I watch a lot of television. One of my mother’s favorite stories involves her coming home from work and finding a three year-old me on her couch, pointing to a schedule grid in her TV Guide and asking to watch a primetime Scooby Doo special. As such I have a vast amount of useless pop culture knowledge. I can remember who shot J.R., when Sam first kissed Diane, and why I still want to kick Damon Lindelof in the balls over the Lost finale. I also remember a lot of really, really unnecessary rape scenes.

Like Laura Spencer’s rape on General Hospital. Krystle Carrington’s rape on Dynasty. Liz Spencer’s rape on General Hospital. Kelly Taylor’s rape on Beverly Hills 90210. Naomi Clark’s rape on 90210. Joan Holloway’s rape on Mad Men. Tara Thorton’s rape on True Blood. Gemma Morrow’s rape on Sons of Anarchy. Gillian Darmody’s rape on Boardwalk Empire. Buffy Summers’ almost-rape on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Madison Montgomery’s rape on American Horror Story: Coven.

And last night’s rape of Mellie Grant on Scandal.

Through a series of flashbacks to the early days of Fitzgerald Grant’s political career, viewers learn that Mellie Grant—currently one of television’s most reviled characters—was raped by her own father-in-law during a drunken fireside chat. Mellie, in turn, uses this as leverage to pressure Rapey Father-in-Law (played with relish by Spin City’s Barry Bostwick) into convincing his son to make a run for the California governor’s mansion.

He succeeds, and the sexual assault is all but forgotten until this episode, where we find a frazzled Mellie begging an apathetic Fitz to assist in her quest to repair her damaged reputation. “If you knew the pieces of myself that I have given away for you,” Mellie tells Fitz, alluding to the incident but never making the confession viewers were dying to hear.

And that’s it. Of course now there’s a paternity matter afoot, as we see Mellie shrug off a glass of champagne before telling her husband she’s with child at a celebration announcing Fitz’s gubernatorial run. Fitz jokingly tells her to name it Jerry if it turns out to be a boy. Awk-ward. She smiles uncomfortably and then it’s on to the next scene, just like that. As a member of a small, yet vocal, cabal of Pro-Melliers I didn’t find her that odious to begin with, so I wasn’t sure why this particular device was being used to engender sympathy.

Earlier this year, Vulture writer Margaret Lyons wrote about the difficulty of finding a television show without rape or murder. She could only count 16 trauma-free series. SIXTEEN. (For the record, a third of those shows have since been canceled, and Downton Abbey has joined the Gratuitous Rape & Murder Club.) She also found that constant exposure to rape and murder made her even more sensitive to them. It’s made me more sensitive to them as well, especially as a parent.

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Having a son changes your perspective on a few things, including media that relies on tired rape tropes.

And instead of the subject being treated with the gravitas it warrants, rape is thoughtlessly tossed into episodes with nary a trigger warning. When Daenerys is raped by Khal Drogo on their wedding night it is presented in such a matter-of-fact way that you’re left feeling incredibly uncomfortable. Hell, the average primetime drama follows a formula: normal scene normal scene murder scene normal scene sex scene normal scene RAPE SCENE poker scene Fin. And it’s happening more often than we realize.

I get the idea of wanting to create great, multilayered characters. I think doing so makes for great television. Well-developed characters like Walter White, Frank Pembleton, Buffy Summers, etc., made me invest hours of time into watching them try to save the world and/or destroy it. But none of them had to be raped in order to be likeable. (Sadly, that didn’t stop Buffy’s writers from throwing in the almost-rape scene between her and Spike.)

I’m sure, had the writers given it a little more thought, they could’ve come up with a better way to make Mellie more sympathetic, more human. I would’ve been totally fine with some rare terminal disease that could only be cured by enjoying Fitz’s penis during a full moon, or her losing her mother to a bizarre lumberjack accident. ANYTHING BUT FUCKING RAPE.

Why? Because it’s a lazy and incredibly shitty plot device that—nine times out of ten—ends up being handled in such a hamfisted way that it makes me throw things at the screen. It snatches the power away from the characters, makes them objects to be acted upon instead of human beings dealing with a traumatic experience. Gemma’s rape by aryan skinheads only serves to repair the fractured relationship between her husband and son. Liz’s rape is used to transform her character from Uber Bitch to Disney Princess so that viewers were more willing to stomach her budding romance with Lucky. And Tara? I’m guessing for shits and giggles, because it did absolutely nothing for her storyline.

And what makes this whole thing even more perplexing is that Shonda and Company know better. Though I have my issues with the fact that—once again!–another annoying female character is cut down to size in an extremely violent way, when Private Practice’s Charlotte King is brutally raped in Season 4, it is handled with such thoughtfulness and care that you almost forget it was done to make her more amiable. We even get a big ole trigger warning at the beginning. And KaDee Strickland’s performance was Emmy-worthy.

Other shows have gotten it right, too. When The Sopranos’ Dr. Melfi finds the man responsible for sexually assaulting her in the stairwell of her office building, the writers are deliberate in their refusal to turn her into Tony’s vigilante project. Dealing with the violation of her person is depicted as an ongoing process, one not so easily wrapped up in a couple of episodes. Of course, they were still guilty of sandwiching the rape scene between two innocuous ones, but at least I didn’t throw my phone at the screen.

