The edge of darkness: depictions of violence on daytime

Appreciating the former doesn't mean that a show - or its viewers - should forget the latter. (Roger and Holly, Guiding Light)

Appreciating the former doesn’t mean that a show – or its viewers – should forget the latter.                                (Roger and Holly, Guiding Light)

Variety’s TV columnist Maureen Ryan just shared a column she’s written about the depiction of rape on nighttime TV.

I’ve been a big fan of Ryan’s work since her days at the Chicago Tribune, and Ryan is one of several women – including her colleague Sonia Saraiya, and writers Emily Nussbaum, Linda Holmes and Margaret Lyons, to name but a few – who are doing great work talking about TV and the ways that it represents us.

Ryan’s column got me thinking about daytime, of course, which has a long and mostly problematic history with the topic of rape.

I was especially taken by these paragraphs:

Television isn’t any safer for women: there’s no doubt that rape is one of the small screen’s most frequently used dramatic devices. Whether writers think it adds “edge” or connotes character depth — and both of those assumptions are fraught — rape is prevalent in prestige vehicles, procedurals and genre shows alike.

“It’s become shorthand for backstory and drama,” says an experienced female writer who didn’t want her name to be used. “Everyone knows rape is awful and an horrific violation, so it’s easy for an audience to grasp.”

I read those sentences and immediately thought: “Ciara and Chase on DAYS.”

DAYS brought on a whole new generation, and proceeded to ruin one character (Chase) and damage another (Ciara), all while portraying a pretty ugly series of scenes.

That’s just the most recent example, of course.

Longtime readers know I am not a fan of “darkness.” That’s the case for a number of reasons, and one is that we see enough ugliness and frightening things on the news and in our daily lives. I want to escape from that onslaught, and I imagine many viewers do, too.

Another reason is because it has, indeed, become a lazy way to tell story. And daytime becomes most problematic when it does the thing daytime has done so often: played out a story where a female rape victim is attracted to/has a relationship with her attacker.

It’s the obvious DNA from the legacy of General Hospital’s Luke and Laura. It’s been done a number of times since, from DAYS’ Sami and EJ to, perhaps most disturbingly, OLTL’s Todd (or at least, who we THOUGHT was Todd) and Marty.

There have been compelling, well written stories about rape on daytime. GH revisited its story a few decades after the initial rape, which we were then told was a “seduction.”

Michele Val Jean did amazing work mapping out the complicated feelings between Luke, Laura and their son Lucky, working through the repercussions of the violence of that act.

The gold standard, in my humble opinion, was Guiding Light’s Roger and Holly.

It was also one of the most complicated, because it did show that while Holly was damaged by what Roger did, she was, indeed, drawn to something about him, or perhaps to the drama that he brought to her life.

But even THAT story required a bit of revisionist history, because most viewers of 80s and 90s era GL didn’t know that Roger had actually raped several women during his first go-round in Springfield.

What Ryan says about rape in her column really captures the way I’ve felt about all violence on soaps, and what I’ve written about over these many years.

And yet, the crutch of fast, attention grabbing story is still used by all the shows. After a few promising years, GH is back to being a pit of darkness. They sacrificed a legacy character that had huge potential – Paul Hornsby – by making him first a mobster and then, out of the blue, a murderer and a serial killer, at that.

(A character like Paul and an actor as charming and handsome as Richard Burgi and THIS was the only thing they could come up with? Really?)

GH viewers have, over the last several months, been treated to several murders, a possible suicide (Morgan), the complete decimation of Alexis Davis, now a shadow of her former self, and a resumption of mobster warfare between Julian and Sonny.

Its latest centerpiece story has a young twentysomething woman pretending to seduce said fiftysomething mobster – a person devoid of any moral compass but who proves over and over to be irresistible to every woman in town.

In all seriousness, WHO IN THE FUCK WOULD POSSIBLY WANT TO WATCH THIS?

I apologize for the language – it’s neither scholarly nor good journalism – but I am at a loss how to underscore my utter confusion as to why the remaining shows like GH tell these stories.

DAYS isn’t much better. After killing what seemed like half of the cast – including Will Horton, a character many people either grew up with or cared about a great deal – the aforementioned rape story played out, along with a return to the character of Ava, which was as painful during the second go-round as it was the first time.

Joey, like Chase and Ciara, has also been damaged – it’s hard to root for a murderer, even one that may have been justified in his actions. Oh, that reminds me – hey, Hope! Hard to be a credible cop after you murdered the town’s crime kingpin.

The Bell soaps, to their credit, seldom use violence as a story element, and have generally told stories with violence at their core with great care, including Brooke’s rape, Jake’s abuse, and the story of Stephanie’s violent childhood.

B&B has its own issues (the weirdly incestuous vibe on this show is getting REALLY threadbare and worn) and Y&R has been a show without a clear identity for a few years, but it’s good to see them avoiding violence as a cheap ratings grab – a choice that is probably influenced by their positions at #1 and #2.

It’s high sport for many soap fans to claim that X writer or Y producer “killed” a show, but I’m of a mind that many of the NYC shows suffered because they turned so often to violence and darkness.

Playing the forces of good versus evil? Hell, that’s as old as the Bible and as revered as Shakespeare. A good story needs a source of conflict.

And sometimes life truly IS ugly. It can be a revelation when a show depicts the ugliness, the struggle and the aftermath.

But it should be an exception, not a rule.

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One thought on “The edge of darkness: depictions of violence on daytime

  1. Patrick,

    Very nice analysis here. Thanks for writing all that up and giving us a historical perspective.

    I recall in 1988 on Santa Barbara when Eden Capwell was raped, they actually talked about the GH depiction of Luke raping Laura and how it gave people the wrong impression of rape. Of course, Santa Barbara had to change the names to Link and Laney when they discussed it, but it was fascinating. Then they turned it all around and revealed that Eden’s gynecologist, Zach Kelton, was the rapist, thus playing on women’s vulnerability at the hands of their gynecologist.

    As for Days, the show especially seems to treat rape as a rite of passage for the female characters. I think virtually every female on the show has been raped at one point or another. Very poor rape legacy that Days carries.

    But for rape to have any dramatic impact, I need to care about the character. And the SORASed Ciara hadn’t been on the show long enough for me to really care about her. The rape happened something like 3 months after Vivian Jovani debuted — not enough time for me to care about an essentially new character. since the SORASed character’s only resemblance to the earlier version is her name. And given that Jovani is so limited in her acting ability, I especially don’t care about Ciara.

    As Ciara’s rape was portrayed, I was more upset that they were doing it on Tom and Alice’s sofa than anything else. It felt sacrilegious for them to have Chase rape her on a sofa that has been a part of the show since the beginning and is as much a part of Americana as Archie Bunker’s chair.

    Hi James, you hit the nail on the head. And really, what you’ve said encompasses so much about all the shows – past and present. We have to care about what happens to a character for a story to resonate. Too many shows use violence against women as a way to give the characters shading and history. And as you mention, too many are mortgaging their respective shows’ pasts for temporary ratings gains.

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