As written by GHH member TVAcademic
I admit that, as a feminist soap opera viewer (okay, I only watch General Hospital), I balance a delicate paradox: I am often both within and without the narrative, appreciating the long-ranging story and its feminine applications/implications while at the same time balking at its often reactionary views of gender, class, and race/ethnicity. But I’m not particularly comfortable with binaries in general, so I live inside this paradox, comfortably vacillating — often multiple times in a single viewing — between a concentration on story structure, theoretical concerns, and raw entertainment.
In many years of watching this soap, I have witnessed a rape or two. A rape attempt or two. A rape threat or two. Rape is noted by most feminist scholars to be the most effective form of male hegemonic dominance: it penetrates a woman’s being physically and emotionally, and it creates a sense of fear and uncertainty. The reality of rape and its threat as a reality of women’s daily lives is further problemetized by the existence of rape narratives — fictions that often attend to the harsh realities of rape but that also can create and reinforce the myths that surround it. Soaps, a form that is viewed largely by women, are drawn to the rape narrative because it provides a forum for dramatizing the very real fear that women live with/experience first hand, but it is not nearly as clear why soap operas so ubiquitously participate in the perpetuation of rape myths.
First, let’s back up a bit. I am operating from a basic assumption: rape is unequivocally different from other forms of violence against women, even, often, murder. This is for two reasons: rape is an act of power and violence that is about survival as much as about victimization (rape and murder, when both are employed, are always mentioned as a pair and indicate not only wholesale violence against a woman but erasure of the witness); rape is about naming and proving a particular reality in a world where men’s voices are — still today — louder than women’s. Rape on General Hospital deals with these two issues explicitly.
I’m not going to go back and discuss the characters Luke and Laura and redemptive rape and all of that except to say that, in addition to a few contemporary rapists and accused rapists running around, General Hospital currently provides cover to two redeemed rapists: Luke and Todd Manning (previously of One Life to Live). I really like both of these characters, but they serve as a reminder of where rape myths can become excruciatingly problematic: both of these men are not merely forgiven for their rapes, but they are reminded semi-regularly that those crimes were committed by “a different man” — that they have, over time, somehow let go of their crimes through their other actions, and that, despite their persistently murky ethics, their brand of bad is no longer “rape” bad — it’s coded as rakish, not predatorial. While this is not insignificant, these are also characters whose redemption occurred during a different historical moment. Part of the awesome/horrible reality of soap stories that take place over the span of decades is that the storytellers have to live with the choices of their predecessors and find ways to ameliorate the impact of more troubling messages from earlier moments of cultural and social understanding (though, admittedly, both of these redemptive rapes stories were lambasted by feminist media scholars when they aired).
I am interested, instead, in the implied or presumed
rapes of the characters Sam and, in particular, Kate. Their experiences
are wrapped in unknowing, which ties both women to a lengthy history of
rape: the role of memory and rapist identification in the overall
conversation of rape. To be sure, there are many women who cannot
properly identify their rapists, who may take care to conceal
themselves. But the problem of “accurate memory” is more about
questioning both the victim’s ability to know what she experienced and
her motives for knowing what she knows, and there is a long history of
questioning the victim around this meme: how can you be sure you were
raped if you do not remember it? Or, even more insidiously, how can we
(the Royal We) be sure you were raped when your judgement is somehow
subject to question? Kahlor and Eastin (2011) provide concise insight
into the perpetuated myths about rape: “Rape myths refer to false but
persistent beliefs and stereotypes regarding forced sexual intercourse
and the victims and perpetrators of such acts. Rape myths suggest women
fabricate rape when they regret consensual sex after the fact, and that
women who claim rape are promiscuous, have bad reputations, and dress
provocatively.” Because of these long-embedded beliefs, the perpetuation
of rape myths on soap operas carry additional weight.
Secondly, I am also very interested in the fan reaction to these rape narratives. In particular, I drawn to (and somewhat astounded by) the role of the viewer in the re-imagining of the rape narrative and the cultivation of the rape myth. And I do not wish to tip-toe around this: I do believe that, with the problematic “maybe” rapes of both Sam and Kate and the fan response to both the women and their rapists, we, as a participatory group, are perpetuating rape myths about women’s lack of objective agency, problematic memory, and the re-victimization of women through their de-victimization. I find this to be particularly troubling not because rape stories shouldn’t be told — they should — but because the way they are told carries on a narrative history that is as much about the language of male hegemony and the subjectification of women as it is about mere storytelling in the traditional sense. While I am a huge fan of complex stories in which paradoxes are explored and binaries break down (see re: I like soap operas), I do not see the “did it or didn’t it happen” exploration of rape as one of these gray areas. In fact, such stories are part of a very black and white history, one that persistently and continuously devalues women’s agency by questioning the validity of both their memory and their (sexualized) bodies-as-victimizable.
