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Depicting Sexual Violence in Television

by Aditi Hukerikar //

Trigger Warning: This article contains mentions and descriptions of sexual assault. Please read with caution.

Disclaimer(05/2021): This article was written before season four of The Handmaid’s Tale and the events that occur in that season’s plot.

The CDC reports that in the United States, over 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced sexual violence in their lifetimes (data for nonbinary individuals was not reported). So, with the prevalence of sexual violence in our communities, which can be extremely traumatizing for survivors, how should forms of popular media, such as television, handle the inclusion of sexual assault into their respective narratives?

Recently, the Netflix series Bridgerton has become widely popular, centered around the Debutante season in Regency-era England. The show follows the main character Daphne Bridgerton in her fake-turned-real relationship with Simon, Duke of Hastings, who she eventually marries. In the season’s sixth episode, Daphne realizes that Simon has lied about not being able to have children. In her desire for children, Daphne attempts to become pregnant by taking advantage of Simon during sex, after he withdraws consent. Though the continuation of a sex act after someone has withdrawn consent is considered to be sexual assault, this episode does not feature a trigger or content warning for sexual assault. 

Showrunner Chris Van Dusen acknowledges the controversy of this scene’s inclusion, which is included in the source material, Julia Quinn’s novel The Duke and I. Van Dusen tells Entertainment Weekly that “…we did discuss it a lot as far as how to approach it and how to handle it,” eventually including the scene due to its role in Daphne’s character development. 

Without addressing sexual assault in further episodes or implicating that Daphne’s actions were wrong, the show seems to brush aside sexual assault rather than addressing the gravity of the issue.

Despite the showrunners approaching Bridgerton’s inclusion of sexual assault with serious intent, Bridgerton still sends the message that sexual assault isn’t a significant issue. Daphne does not end up facing any major consequences for her actions, she and Simon remain in a relationship, and Simon even starts to believe that he deserves blame for the situation. Without addressing sexual assault in further episodes or implicating that Daphne’s actions were wrong, the show seems to brush aside sexual assault rather than addressing the gravity of the issue. Furthermore, men who are survivors of sexual assault already tend to be silenced, brushed aside, or stigmatized. Including the sexual assault of a man in the show without treating the assault seriously or showing his trauma in the aftermath contributes to the invalidation of real survivors’ trauma. 

In Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s famous novel of the same name, viewers are also presented sexual assault on screen. Atwood’s novel includes the routine rape of handmaids by the Commanders they are assigned to, referred to as “The Ceremony.” The show chooses to include this depiction of sexual assault but also deviates from the source material during a scene in the tenth episode of the second season, titled The Last Ceremony. During this scene, Commander Waterford sexually assaults June (Offred) while Serena is restraining her in order to induce labor in June. This episode’s description does include a trigger warning for sexual assault in the episode description.

In essence, The Handmaid’s Tale treated sexual assault as something explicitly terrible, while Bridgerton did not. 

The presentation of sexual assault in The Handmaid’s Tale differs greatly from that in Bridgerton because of the seriousness with which the topic is treated. Waterford and Serena are presented as antagonists from the beginning of the show, and the Ceremony is portrayed as a means of subjugating women, including the protagonist June. In other words, sexual assault is clearly labeled as unethical. Furthermore, choosing to include an explicit warning for sexual assault in The Last Ceremony’s episode description sends the message that sexual assault is a serious issue and warns viewers who are survivors of the potentially triggering content. Bridgerton, on the other hand, depicts sexual assault in a lighter manner; Daphne, the perpetrator, remains the protagonist of the show, continuing to be cast in a positive light. Additionally, the narrative following the sexual assault takes no major steps towards labeling Daphne’s actions as cruel or immoral. In essence, The Handmaid’s Tale treated sexual assault as something explicitly terrible, while Bridgerton did not. 

At the end of the day, it is up to a television show’s creators to decide whether or not they want to include sexual assault as part of the show’s narrative. However, creators must be mindful of how the inclusion of sexual assault scenes will impact audiences. With sexual assault remaining a prevalent and dangerous issue, it is important that its depiction and discussion are treated with the necessary gravity. Fiction maintains the ability to significantly impact the real world, and handling sexual assault seriously in the media can ensure that we can continue working towards preventing and eliminating sexual assault in real life.