As conversations about sexual violence have heated up this election season, television writers are consciously deciding whether to model good behavior in romantic scenes, or fall back on outdated tropes.
By Sonia Weiser
In the first season episode of Gilmore Girls, Dean flummoxed Rory with a stereotypical surprise kiss. (Photo: The WB Television Network)
You know the scene. The woman says no, fighting against the man’s aggression, but he pulls her close and their lips slam together in a lustful and seemingly consensual kiss. It’s the moment the audience has been anticipating, even as the duo’s hatred for each other steams through the screen. Romantic tension gives way to immediate relief.
Or there’s the surprise, “forceful,” or “shut up” kiss tropes. Perhaps you recall Rory’s first kiss in season one of Gilmore Girls, in which Dean interrupts a teasing game by swooping in to land a classic surprise smooch on her (for the sake of brevity, I won’t address his other creeper tendencies — she responds with “thank you” then runs away.) Or season one of NBC’s Chuck, when the character Sarah catches the eponymous Chuck off guard while they wait for a bomb’s impending explosion and steals their first kiss. (Spoiler: It wasn’t a real bomb.)
Are these scenes romantic? Or do they perpetuate romanticized depictions of assault? After 2005 video footage of a lewd conversation between Donald Trump and Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush was leaked in early October, television writers are re-considering the question. The released video showed the GOP candidate describing kissing and grabbing women without their permission; 14 women have come forward since to allege other lewd and unwanted sexual behavior from Trump, ranging from sliding his hand up women’s skirts to kissing women without their consent. (Team Trump dismisses these narratives: On November 3rd, David Bossie, Trump’s deputy campaign manager, told CNN’s Jake Tapper that “there’s not one shred of evidence,” to support the claims, calling the whole thing a plot devised by Hillary Clinton’s campaign.)
The video and resulting fallout revitalized dialogues about the characteristics of assault and sexual violence’s roots in patriarchal society. The allegations have only been amplified by recent, well-publicized accusations made against Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby, Brock Turner, Owen Labrie, and two Uber drivers. Now, those conversations are finding their way into TV writers’ rooms too.
Are these scenes romantic? Or do they perpetuate romanticized depictions of assault?
While many of us turn to entertainment for an escape, TV writers don’t live in a pop-cultural bubble: Some shows have recently taken to eviscerating Trump by painting him as a dangerous buffoon whose own idiocy will be his downfall (perhaps you’ve taken note of recent episodes of The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live?). Others, like Law and Order: SVU and Scandal have fashioned story lines based directly on the events from the election season, letting Trump and Clinton essentially write their own roles within their shows’ semi-fictionalized worlds.
Writers say whether they choose to respond to ongoing conversations about sexual violence isn’t a flippant decision. A writer’s first responsibility is to remain true to the show—the universe he or she has helped create within weekly time slots or online streaming deals. Even if dialogues about assault don’t fit, some writers still battle with their conscience. Surrounded by news regarding assault cases, writers say they must choose whether they want to lead the fight against sexual violence by positive example, or opt out all together — and risk perpetuating potentially harmful TV tropes.
“We have to write to the world that we’re living in,” says Larry Cohen, a writer for Berlin Station on EPIX. While the show, now in its first season, does not touch on Trump-like figures, it incorporates global news items including the refugee crisis, ISIL brides, and radicalization into its Berlin-set storyline. “I know that, for me, I certainly take on the responsibility of trying to find a way to also write to the world that I wish we were living in or comment on it,” Cohen says. “We have an influence as writers [and] it’s the responsibility of our influence.”
While racially charged cases of police violence have provided material for a variety of shows recently—including UnREAL, Orange is the New Black, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine—lightly fictionalized takes on real-life rape and assault cases remain rare on mainstream TV. (Law & Order: SVU is a notable exception: It recently aired a Brock Turner-inspired episode, and its Trump-inspired one will be broadcast after the election.) But some writers are combatting sexual violence in more subtle ways.
Take the season three premiere of the CW’s Jane the Virgin, which featured a series of flashbacks to the initial encounters between central couple Jane and Michael, starting with their first kiss at Jane’s tequila-fueled 21st birthday party. Later, Michael shows up at Jane’s door; in the spirit of the classic “I’m acting like I hate you and you annoy me but actually I like you” trope (also seen in The Notebook, 10 Things I Hate About You, You’ve Got Mail, and most movies starring Katherine Heigl), she turns him away. He doesn’t back down, saying, “Let me kiss you again, sober.” When she asks why he won’t give up, he tells her he’s a fighter. Smiling, she then goes in for the consensual, sober kiss.