In short, these stories participate in a sort of re-raping of the woman, attacking her both mentally and physically; however, this narrative re-rape is far more insidious for its pretense of being mere character exploration. Perhaps it could be that in isolation; however, hundreds of years of rape myth history make such stories impossible, even irresponsible to tell because they participate in an historical blindness that presumes gender relations, rape narratives, and patriarchal hegemonies exist in some sort of narrative vacuum, and that each story can somehow be created anew. It can’t.
Sam and the problem of the asympathetic victim
Sam’s rape problem is unique because the question is not who she was
raped by — it’s whether she was raped by him. There is no argument over
whether or not Franco was/is (dead?) a complete psychopath. That much is
known. What remains murky is the question of whether he raped her at
all, as the entire act/performance sustained a mind game Franco had been
playing with Jason. There are two layers of rape mythologizing going on
here: one is that Sam was unconscious for the event (a mere
receptacle), leading to the invariable question of whether it actually
happened; the second is the implication that the rape of Sam was not an
act of violence against Sam at all — she was merely the object, but
Jason was the real victim, given that Franco’s game pre- and post-dates
the rape/non-rape event.
This trope doubly strips Sam of her agency — she can neither rely on memory nor be the sole recipient of the act that was presumably committed against her. She and Jason are portrayed as equal victims, when Sam’s victimization is portrayed at all. [Watch the “rape” scene here. Who is the victim in these scenes? Who suffers?]. Taking cues from decades of soap opera rape myths, Sam’s past plays at least some role in her rape narrative. She’s never been prudish about her sexuality or sexual desires. Sam’s history (created as backstory at some point, and it’s not really clear why) is familiar: she married men for their money and then robbed them blind. Her past actions complicate her victimhood in startling ways, adding to the problematic trope of the women who are raped who, on some level, have put themselves in the position to be raped, consciously or subconsciously.
This is truly one of the most insidious forms of rape myth, and it is further problemetized by the trope that often follows: rape as a positive experience that “transforms an evil woman into a sympathetic one” (Dutta, 1999). Now, certainly Sam is not and has never been portrayed (at least consistently) as wholly evil or wholly good, and, of course, there seems to be no real indication in the narrative that her presumed rape will somehow change her in some profound way; however, it is interesting to note that, while Sam was once narratively deemed unready for motherhood, she now seems “prepared.” Not only is she prepared (because she will one day learn that her baby is alive and that Jason, not Franco, is the father), but she has somehow earned this role.
The fact remains that it is unclear whether Sam was raped, whether she can trust the holes that were filled in by Jason’s eyes and the implications of what he did not see. This lack of empirical evidence has led to a certain amount of freedom in the attacks leveled against her by fans. Since her rape is not verifiable — in the parlance of our times, “legitimate” — she is fair fodder for judgment. A number of viewers on fan boards have questioned why she didn’t visit the hospital directly following the event, even implying that her not-knowing status was somehow her own fault — she could have had closure had she merely “followed the rules.” What’s more, posters argue that she would have handled being raped “better” had she visited a therapist — again, had she followed the rules. This implies two equally problematic things: 1) there is an appropriate and inappropriate way of responding to being raped; and 2) Sam’s lifestyle as one who tends not to follow rules in general has somehow led to her current circumstances. Interestingly, Tamborini, et. al (2010), in their study of the way that consistent soap viewing has strong implications for the way an individual perceives morality vis-a-vis social convention, quote Zillmann’s (2000) study: “Zillmann states that viewers act as untiring moral monitors whose dispositions towards characters are influenced by the perceptions of the morality of character actions. In other words, the extent to which a character is judged as being virtuous or wicked will influence the perceptions of their subsequent behaviors as being moral and immoral, respectively.” Regardless of whether I agree with this sort of effects-style behavioral research (I generally do not), it is interesting that, in Sam’s case, some viewers use her past behavior as a basis for judgment of her supposed rape; furthermore, the fact that whether or not she was raped remains in question seems to embolden this response: it’s her own fault that she does not have that answer.