Can’t say I wasn’t tempted last night, though. What was, up until now, a fun communal viewing experience has turned into an overwrought melodrama that—judging from the Twitterverse—people are ready to leave alone. If the writers want to stop the mass exodus, they should reconsider how they use female television characters.

For help on how to navigate triggering scenes, RAINN has a few suggestions.

XOJane

This post originally appeared on XOJane. Republished with permission. Click here for more
Jamie Nesbitt Golden on XOJane!

  • https://www.facebook.com/blaqueasian Barbara Ann

    I could not AGREE more…

  • https://www.facebook.com/kagnie.renae Kagnie Renae

    *Spoiler* alert would be great here.

  • https://www.facebook.com/mizzindependent Karemah Henry

    I disagree. Rape, murder, molestation, incest, robbery, and all other kinds of disgustingly evil acts happen in real life and are woven into story lines in tv and movies. While I wish that those didn’t exist, they do and happen far too often. In regards to Scandal, the rape does make Mellie more sympathetic but that’s the point. We’re still learning about all of the characters and this incident gives Mellie more depth while helping the audience understand why she is the way she is, especially with Fitz.

  • https://www.facebook.com/patrick.wasoba Phil Wasoba

    rape can be a lazy plot device, but i dont think that was the case with last nights episode. Also, i agree with Kagnie Renae a “spoiler alert” probably should have been put at the top of this fb post.

  • https://www.facebook.com/shaunarobinson Shauna Robinson

    Interesting commentary on Scandal’s decision to go the sexual assault route. I could not explain how uncomfortable I was or why. I watched Breaking Bad which had murder, slavery, and more. This author breaks it down.

  • https://www.facebook.com/dionne.anntoinette Dionne Anntoinette

    Yeah a spoiler alert would help, but honestly I already saw something coming, I actually thought it would have been liv, but yeah other that svu I despise rape scenes story lines etc, especially when nothing happens to the rapist and once again giving the world the perception that its not a big deal

  • https://www.facebook.com/dionne.anntoinette Dionne Anntoinette

    Yeah a spoiler alert would help, but honestly I already saw something coming, I actually thought it would have been liv, but yeah other that svu I despise rape scenes story lines etc, especially when nothing happens to the rapist and once again giving the world the perception that its not a big deal

  • https://www.facebook.com/dionne.anntoinette Dionne Anntoinette

    Yeah a spoiler alert would help, but honestly I already saw something coming, I actually thought it would have been liv, but yeah other that svu I despise rape scenes story lines etc, especially when nothing happens to the rapist and once again giving the world the perception that its not a big deal

  • https://www.facebook.com/robin.taylor.1865 Robin Taylor

    Good point. What I really don’t like is how she handled it. Not realistic at all.

    But it’s fiction and it does speak to the characters experience and how she is

  • https://www.facebook.com/pamela.walker.589100 Pamela Walker

    Oh get over yourselves.

  • Phillygurl

    I agree, I immediately thought they did this to make Mellie a more sympathetic character. I was disappointed because I felt they could have done it another way by showing that she was a human with emotions instead of a pitbull in a skirt. It made me think on television when a black woman is a raging bitch she has to own it.

  • Leo the Yardie Chick

    I’m not a watcher or fan of Scandal, but I was more than irritated when I found out about the Mellie Rape plot. Literally, “Oh jeez, again?!”. Seems as if the only way media writers can either humanise or ‘strengthen’ a female character is by putting her through the sexual assault cycle.

  • http://www.itsakilahobviously.com Akilah

    I have a genuine question: when is a character being raped not considered a plot device? I’m concerned that we cannot tell devastating rape stories in fiction without them being reduced to “plot devices” because it affects the lens with which we view the characters too much, and that simply isn’t fair or true. I think Mellie is more than what happened to her, but I think adding that layer of backstory to a character shouldn’t be considered lazy. Is the only time telling these stories appropriate when it is happening in the present tense? Genuinely curious as I’ve seen this thought process repeated all day on other outlets.

  • Jill

    so glad I’m not the only person who feels this way about the rape scene. My husband didn’t understand what I was feeling. I turned off the tv when I saw where the scene was going. I expected more from the show & thought the writers were too smart for that kind of drama.

  • mEE

    I honestly was not prepared for that scene. When I realized what was happening, my brain just kept screaming “no! no! no!” and then afterward I was so dazed I missed the next 10 mins of the show.
    Mellie is horrible, but so is Fitz and Olivia and Cyrus and everybody else on the damn show. Mellie isn’t now and never was a one-dimensional character that was just there for us to hate. She’s as nuanced and complicated as anyone else. So I really don’t understand why they had to do this.
    I also feel like now tying her rape to a “My Son is My Husband’s Brother” Maury-esque storyline diminishes what happened in a really cheap way.

