What Is the Genre of Rape?

While some progress has been made, TV is still trying to figure out how to tell the stories of male-identified rape survivors.

In last summer’s season finale of The Good Fight, the Chicago-based law firm Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart gets to investigate the death of Jeffrey Epstein. The mystery consumes but is never resolved by the episode, leading one investigator to reflect, “I think we lost track of the real story: the underage girls. We were chasing a whodunit in the middle of a tragedy.” The genre of a story shapes how the story is told. A whodunit directs our attention to the mystery surrounding a death, for example, while a tragedy focuses on serial child abuse. What is the right genre for discussing this “real story,” or any story of rape? And could a genre be right for one set of victims—say, underage girls—but wrong for another—say, gay men?

We often disagree over the most appropriate genre through which to tell a story. The age of polarization is also the age of what cultural theorist Lauren Berlant calls “genre flail”: a loss of shared conventions for what an event is supposed to feel like.1 Some of the best television of 2020 was particularly interested in figuring out the right emotional genre for rape. Specifically, shows like Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Laurie Nunn’s Sex Education, and Liz Garbus’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark drew on different televisual genres to tell stories of sexual harm propelled, but in no way contained, by #MeToo.

On the one hand, we have a more diverse sense of the forms and survivors of rape. Coel’s revelatory I May Destroy You not only presents a growing list of acknowledged sexual harms, such as nonconsensual condom removal or sexual relations premised on deceptive identities, as when two friends pretend to be strangers in order to seduce someone into a “spontaneous” threesome. The show also centers historically invisible victims, especially Black women and queer people. Television would seem to have come a long way from 2001, when Sujata Moorti’s groundbreaking study of sexual violence on mainstream television, Color of Rape, could only find examples that largely conformed to the stereotypical plot involving a Black male perpetrator and white female victim.

On the other hand, portrayals of rape on TV in 2020 suggest that even as more survivors are allowed into mainstream representation, they are not all able to access the same genres. Some are stuck in the still-popular whodunit genre, as in Garbus’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Others don’t seem allowed into the melodramatic genre represented by Nunn’s Sex Education. In particular, there is a genre gap for male survivors, as if TV is still trying to figure out how to tell their stories. Even I May Destroy You, which expands the emotional range with which female-identified rape survivors are depicted, is hesitant to offer the same range to gay men.

In the second half of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Michelle McNamara—the amateur sleuth and author of the true-crime book of the same title, on which the six-part documentary miniseries is based—begins to find connections, unexpectedly, between her own life and the object of her study. McNamara has been trying to determine the identity of the man she calls the Golden State Killer, also known publicly as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker. At the beginning of the fourth episode of the series, in which she will end up acquiring a “motherlode” of case files that will decisively alter the direction of her search, McNamara recalls her previous experience as a journalist in Belfast during the Troubles of the early 1900s. Fixated at first on possibly “dangerous scenarios” in her violent surroundings, McNamara came to be apprehensive about something “much more serious.” McNamara found herself worrying about not the war, but the unwanted sexual advances of her boss, on whom she was “very dependent.”

This is one of the only times McNamara alludes to a continuum of violence from sexual harassment to serial rape. It’s not that the crimes are identical. Rather, it’s that they might be supported by the same underlying structure of male entitlement. We will eventually learn that the serial rapist tracked by McNamara offers an example of this underlying structure: he repeatedly told one of his victims, “I hate you, Bonnie,” the name of a fiancée who called off their engagement after he attempted to force the marriage at gunpoint. McNamara recalls that her boss’s advances began after he complained of his “perpetually aggrieved wife.” When men can’t control their intimate partners, the logic seems to go, they try to control other women instead.

One risk of the way #MeToo has been framed in recent years is that the movement’s success may be judged solely by how many bad men it sends to jail.

In the show, McNamara’s friends say she never really shared the details of what happened in Northern Ireland. What this omission suggests, it seems, is that it would have been uncomfortable for McNamara to revisit a moment of abuse. But discussing it might have been equally uncomfortable, for a different reason: doing so would force a confrontation with the actual ordinariness of abuse. If you think sexual violence is primarily a problem of madmen run amok, then it looks like the solution is finding, and hopefully locking up, the individual madmen. But if you think the problem is—more monotonously, more repetitively—something like heterosexuality itself, then the solution is harder to imagine and then carry out.