All of this results in one strange pattern: Sam’s rape is consistently subordinated by her pregnancy, her baby’s supposed death, and Jason’s handling of his newfound brother’s behavior (Franco and Jason are twins! This is not merely silly — the implications are not always well-executed, but the twist, at its best, works to draw attention to Jason’s role as mobster hit man and creates gray area around a single question: did a brain-damaging accident make Jason who he is, or is he simply who he is?). The fact that Sam was raped at all — or that, at the very least, she believes she was and therefore experiences the emotional trauma related to having been raped — is often relegated to a small piece of a larger pie with which she has less and less to do. The entire event of her rape has been subsumed by Jason, their male child, and the drama surrounding his birth; her agency both as a woman autonomous of her child and as a woman who has been traumatized by rape is stripped via the prioritization of matters that are implied to be more significant. The myth of Sam’s rape is in whether it occurred at all and whether her memory — or lack of memory — is reliable. Because it is not, she is not allowed agency, and her rape merely becomes an plot point in someone else’s tale.
Kate/Connie and the problem of ethnicity, memory, and mythologizing the tale
Kate’s rape story — or supposed rape, as it seems to be up for question in the minds of many viewers — has a number of possible outcomes, and only one of them seems capable of resisting a rape myth as part of its telling.
The one non-rape myth option is very simple: Kate was raped by Joe Scully Jr., as she remembers being, and he is held accountable for his crimes. Because let’s face it–the only viable outcomes for a proven rapist in 2012 are prison or death. I choose to believe (and I pray I’m right) that the days of the reformed rapist are behind us; the last three decades of feminist discussion of mainstream media seem to have brought this problematic trope into the light and burned it like a Vitamin D deprived vampire. This is the outcome I desire, clear justice that reinforces a few fundamental and salient points: women can trust their own memories and experiences; women who “cry rape” — knowingly or not — are an anomaly in the real world and should be anathema in popular culture given problematic contemporary attitudes that illustrate people question the validity of rape far more often than it actually occurs. To feed this misconception is to simply pedal misogynist porn.
The alternative outcomes for this story have more insidious implications. There seem to be two alternatives to the Joe-raped-Kate scenario. One is that somehow she mis-remembers what happened to her and that Joe has been somehow incorrectly implicated. (Watch Kate’s visceral and violent memory of being raped around minute 4:40 — she knows absolutely that the assailant is Joe) The other is that Connie, Kate’s alter personality (she suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder), had sex with Joe willingly and Kate’s personality “appeared” during the event and believed she was being raped. A third possibility is that Kate has yet another personality, but, as the implications of this are pretty much the same as scenario two, I will let that lie.
Let’s remind ourselves what the most popular rape myths have historically been that women “fabricate rape when they regret consensual sex after the fact,” or “that women who claim rape are promiscuous, have bad reputations, and dress provocatively.” The first scenario fits squarely into the historical problem of women’s inability to rely on their own memories and perceptions and/or that women regret their actions after the fact (Kate became pregnant from her rape) and then consciously or subconsciously create a sort of rape fantasy. This version of the story would implicate the viewer as having an unreliable memory, as well, as we watched Kate relive the brutality of the event in her memory. Should her interpretation of the event somehow come into question, we will be asked not only to forget what she remembers but in fact what we saw. The second scenario is even more complex and requires some deeper investigation of Connie.
Since the appearance of Connie, I’ve felt that tugging on my internal
paradox. On the one hand, the actor who plays Kate/Connie, Kelly
Sullivan, has made a delicious meal of the Dissociative Identity
Disorder story, which is a delightful soap staple, to be sure; however,
Connie is immediately recognizable as fitting into a very popular and
nefarious stereotype: that of the brash and base Ethnic (Italian, in
this case), a woman who dresses in tacky and provocative clothes, cannot
control her mouth, is over-sexualized, and manipulates men. This
portrayal is in stark contrast to Kate, who is coded as “assimilated” in
many ways: she dresses like a Junior Leaguer — pearls and appropriate
necklines. She has an Ivy League education, speaks with the mark of the
“educated,” in contrast to Connie’s Brooklyn accent.
