Ross and Elizabeth in the BBC's controversial Poldark scene 
Ross and Elizabeth in the BBC's controversial Poldark scene 


Why the Poldark rape scene matters 

A new episode of Poldark has ignited furious debate over a controversial “rape fantasy” scene. Zoë Beaty reports 

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By Zoë Beaty on

A man walks into a woman's house without asking. He goes into her bedroom, and she tells him to leave. What follows is a tussle of force and displays of violence (from him) and a series of "Nos" (from her) and then, supposedly, consensual sex. 

In a nutshell, that's what makers of the latest episode of Poldark have come under fire for showing last night. During the hour-long programme, on BBC One, the star, Ross Poldark, is seen breaking into the home of his former lover, Elizabeth, to confront her about plans to marry his enemy, George Warleggan. He starts to kiss her. "No," she says, over and over. 

And it's there that the scene takes a shadowy turn. She says no repeatedly, but he doesn’t stop; instead Poldark throws Elizabeth, played by Heida Reed, on to the bed. He pins her down. And then, out of nowhere, she “gives in”, begins to kiss him back. While Poldark (Aidan Turner) has spent the scene stalking her bedroom, ignoring her requests for him to leave, gripping her by the neck to kiss her, intimidating her, while he shouts and tells – tells – her that he will have sex with her, we’re meant to believe that (eventually) Elizabeth is fully consenting. 

Critics and Twitter users were quick to tell the BBC that the scene was an uncomfortable broadcast of “rape fantasy”, and smudged over the already blurred lines in terms of consent. 

It not only glorified rape, but made it into a dangerous game of passion; a man’s violent actions depicted more as ardour and spirit and a woman, playing hard to get

What’s more, the scene was devised as an “update” to Winston Graham’s novels, which were published from 1945-1953. Aidan Turner, who plays Poldark, had called for the rape scene to be cut from the series earlier this year. In the book, Elizabeth cries “Stop! Stop I tell you,” before the narrator continues, “But he took no further notice. He lifted her in his arms and carried her to bed.” Producers of the show supposedly decided to change the narrative and present the scene in a way that is now, in 2016, considered acceptable behaviour – and the result was this, which Aidan Turner, has supported. How depressing.

Instead, what it did, women’s campaign groups said, was glamourise the issue of rape. Rather than clearly spelling out exactly where the line of consent lies – which, it would be hoped, would be the only “acceptable” 21st century take on rape, especially in light of huge sexual violence cases sweeping the country like Jimmy Saville’s heinous crimes, or the issue of consent debated in Ched Evans’ rape trial – the scene perpetuated the myths that consistently cause harm to women. 

“It is portraying a particular myth about rape: that women say ‘no’ but really they mean ‘yes’ and a real man will carry on regardless,” Sarah Green, of End Violence Against Women said, before labelling the producers “irresponsible”. “The female character says ‘no’ and there are also non-verbal signs,” she added. “The directors have done something really ambiguous. It is a really appalling message, which is they have made the representation of non-consensual sex ambiguous by making her appear to change her mind.” 

The implication, as is so often the catalyst for lost consent boundaries, is that women can be “won round” when it comes to sex. That consent is something to be interpreted rather than listened to, and if a man wants to have sex with a woman, he should persevere. Stay long enough and she’ll change her mind, goes the myth. Try harder, and you’ll convince her. Show her what she’s missing. She’ll probably end up enjoying it – and in this scene with Poldark, Elizabeth supposedly did. It not only glorified rape, but made it into a dangerous game of passion; a man’s violent actions depicted more as ardour and spirit and a woman, playing hard to get, before succumbing. 

It’s a real shame – Poldark might be a fictional TV series but, for women, its message was incredibly real. It matters how rape is portrayed in the media and how consent is defined. Because, back in the real world, its impact is overwhelming.


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