under a lot of scrutiny in the first two series for its portrayal of violence against women, but I think the third series really turned it all around again and here’s why:
- The show didn’t use violence against women as a cheap plot device or for shock factor like so many mainstream shows do. In the third series the effect that this violence had was really dealt with. There were very real consequences to it for the women involved as well as their families.
- It does an excellent job of representing both people who knew their attacker and people who did not, showing victims from both sides of this.
- Gillian Anderson’s character, Stella, has so many brilliant scenes in this show were she repeatedly has to explain rape culture to men around her who just don’t get it. One scene that will stay with me for a long time is one in which she discusses consent with the husband of a woman who has survived rape. In it she explains that the fight or flight response we are so used to hearing about is not always the case when it comes to sexual violence. The secret other ‘f’ that so many women experience in these situations is to ‘freeze’, but freezing does not equal consent. This is discussed so openly and in no uncertain terms that it brought me to tears.
- The recovery of one of the victims is given far more screen time than I am used to seeing in this kind of show. One of the women abducted by villain of the show escapes with her life and is understandibly severely traumatized. We get to see her family life and her background and they way these are affected by what she has been through. She is brought in to the show as more than just a witness for our central police protagonists to question.
Spotlight (2015 film)
This film dealt with the investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe who uncovered the huge child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church.
- This film shows the risks that come with taking on such a powerful institution. It shows how abuse can be covered up and silenced by people in positions of power. It highlights the flaws in a system that seems to do more to protect powerful perpertrators than innocent victims.
- It tells the story of many different survivors- both male and female, demonstrating that this kind of abuse was often less about gender and more about opportunity. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds/broken homes were more likely to be targeted regardless of gender because their families were more likely to trust a priest to be alone with their children.
- It tells the stories of real victims who came forward about years after it had happened and shows the long term effects of child abuse. It shows many people with various addictions and unhealthy coping mechanisms who are dealing with the effects of childhood trauma well in to their adulthood. They think of themselves as the “lucky ones” because so many of their fellow survivors killed themselves as a result of the abuse.
- The question of why it can take people so long to come forward about abuse is addressed as people explain what the Catholic Church and their faith meant to them. Abusers were in a position of extremely power, well respected in the community and huge authority figures, children could not speak up about what had happened to them.
- This scandal was huge and I hope that giving a voice to SO MANY children who were failed by the people around them at the time brings them some kind of comfort now.
Jessica Jones (Netflix)
The whole show is about Jessica’s recovery and the difficult task of bringing Killgrave (her abuser) to justice- all under the clever guise of being a superhero show. I know that I am in no way alone in praising this show for its excellent portrayal of rape and abuse, but here are just a few of the reasons I love it so much.
- It shows the long-term effects of abuse and trauma. We see Jessica breakdown and have flashbacks and panic attacks. The main focus of the show is on her and her recovery. Jessica is not the “perfect” survivor. She is messy and rude and uses alcohol as a coping mechanism. She shows that survivors shouldn’t have to fit a certain mould to be taken seriously.
- Jessica takes justice in to her own hands. Unlike so many characters in rape-oriented crime dramas she is not a helpless victim who we see for a few crying scenes before the show shifts the focus back to her mysterious attacker and the cops trying to catch him. She is strong. She is smart and, most importantly, she remains our main character.
- The biggest struggle Jessica faces in prosecuting Killgrave is that nobody believes his mind-control superpowers exist and she has to go to extraordinary lengths to get proof. This perfectly mirrors the disbelief that many survivors are faced with when they try and get any kind of justice against the people who assaulted them.
- Killgrave is not some kind of invisible assailant- he and Jessica spent a lot of time together and it took a lot for Jessica to be able to walk away from him, which is something everyone who has ever left an abusive partner will know all to well. It is not as simple as just getting up and going at the first sign of bad behaviour, abuse is usually more subtle than that. As well as this, Killgrave’s mind-control means that he rarely has to resort to violence to get his way, which is so, so important in demonstrating that abuse is not always physical.
- Killgrave does not see himself as a villain. In his head, his abuse of Jessica and Hope is not abuse. He tells Jessica that he “hates the word rape” because he does not see that as the same as what he has done. Real-life abusers often have ways of justifying their actions to themselves and separating themselves from “real” rapists.
- Killgrave’s backstory is tragic and may make some people sympathise with him. He is not pure evil, he was made that way by the circumstances of his upbringing. This is important because it is so easy to make excuses for someone’s shitty behaviour if they have some kind of tragic past that has made them cruel. But at the end of the day this only explains terrible behaviour- it does not excuse it.
- The show is a full of strong, fleshed out female characters who support each other. Trish is devoted to helping Jessica and it is clear those two would do anything for each other. Jessica’s unwavering support of Hope shows the way in which survivors should band together and find comfort in people who know exactly how you feel- no matter how terrible that may be. The horrifyingly high rape statistics means that survivors are never truly alone.
This show is SO good. I could honestly write an episode by episode breakdown of why this show is so helpful to survivors, but I’ll leave it here for now.
These are just my favourites and stories that helped me understand more about abuse. I recommend all of them if you haven’t already come across them. If you know of any others please leave a comment. And if you have been through anything like this remember that there is help out there. You are stronger than you know.