Prior to the appearance of Connie, the alter, the insinuation was that Kate was the real Connie, the true identity of an Italian-American girl who wanted a bigger life in the world outside Bensonhurst. The appearance of Connie as an alter separates Kate and Connie into two distinct identities. Rather than being a girl-out-of water in her world, Kate’s previous self is revealed to have been profoundly different from her, and it draws into question who the real Kate/Connie is. The show certainly insinuates that Connie is the alter; however, revisionist observations from characters who knew “the real” Connie before she changed her name to Kate now reveal that she was brash and combative, if not promiscuous.
If “the alter” Connie is not ultimately the product of Kate’s rape as viewers have heretofore been led to believe, the über-sexualized Connie complicates the rape myth potential surrounding Kate’s story. While Kate remembers being raped, the possible outcome here, according to some fans, is that a pre-existing Connie slept with Joe willingly, and Kate was simply an unwilling passenger. This is doubly problematic because this story has already been done — Connie slept with Johnny and Kate was led to believe she had been raped. Playing this story a second time, particularly given that the union created a child and was traumatic enough for Kate to bury for over two decades, calls into question Kate’s overall understanding of reality. It fractions her into multiple parts — none is whole, none is reliable. She becomes mere object — she literally has no agency beyond her sexuality, and that is owned by Connie, who represents an insatiable sexual being — unleashed Italian Heat. The ethnic and misogynist implications here hardly need to be explored. Joe was not a character who even existed prior to the conjuring of Kate’s rape narrative, which begs the question of why he needs to exist at all unless he is a plot point on the way to developing Kate’s character (rather than the far worse option — that her rape narrative is a tool to bring him onto the canvas long-term and will be set aside once he is fully ensconced).
Because the truth is, and here’s the crux of it: viewers seem to like the actor who plays Joe, and so they imagine ways (ways I’m sure those behind the show have imagined, too) to keep him on their screens. But actors come and go on soaps; stories, characters, and their implications are forever. The tapestry woven by soap operas is so long and complex that stories drive experience over time. It wouldn’t matter if Joe was played by Brad Pitt. He has to go because this story simply has only one outcome that provides Kate with any level of agency. In a genre where women make up the bulk of viewers and one that has such incredible power to persuade and impact the way we as viewers experience narrative because of the longevity of both story and character, the rape narratives told on soaps need not reify untenable rape myths. There’s enough media out there doing that.
My comparison here is Robin’s long-running HIV story. Imagine if General Hospital had misrepresented the reality of HIV, perhaps magically “curing” Robin via, I don’t know, goats’ blood. In real world terms, this outcome likely is far closer in statistical probability to the story version that has a woman with DID consenting to sex as one identity but experiencing rape as the other than either story is to anything that would ever actually happen. Pure fantasy is fine, even fun, but the implications are certainly different when dealing with topics that already carry with them a good deal of misapprehensions and misunderstandings. While I do not think that soaps have a moral obligation to take overt stands on significant issues, I do think they have a unique opportunity not to perpetuate misinformation given the unfettered daily access they have to people’s experience. And telling the rape myth version of Kate’s narrative certainly would not make it more unique. In fact, it makes it more pathetically ordinary.
Closing Thoughts (or “Hey, girl, stop talking about rape”)
Rape myths carry real world implications. The political discussion over “legitimate rape” in the past few months is disheartening because it presumes that rape in itself can be categorized and re-categorized until it somehow becomes not-rape. Rape is not like murder. One could say the phrase “legitimate murder,” and the hearer may conjure a number of experiences in which some of us might find murder to be morally justifiable: in cases like the protection of a child or clear cases of self-defense, we see murder as not only legitimate but morally imperative. Rape is never so justified. There is no such thing as illegitimate rape. There is rape and not-rape, and that is it. By questioning a woman’s ability to know her own experiences, by robbing her of her agency, we de-legitimize rape as something that is a real, whole experience. We give power to rapists by providing them with the language of doubt, and we further ghettoize women based on their actions (promiscuity, ethical mutability, clothing choices) rather than blaming the perpetrator of the violent act. In short, we ally ourselves with the frightening idea that women have fewer and fewer ways to experience rape: if they do not follow the cultural codes and rules, they become mere objects, and we become less and less willing to allow them to experience the full range of emotions and experiences with which women who have been raped invariably struggle. We dictate what rape is and is not, and we allow myths to perpetuate rather than creating a wealth of rape narratives that help to anthologize, rather than mythologize, women’s experiences.
NOTE: This article was cross-posted, with permission, from the author's blog. Please visit it at Club Sauce!