Hooray we have finally found a reason to like NBC’s ‘Hannibal’! The popular series centered around uber-creepy lead character Dr. Hannibal Lecter who is a forensic scientist and a cannibalistic serial killer. The title role is played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelson, but we are more interested in a particular behind-the-scenes guy.
Writer/creator Bryan Fuller who is also the showrunner on ‘Hannibal’ did an interview with EW about a particular aspect of the show which we have mad respect for. He imposed a ban on rape scenes and is only one of a few Hollywood TV execs willing to speak out about this controversial issue.
As EW points out, there are a handful of popular shows which have come under heavy fire from fans and critics alike for their use of rape as a tool to advance a story: ‘Game of Thrones’, ‘House of Cards’, and ‘Scandal’ just to name a few. In fact HBO’s mythical adventure series set in Westeros angered many viewers in a recent episode when one of the characters Sansa Stark was raped by her new husband Ramsey Bolton. They vowed to boycott the show declaring the rape scene was unnecessary.
However, creator and author George R. R. Martin defended the scene saying we shouldn’t act as if rape doesn’t exist, and that the violence depicted in the show is equally bad toward female characters as the males.
So are all the rest of us crazy for not wanting to see so much gratuitous sexual violence on screen? No. And Bryan’s thoughtful comments on why he chose to ban it on Hannibal shows this is an issue worth discussing.
First he says its ubiquitous because there is an entire series already dedicated to this kind of crime: ‘Law and Order: SVU’, and then says it is explored so often it doesn’t feel genuine. In the case of ‘Hannibal’, the story arc of Red Dragon will however depict rape because the character in the novel rapes corpses and near-corpses. Bryan’s challenge will be not exploiting this on-screen, but don’t worry he’s one step ahead.
“In crafting the story arc of the Red Dragon, it became a challenge on how to keep true to the novel but de-emphasize the exploitative qualities of woman being raped. That was one of the big challenges in terms of how do we keep our promise [to not tell rape stories] to our audience—which is largely female—and also service the novel. It became a tricky matter of de-emphasizing women being targeted, and making more pronounced the crimes against the victim’s family as a whole,” he said.
When talking about other TV shows, he describes some of them using rape as “low hanging fruit” to incite the audience.
“The reason the rape well is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that it happens. But because it’s so over-exploited, it becomes callous. That’s something I can’t derive entertainment from as an audience member – and I’m the first person in the audience for ‘Hannibal’. My role, as a showrunner, is to want to watch the show we’re creating. And if something feels exploitative or unnecessary, I’ll try to avoid it,” he said.
Ironically, Bryan says he doesn’t have a problem with cannibalism (as sick and disgusting as it is) but he firmly draws the line with rape.
“‘A character gets raped’ is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation— it’s an incredibly personal and intimate betrayal of something that should be so positive and healthy. And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in 42 minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape,” he explained.
It’s interesting that his stance is so firm, because away from the fictional world of film and television tells a very different story when it comes to sexual crimes and rape. According to statistics every 2 minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted. One out of every 6 women in the US has been a victim of attempted or completed rape, and one out of every 33 men suffers the same. Stats show at least 10% of rape victims in the US are male, with the majority of victims being women.
A study published in 2013 by the United Nations, the largest international study on rape so far, found some shocking evidence that even today, there is a lot of misinformation about rape worldwide. The study showed that rape is viewed differently in different cultures. In some areas of the world men view rape as legitimate because they have been taught they have a right to control women’s bodies.
Some of the people surveyed said they didn’t consider rape within marriage to be a thing, that it only happens between strangers. Other findings showed attitudes toward sexuality take root at a very young age which proves how important the messages young men and women consume every day are.
On the flip side, John Foubert, a professor specializing in sexual violence in the School of Educational Studies at Oklahoma State University told Fox News that television is nowhere near “overusing” rape scenes.
“It happens to one in four college women. It isn’t covered nearly enough,” he said.
Bryan believes there are other elements that deserve exploration which are more entertaining to an audience member than rape. So he banned it.
As for that controversial ‘Game of Thrones’ scene which the actress Sophie Turner who plays Sansa Stark said she “loved” (cringe!!) Bryan didn’t think it was as horrible as some make out.
“I thought it was handled tastefully, all things considered. With Thrones, you’re telling a story based on a time where those sort of violations were common. And women did not have the stance in that world to effectively resist. And with Sansa Stark, and that particular attack, we know Ramsay Bolton as someone who is a horrible violator of all things human—what he did to Theon Greyjoy [cut off his penis] is part and parcel of his cruelty. So it felt organic to the world,” he said.
“It feels like they are building toward something for this woman to overcome, and some horrible lessons that she has to learn about the patriarchy that surrounds her.”
We’re glad Bryan is choosing to ban rape on ‘Hannibal’, but would he be more relaxed about it if it was a different show?
“If I was the showrunner of ‘Game of Thrones’ would I make those choices? I have no idea. But in terms of me coming into a crime procedural story on ‘Hannibal’ and seeing the things I don’t like about other crime procedurals, it’s easier for me to say I don’t want that aspect in the one I’m doing.”
Jill Pantozzi from The Mary Sue wrote a scathing response mid-May to ‘Game of Thrones’ rape scene saying it is not a necessary plot device. In her article she embedded a tweet from author Saladin Ahmed who said “Note: FURY ROAD is an R-rated movie w/ a sexual slaver villain yet Miller & co. didn’t feel the need to include a rape scene.”
“We’re constantly asking for better from those creating the media we love, for them to really think about what they’re putting out into the world,” she writes. “The show has creators. They make the choices. They chose to use rape as a plot device. Again.”
Jill has a damn good point, and while Bryan may not work on a show that viably allows for gratuitous rape scenes to advance a plot according to his own admissions, we at least hope his opinions will reach the eyes and ears of other writers and producers in Hollywood. Rape is not just another plot line, or something to be brushed over. It is a very serious yet under-punished crime even in America.
We hope Hollywood can serve as a powerful tool for change in the way it handles delicate and complex subjects as rape. Thank you Bryan for at least speaking out loud and not hiding behind closed doors.