In Quentin Tarantino’s last movie, he showed us that something incredible happens when history meets fantasy. Together, fantasy and imaginative fiction rooted in realism highlight the fact that when a historical tragedy occurs, it doesn’t mean its victims are or were completely without agency. In Django Unchained a character who might have been a more hopeless soul, waiting on a savior or a miracle in another movie, transforms from runaway slave to bounty killer, and the violence he exacts against his oppressors—well, there’s something beautiful about it.
I am one of many people who believes that, yes, we need more slave narratives, in part because every single story simply has not been told yet. Similarly, I believe that, yes, we need more TV rape scenes, because we are still living in a world where football players need to be given specific “No Raping” guidelines by their new coaches… okay, wait—that was an Amy Schumer sketch, but it was horrifyingly accurate.
In addition to the fact that rape culture is our current culture, there’s also the need for historical accuracy, depending on the genre of television. For example, if you’re writing a book, or a TV series that’s based on a book, and the backdrop is “a patriarchal society based on the Middle Ages,” then sure, you’re going to need those rape scenes. But it’s important to note, as Sarah Mesle of the Los Angeles Review of Books does, that so-called historical accuracy can be a crutch as well, or even an excuse—TV viewers might come to feel that they are not being given a history lesson so much as they’ve been “peddled a fantasy”—a dark fantasy to which they didn’t fully consent.
Trafficking in fantasy can be a dangerous game and the ramifications are complicated. Which is why, what I’m about to do could easily be deemed problematic. But all of us—TV-lovers, artists, pop culture consumers—we’re all trafficking in fantasy to some degree, and so much of creative fiction and television writing demands it. So here’s my fantasy: a world in which more TV rape scenes and storylines are written by Quentin Tarantino. And here are three wonderful things that would happen.
We live in a strange society. It’s a society that loves hurling Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes around should anyone every get angry enough to smash the windows out of a police car, and a society that, simultaneously loves and craves violent imagery. And why shouldn’t we? There are no absolutes and, surely, an eye for an eye does not leave the whole world blind every time—at least not in this fantasy. Sometimes, an eye for an eye is just what the doctor ordered, where certain, exact and appropriate revenge is an integral part of healing.
And why can’t this happen more often? In Season Two of Sons of Anarchy we watched Gemma Teller Morrow get brutally raped, then suffer in silence for what felt like an eternity, all in the name of protecting her men and the club. Well, if Quentin Tarantino wrote that scene, someone—who knows, maybe even someone who was a former enemy—could have walked into that room and cut her loose. Sure, she’d still be pretty fuckin’ far from okay, but at least she’d be able to have the cathartic experience that is going medieval on someone’s ass after an attack.
Wouldn’t it be somewhat refreshing to see a character embrace the rage within and go on a rip-roaring rampage? To claim flesh for flesh? Wouldn’t it be nice for someone to tell us that that violence was kind of, sort of… okay?
It’s a bit strange hearing an author claim that an incredible story like the one in Game of Thrones has all of these limitations. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense. Good writing must follow some sort of format and a good story must exist in a specific context with boundaries. But when dragons and zombies and faceless men become part of that narrative, it certainly seems to open up some doors. And even in those TV shows that aren’t so steeped in fantasy, I see room for a Tarantino-style makeover.
When Joan Holloway was raped by her fiancé in Season Two of Mad Men, we pretty much knew that she would go on to marry Greg. None of us expected her to report it or tell anyone. Such things—the rape by a friend, family member or lover—are often concealed now, and in the 60s, even more so. Marital rape wasn’t even criminalized until the 70s. So the storyline that followed was accurate, but also… infuriating.
If my boy Quentin Tarantino had written that scene, Joan might have suffered quietly, as she did, through that rape—just to play along. Then she might have taken Greg home that night for one of her delicious dinners (I think that asshole liked fried chicken or something). And she might have brought out some biscuits in a basket that were maybe concealing—wait for it—a motherfuckin’ black mamba. And she would have taken out a notepad, and read to him the effects of a black mamba bite to the face, receiving a particular catharsis vis-à-vis her chance to use the word “gargantuan,” a word which she so rarely gets to use in a sentence. Can’t you just hear that word slipping out of Joan Holloway’s mouth?
Is it historically accurate and plot-affirming that Joan Holloway would have been raped by a controlling fiancé who got all in his feelings earlier in the episode when she tried to get on top? Yes. And did the Mad Men writers handle her subsequent storyline quite well? Yes, because that is what they did, all of the time, in practically every way. But this is my fantasy. And in my fantasy Greg gets killed by a black mamba, because you do not rape Joan Holloway, or anyone else, Greg. Interestingly enough, the Mad Men world had plenty of bloody scenes throughout its run—feet and nipples were lost or personally removed at different points in the series, rifles were brought into the office, and Don got busted upside the head more times than I can count. Hell, Peggy stabbed her boyfriend with a makeshift spear and he never even raped her! So who’s to say that a bloody death for Greg wouldn’t have worked, from a historical standpoint, and wouldn’t have also given us some satisfaction?
One of the most difficult things for everyone to understand about rape is that there are no special types of women or men who are immune to these attacks. Sansa Stark is no Arya, but when it comes down to sexual assault, it doesn’t really matter. That is to say, there’s no one person who’s too strong, too independent, or too much of a feminist icon to avoid being raped. One great example of this fact is Mellie Grant’s rape by her father-in-law in Season Two of Scandal. Bellamy Young’s character had quickly become a fan favorite for her whit, ferocity, and all-around bad-assery. In spite of her husband’s public infidelities, she never played as the silent, abiding wife, or merely a woman scorned,—she commanded every room (arguably, even more so than the formidable Olivia Pope) and we assumed, watching the beginning of the attack, that she’d eventually pull on all that strength and break free from the grasp of Jerry Grant. But she couldn’t.
But… maybe that’s because Mellie Grant didn’t know kung-fu, nor did she have a Hattori Hanzo sword handy. If she’d had some Japanese steel on her side—the kind of steel where, if you had it in your possession and came across God on your journey, God himself would be cut—that scene would have been very different—and much, much better.
Were Quentin Tarantino to get his hands on scenes like this, he’d understand that some of them would be much more interesting as attempted rapes gone horribly wrong (for the attackers).
But in all seriousness, we don’t need a magical Tarantino-only world for TV (and other media) to start offering up a bit more agency for characters who are rape survivors. And I don’t necessarily take issue with all of the aforementioned scenarios as they originally appeared—many of these narratives were accurate for their time period and accurate for their character. I will say, however, that Top of the Lake is one of few shows that offered a deeply satisfying and deeply realistic scenario, in which its main character (Robin, played by Elisabeth Moss) eventually comes face to face with one of her rapists.
Would that more of these characters could meet their attacker in a bar and shove a broken bottle in his ear. In my perfect world, we might have heard Robin gently whispering to her bleeding prey, “Or is it I… who has penetrated you?”
Note: My alternate fantasy is a world where rape survivors are supported by a judicial system and communities that seek justice on their behalf. But I wanted to come up with something a bit more realistic, so I wrote this instead.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Pink is the New Blog and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes all follows (and un-follows) on Twitter.