    I don’t know that I want to use the word disappointed, but I’m very bothered by last night’s episodes. Whether that’s a personal thing with me as a victim of sexual assault (first time I’ve ever typed that) or because I hate gratuitous violence, I just didn’t like it.

  • http://gravatar.com/tenishamercer HairNista

    I have a TOTALLY different take. This what I got out of this scene: What I saw seemed very realistic — a woman who is brutally violated is expected to get over it, act as if it didn’t happen, put her big girl panties on (pun intended) and move on and act as if nothing happened. And that’s what Mellie did. And it’s what many women do — they bury that pain. To me, THAT part was very realistic in how rape victims are treated, even now, and may have been a lesson in itself for some. We all knew Mellie had issues from the jump. This scene, to me, didn’t make her more “human.” It did explain why she had some issues, but not all. And why wouldn’t a woman who got raped have major “issues?”
    I don’t get the sympathy vote connotation.

  • SE

    Well, I look at Scandal for entertainment purposes only. I don’t need it to be as realistic as possible. It’s just a TV show to me.

    But anyways, last night’s episode was interesting because this season has been extremely boring to me.

  • Ask_Me

    Mellie already had my sympathy prior to the rape. I like her despite her flaws.

    I think the rape plot has given more context to her attitude about Fitz and his presidency. I understand now why she thinks he owes her so much.

    On another note, their oldest son might not be Fitz’s child…instead he might be his half-brother. I wonder if that will come out at some point.

  • Phillygurl

    Last night’s episode had the opposite effect for me. Too much happened at once, what are they going to do the rest of the season.
    Mellie’s rape, Liv’s mom resurfacing, and Quinn becoming part of B13 all in one episode. It is a night time soap opera but last night was ridiculously soap operish.

  • https://www.facebook.com/roxanne.oraguzie Roxanne Oraguzie

    I don’t know, I think that’s one thing writers get RIGHT about rape. Nine times out of ten, the rapist does get away with it. I do wish they would show more court room scenes showing how absolutely rancid jurors and defense attorneys can be in those situations

  • http://gravatar.com/southernpreppylady southernpreppylady

    A woman is raped every minute in this country so unfortunately it is a fact of life and frankly we don’t talk about it enough. As someone who has been doing this work for eight years now, it was nice to see the subject mentioned because it does not get the focus it should.

  • SE

    @ Phillygurl

    I think that’s what makes the show popular though. All of the drama. Earlier, it was moving too slow. I’m glad things have shaken up a bit to keep me interested because I was about to tune out of this show.

  • Deb

    i think it’s the way it’s handled moreso than just the fact it is portrayed.

  • aisha

    wholeheartedly disagree with the post. there are people who sympathized with mellie PRE-her getting raped. people who are upset because mellie now seems like a lovable/likable/relatable human being because she got raped, that is a reflection of you not shonda.

    it makes no sense that people couldn’t relate to mellie when she was getting cheated on, disrespected, watched her husband tell her in that he loves another woman and doesn’t give a damn about her. you’re telling me that the majority of the people couldn’t sympathize with watching a failing relationship but you could sympathize with a woman actively scheming and abetting to help a man leave his wife? foolish.

    i will agree – should have had a trigger warning.

  • http://gravatar.com/worshipandpraise JN

    Exactly. What about people who suffered from rape who watched this episode? For people to trivialize this into “oh this is just a story line” invalidates the experiences of people who have suffered from sexual assault and abuse.

  • Pseudonym

    I actually sympathized with Mellie waaaaaaay back in season 1. Say whatever you want about her personality at times, but at the very beginning, very end, and all the little middle parts of the day, Fitz is always HER husband: point blank period. I could never get with sympathizing with Olivia Pope’s “broken heart” because of that. She should’ve found herself a nice unmarried man to fall in love with if she didn’t want heartbreak and drama.

  • Nic

    Yeah, Mellie is a complicated character and the times I dislike her have nothing to do with her interactions with Olivia. She has proven herself to be ride or die and to me what is hard is that she wants two things that she is constantly in danger of losing (her husband’s love and her position as First Lady). She likes the pomp and circumstance but you can tell she loves her husband the scense where her coldly rejects her are pretty sad to watch b/c even though it seems calculating, she is in the end trying to hold on to him even though he’s not worth it.
    She would do anything for her husband. Even after her has betrayed her, lied to her, and rejected her.

  • Chika

    I don’t know if I agree with everything in this article, but I do appreciate such a thoughtful, well-written argument. That’s a rarity for XOJane

  • D.

    Not realistic according to whom? The way she reacted is in keeping with her character and also explains much of her behavior. Everyone doesn’t react to rape the same.

  • D.

    If you are neither a watcher, nor a fan of the show, how can you know whether or not the incident makes complete sense in her case?

  • SayWhat

    I don’t agree that rape scenes make characters more sympathetic, because in Millie’s case, I still don’t like her.
    Like some of the other posters said, the only thing the rape scene did was make me understand why she feels Fitz owes her and why she is hanging on to the white house with all of her strength, she gave up too much to get it to lose it to a ‘side piece’; but given that she is about to help another woman’s husband cheat on his wife, I feel no sympathy for her.

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