Survivors on the small screen

In the wake of #MeToo, TV addresses sexual assault issue


Illustration by Margaret Debenport

Story by Maddie Anderson, opinion editor

One year ago, the #MeToo movement began. Scores of women, and even a few men, spoke about the sexual assault they have encountered behind and in front of the cameras. With the public condemnation of the film industry’s abusers, there has been a reckoning like no other. The floodgates of women’s empowerment have opened and refuse to be shut.

Since the movement began in Hollywood, it is only fitting that it has changed the media’s narrative arc. Television, movies and social media have long represented the reflection and perceptions of life. Many shows, new or old, are diving head first into the issues that surround the #MeToo movement.

Take a look at the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the epitome of the movement. This series depicts a dystopian America in which women have become subjugated to becoming little more than breeders for the elite. This show takes on the issue of radical patriarchy, repressive and dominant, to the point of women’s rights being little more than that of animals. This totalitarian society subjects fertile women, dehumanized by their name of “handmaids,” into childbearing servitude, comparable to human slavery.

The writers of this Emmy award-winning show, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, draw many parallels to modern times. The show perfectly taps into the sense of dread and alarm felt by women today. Between the perfect storm of Twitter and Trump and the constant war over women’s rights in Congress, American women feel the pressure of the government on their individual rights, one element that leads to the culminating events in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

Through this dialogue, the writers draw attention to a media culture obsessed with ratings over truth. It is through this same dialogue, however, we see how the portrayal of the sexual assault narrative changes over time.”

— Maddie Anderson

Through media we also see the untold horrors of the #MeToo movement. Viewers are given an idea of what sexual assault is like and how calling out such abusers does not promise justice for victims. “13 Reasons Why” is the perfect example of this. At the end of season one, viewers witness the rape of Hannah Baker, the story’s protagonist, at the hands of her peer and how it became a contributing factor to her suicide.

The second season focuses extensively on the rape culture promoted by Hannah’s school and the corresponding court case taken out by Hannah’s mother. Through shocking confessions and flipping narratives, the court ultimately acquitted Bryce Walker of the charges against him for the rape of Hannah, his girlfriend and countless other women. This heart wrenching conclusion highlights the jarring reality that sexual assault, reported or not, does not ensure justice for the victim.

The emphasis of these shows are centering on the survivor’s experience. These portrayals on the small screen depict the current attitudes of not only Hollywood producers and actors, but show how such portrayals differentiate from the past, where harassment was also minimized or blatantly ignored.

In 1994, “The Simpsons” aired an episode dealing with such issues. Homer Simpson, who was known as Homer Badman in the episode, is thrown into the media whirlwind after he is falsely accused of groping a babysitter. As the media lynching continues, the babysitter is interviewed, where she breaks down in tears, crying, “I don’t know Homer Simpson, I’ve never met Homer Simpson or had any contact with Homer Simpson… I’m sorry, I can’t go on.” What makes this scene so reflective, though, is the following comment by the television host. “That’s okay. Your tears say more than real evidence ever could.”

Through this dialogue, the writers draw attention to a media culture obsessed with ratings over truth. It is through this same dialogue, however, we see how the portrayal of the sexual assault narrative changes over time. This episode paints the idea that sexual harassment claims are just dangerous witch hunts against unwitting, innocent men, led by the overly zealous and overly political youth. Writers of this episode reflect the changing views regarding sexual assault, and thus the change in its portrayal in the media.

The portrayal of sexual assault has evolved over the years. Before the #MeToo movement took off, claims of rape were more easily dismissed. However, the current state of the movement has empowered many women, and some men, to stand up when they previously were too scared to do so. The #MeToo movement shows no sign of dying soon, so we can only wonder how it will evolve next.