Jamestown
Jamestown

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Why does TV insist on alienating female viewers with sexual violence?

As Sky’s new show Jamestown becomes another in a long line of shows to use rape as a gimmick, Caroline O’Donoghue wonders why TV seems so intent on alienating its female viewers

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Stop me if you’ve been here. 

It’s a Sunday night, and you and your partner are at peak cosy. I don’t know what “peak cosy” looks like for you, but for me, it is all the laundry done, all the dinner stuff put away, and a bag of Terry’s Chocolate Orange slices between me and my partner. This Sunday, we put on Jamestown, the new Sky historical drama set during the 17th century. 

“This programme contains scenes of a violent and sexual nature.”

There’s the Sky lady, warning me that she’s about to completely fuck my evening. She’s going to turn me from Peak Cosy to Peak Bitch, and I’m audibly groaning already. 

“Women are going to get raped, aren’t they?” I say. “This is going to be Westworld all over again, isn’t it?”

“Shhhh,” he says. “Give it a chance.”

I regret to inform you that a woman was raped before the first ad break.

As I say, this isn’t the first time this has happened. You’ll recall that in Westworld, for every Anthony Hopkins monologue about the nature of existence, there was a woman being thrown down on a barn floor while three men in cowboy hats go “Heheheheh, yeahhhhhh”. I eventually stopped watching Westworld, because the smart writing simply wasn’t enough to cover the level of sexual violence in the show, and frankly, the assertion that “sexually humiliating women is every man’s secret fantasy” was insulting to everybody. Game of Thrones came up against a similar problem: it started from a place of “this is a violent world where violent things happen” and quickly devolved into sexual-humiliation-roulette. Most notably for Sansa Stark, whose wedding night consisted of a violent attack that was shown to be more distressing for the man watching her than for herself. 

And you know what? I don’t have the energy to go into why it’s so disappointing. I cannot go into, again, why this is a deeply unpleasant and offensive thing for women to watch: particularly when most of us live with some experience of sexual assault, or have at least experienced the threat of it. I cannot go into it again because it is becoming increasingly clear to me that TV doesn’t care about what most women think, or what most women like, or what makes most women comfortable. If they did, they wouldn’t ignore the – really, quite loud – criticism women have been voicing for years. 

TV doesn’t care about what most women think, or what most women like, or what makes most women comfortable

I can only assume, based on the current state of historical/fantasy TV, that it is somehow profitable to alienate women from watching your TV show. And, as such, I’ve written a guide to doing more of it in the future. 

PERFECT THE ART OF THE BAIT AND SWITCH

When I see a poster of a few women in period costume staring defiantly into a camera, I get excited. This isn’t just because period costume is fun to look at, but because period costume usually indicates smart scripts, interesting women, witty dialogue, and very intense social structures that are somehow fun to watch. “Ooh,” I said, looking at the Jamestown poster. “Maybe it’ll be something between Outlander and Pride & Prejudice.”

Take Jamestown’s advice: market your product specifically to women, and then serve them up a show where your female characters are continuously attacked. That’s good TV. We love that. 

INCLUDE AN ATTACK AS EARLY ON AS POSSIBLE

How will your viewers know that you’re making a gritty historical show if you don’t include sexual violence? Sure, maybe it will make women less inclined to tune in, but history bros will have a great time saying “well, those were the times they lived in” and “that’s what those women really had to deal with, you know”. This will further the perspective that rape is a History Thing and that women today are whiners for not appreciating how plush and comparatively rape-free their lives are. 

PLEASE ENSURE THAT THE FICTIONAL RAPIST IS A CLEAR PSYCHO

We need lots and lots of ominous music cues and leery looks from the rapist. Also, it helps if he’s caked in several layers of grease and has bad hair. Make it very clear that only a certain kind of man commits this crime, and that man is dirty and weird.  

BUT ALSO, YOUR RAPIST IS A SUPER NICE GUY

Yes, he’s creepy, but he’s also a rounded character, in some cases even more so than the woman he attacks. “He saved my life,” a male character will tersely tell the woman who has just been attacked. “You just don’t see that side of him.” Hmmm.

VIOLENCE IS A COLD YOU RECOVER FROM QUICKLY

After your female character’s ordeal, she will spend exactly one day looking like she has a bit of flu, and then go back to normal life. 

Alternatively, if you would actually like to keep your female viewership – inspire them rather than disgust them, entertain them rather than depress them – call me. I have some much more uplifting advice for you.

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