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Saturday, October 1, 2022

Guest Commentary

Guest column: Focus on the victim, not the attacker


Social media and television programming are rarely held accountable for capturing the truths of everyday life, such as rape and sexual assault.  Media, especially television, has the responsibility to acknowledge the trauma of rape and sexual assault survivors and to develop their stories without focusing on secondary characters.

One example of television failing to capture the truth of rape and sexual assault survivors is the popular show “Law and Order: SVU.”

In the standard episode of “Law and Order: SVU”, male perpetrators attack female victims. The viewer rarely sees the crime take place, or any of the physical or emotional responses of the victims before, during or after the crime.

Once the crime occurs, the rape is no longer about the victim. It is also not about how the victims learns to cope, how they learn to live again or even how they make it through the trial; instead, the focus is shifted to the male detectives correcting the male perpetrators.

On the other end of the spectrum is the show “Orange is the New Black.” This show uses its social influences to change the conversation about the trauma of rape and sexual assault.  In its third season, an entire episode is devoted to the character of Pennsatucky and explores her past.  Her past leads up to the context of her next rape; therefore, the writers and creators set up her past by providing the where and how she was raised.

The viewer sees Pennsatucky as a teenager who exchanges sex for her favorite soda.  However, when she rebuffs a man’s offer of soda for sex, he begins to assault her. Pennsatucky yells and says no, but the man does not care.  The viewers then see Pennsatucky stop fighting and lose the light from her eyes.

After this horrific event, the viewer flashes forward to the present time when Pennsatucky befriends a male prison officer. The officer appears to genuinely care about her; however, things change when Pennsatucky angers the prison officer. The officer becomes enraged and attacks her.

The brutality of the assault is felt by simply focusing on Pennsatucky’s face as she endures the rape. Again, the light is lost from her eyes and she ends her fight. The scene captures the sense of shame and conveys it effectively through the screen.

This shame brings the realization that the rape was not meant to be a plot point or a device to move the show’s story along. Pennsatucky’s rape serves as a mirror for real life; it may be uncomfortable, but it is necessary.

Rape and sexual assault need to be given the respect of deeper narrative on social media and television because these are important issues that impact so many women.  Viewers need to see and feel the impact of these brutal acts to bring greater awareness to the effects on the victim of rape and sexual assault.

It is time for social media and television to take responsibility and use their influence to provide real-life experiences in order to create an environment for social change.

Only then will there be effective and positive change regarding rape and sexual assault.

Lizzie Bliss is a graduate student in the Graduate College of Social Work.

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