Jennie Urman, the showrunner for Jane the Virgin, originally imagined the scene differently — Michael kissed Jane without giving her time to demonstrate consent. Due to the spike in public outcries over the prevalence of assault, however, Urman rewrote it: “I felt so uncomfortable with any gray area in terms of consent,” she says. Even though the passionate mid-argument kiss still appears in TV shows and movies all the time, “Those little symbols [of male aggression and lack of consent] are dangerous right now in terms of what we’re talking about and what we’re faced with,” she says.
For Urman, a writer’s choice comes down to “understanding how all the small nuances and small moments [on the show] are either validating or adding to some problems that we as a society are currently grappling with,” she says. “My responsibility is to make sure that we’re not confusing things … or adding to the problem.”
Not all shows, of course, are as feminist and feel-good as Jane the Virgin: Upstanding moral behavior isn’t out of character for the show’s protagonists in the same way it might be for a drama featuring an antihero at the forefront, for example.
A writer’s choice comes down to “understanding how all the small nuances and small moments [on the show] are either validating or adding to some problems that we as a society are currently grappling with.”
Cohen believes that if a Tony Soprano or Walter White-type character behaves reprehensibly, then it’s the writers’ job to not only provide those characters with clear motivations and a backstory that explains — not excuses — their actions, but to also provide them with an ultimate moral reckoning that sends a warning to the audience. The character’s final demise (or at least a mild takedown), in his view, should be a direct consequence of their own actions. “I always have a hard time with stories when characters do such horrible things and then they end up with such a happy ending because I think some people can misinterpret that,” he says. “Look at what happens to White at the end of Breaking Bad. It’s not a happy ending. I think that’s kind of how you reconcile all the bad things the character has committed along the way.”
But when it’s not so simple — in other words, when moral ambiguity drives the show, and a tidy moral isn’t the end goal — what then should a TV writer do?
“Every show has a different point of view and a different purpose,” Urman says. “You’re responsible for your own show and what you want to put into the world.” Writers can still write sexual violence into their scripts without modeling consent (Game of Thronestakes this approach), but, even by doing so, they’re spurring conversations among viewers, critics, and the actors and actresses involved, pushing those issues into the public forum. “That’s valuable, too, because you’re talking about it,” Urman says.
In recent remarks about her new show on HBO, Westworld, actress Evan Rachel Wood did just that. Though the National Center on Sexual Exploitation has critiqued the show’s sexual violence as gratuitous, “It really is there for a reason, to send a message,” she said in an interview with Variety. “There’s also something to be said for showing it so that people don’t get desensitized and they are traumatized by it and see it for what it is, which is a horrendous act.” Her point? It’s easier to dismiss an assault allegation when it’s just another headline than when a graphic depiction of what that act of violence might have looked like is embedded into the plot of your favorite TV show, streaming directly into your home.
Writers also believe that, in some cases, shows have an obligation to reflect the world the way it is, backward romantic encounters and all. During the third episode of Mr. Robot titled “eps1.2_d3bug.mkv,” the show’s main character, Elliot, asks his drug dealer and neighbor Shayla if he can kiss her. It’s not an odd request: The two had already slept together, but, at this point, the status of their relationship is undefined. After they kiss, though, Shayla says: “Next time don’t ask. It’s lame.” Even in the third episode, the show has made it abundantly clear that Elliot is socially awkward, an outsider, and emotionally stunted — him asking her permission was most likely another way to “show not tell” his abnormalities, rather than a chance for him to impress her with his awareness of sexual consent protocol. (Writers for Mr. Robot did not respond to a request for comment.)
Shayla’s reaction to Elliot is, unfortunately, a familiar one on TV and in real life, and is fitting for a character who’s used to being abused rather than respected. Characters that resonate with the audience have to be based in our present reality, however ugly that reality may be, Cohen says. “I don’t think you can ignore the way the world is,” he says. “And I think you have to render it truthfully and honestly if you’re trying to create drama that people can connect with and understand and use that drama to try to reconcile what’s right and what’s wrong.”
And yet: There are clear guidelines for what consent should look like, ones that are taught in high schools and colleges, easily accessible online, and even preached in celebrity-starring public-service announcements. Intellectually, most viewers are aware that communication is the key to consent and healthy relationships — so why does TV, especially shows set in the modern day, and those without characters that make it appropriate, so often revert to romanticized notions of force?
It’s an important question to ask after this election’s particular spotlight on accusers’ stories. Today, it’s realistic for contemporary male and female characters to have some knowledge about consent; it’s likely that, if a gratuitous scene of sexual violence or force slips through even a period or fantasy piece, Twitter will get outraged. TV writers would do well to be mindful of this contemporary concern, even if that means using alternative modes of media (whether it be Twitter or published interviews) to acknowledge that their shows are depicting heinous acts and that the creators themselves don’t condone their characters’ behavior. Ultimately, we need more entertainment that discourages “locker room talk” — either through promoting public discussion or providing a model for an alternative, safer world.