This week is sweeps week in television, when Neilson Media Research surveys are taken of television viewers and shows try to get the ratings they need to stay on the air. For years this has meant that shows toss crazy plot twists at the viewers left and right, with tense cliffhangers and violence and drama. Private Practice (you know, that spin-off from Grey’s Anatomy with the red haired lady and Taye Diggs?) is pulling out all three. Charlotte King, a strong, sexual, and sassy female character played by KaDee Strickland, is going to be violently raped by a stranger. This isn’t really being sold as a big reveal or surprise – the show is doing its best to sell the plot in interviews and special features. According to the press, the plot is going to focus mostly on the aftermath of the attack and the way in which it effects the relationships in the show.
The idea here is that the show is aiming to give a voice to survivors of sexual assault by validating experiences about being attacked and going through a healing process. The show worked closely with Rape Abuse Incest National Network and the whole project seems very informed. Strickland notes that this experience will be a part of the character for as long as the show is on the air, and in interviews notes that this is surely not the only way that rape or sexual assault is experienced, but that the script includes elements of shame and shock that many women report experiencing. It should also be noted that this is not the first time that this show has discussed sexual assault. A different character, Violet Turner, experienced rape in college, though she never goes into detail, and as a psychologist on the show, she has also had patients who have experienced sexual assault.
Strickland recently gave an interview with TV guide (not the video shown here) where she talked about her “joy” at being able to give a voice to this kind of issue, how she is “thrilled because it's a very personal thing to me, especially if you break down the statistics that one in six women will be raped in their lifetime.” The show is clearly trying to do something a little different, “really creating a legitimate experience for the audience in a way that you may not see on network television”. Irin Carmon noted on Jezebel that 1. it’s a little strange to hear someone get so excited about rape, and 2. How easy it is to use stranger rape as a source of drama, even though it erases the more common experiences of sexual assault committed by acquaintances or family members.
Update: Ratings for Private Practice experienced an unprecedented 44% boost in ratings for the sexual assault episode. The more detailed plotline includes 2 important details: 1. Charlotte is a recovering drug addict, so she has to endure her wounds without anesthetic and 2. She is refusing to go to the police or report the rape, and has only told one other character on the show that rape was even a part of the assault.
The implications of these script choices is interesting, and certainly a lot is yet to be determined. Jennifer Arrow, a blogger for E! did bring up an interesting point regarding the recent trend in plotlines where strong female characters do not report assaults committed against them:
"Is that just a more dramatic story to tell, or Is there something in our culture that doubts women who suffer rape and then speak out boldly—but trusts in women who keep their silence?"
For more on the subject you can read a follow-up by Irin Carmon on Jezebel, or a thoughtful review from NY Magazine entertainment blogger Emily Nussbaum which concludes: "No matter how well-motivated, a rape scene is a sex scene, and TV shows are fantasies. This one wasn’t sexy, but there was part of me that didn’t want them to show it at all."