The genre of the detective story has always been a preferred environment in which to situate the rape narrative. At its most sensational and influential, the detective-story genre is exemplified by a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Its most progressive representative could be 2019’s Unbelievable, a miniseries based on the real-life story of two detectives (played by Toni Collette and Merritt Weaver). Investigating a serial rapist in Colorado, the two eventually discover that a young woman—whose earlier story of rape in Washington was deemed by male detectives to be unbelievable—was, indeed, telling the truth. This show models trauma-informed dialogue, giving space for survivors to tell stories in their own language and on their own time. But like SVU and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Unbelievable sets police reform as the horizon of cultural transformation.

The detective genre does make the experience of rape more comprehensible to viewers, but only by making the underlying problem seem less intimidating: solving a crime seems easier than solving heterosexuality. In the theaters of public adjudication, particularly on social media, we are often encouraged to come to the scene of a crime as amateur sleuths ourselves. Solving one case can feel like a substitute for solving a larger cultural crisis.

This is the kind of detective work that rape, or accusations of rape, motivate perhaps more than any other crime. In such public theaters as social media, we see the genre strangely at work: someone not present for the rape might relentlessly strive to collect all the details, all proof of the victim’s possible invitations of sexual action (what they wore, their sexual history, what reasons they might have to regret “just sex”), and all proof of an alleged perpetrator’s possible history of harm (sexist comments they have made), and then—sleuth-like, somehow—be able to decide what really happened.

Such a genre, however—whether fictional or all too real—does not diagnose a culture of rape. Instead, regrettably, it only ascertains all the facts about a single event of rape.


What Next for MeTooLit?

By Leigh Gilmore

I May Destroy You begins as a detective story: Arabella, who was roofied and cannot recall the specifics of the date rape she survived, ends up reporting the event to the London police in the series’ first episode. But solving the crime does not, for Arabella, constitute the only means of repair. Each episode of the series explores a different attempt at repair, including private therapy with a licensed professional; a more informal, peer-led support group for survivors; self-medication with drugs and alcohol; social-media activism and the highs of going viral; and writing the story herself. This last form of repair means that I May Destroy You ends up being about the origin and creation of I May Destroy You.

By multiplying these coping strategies and forms of support, the show also resists the prescriptive nature of the trauma narrative. This is a genre that, alongside the detective narrative, has been one in which the story of rape is most often packaged. The rape survivor became the paradigmatic subject of trauma in the late 20th century, as the cultural historian Roger Luckhurst argues in The Trauma Question, and this survivor embodies the post-traumatic stress disorder that was first named earlier in the century, in case studies of war veterans. Now, Luckhurst suggests, when we think of trauma, we think of rape, and when we think of rape, we think of trauma. And trauma as a genre tends to focalize the individual, with her recovery understood as the successful confrontation of a horrific memory.

Although we are set up to expect this narrative by the opening episode of I May Destroy You—Arabella is amnesiac, and it looks like the series will mainly be about the recovery of her memory—the show’s pursuit of other definitions of recovery departs from trauma’s hold on the narrative. The task is not to deny that rape can be traumatic; the task, rather, is to show that trauma cannot capture the entirety of a survivor’s experience.

In displacing the monopoly of trauma, I May Destroy You also requires that the repair of rape be not just an act of individual recovery, but also social transformation on a much larger scale. The cultural theorist Mieke Bal has analyzed how the focus in many narratives on the rape survivor and their traumatic symptoms, rather than on the rapist, has tended to keep perpetrators of harm offstage, beyond accountability.2 In contrast, the social-media episode of I May Destroy You imagines the hashtag #IHSWM, short for “I Hate Straight White Men,” going viral to highlight the majority that benefits from a structure of harm, rather than the minority upon which straight white men prey.

But the episode also warns against the binary pathologizing of “bad men,” a problem we saw as well in the serial-rape genre exemplified by I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. One risk of the way #MeToo has been framed in recent years—contrary to the original intentions of Tarana Burke, who coined the phrase—is, similarly, that the movement’s success may be judged solely by how many bad men it sends to jail.

Because any increase in criminalization disproportionately jails men of color, Arabella, who is Black, is at first ambivalent about going to the police and betraying her “racial” tribe. But after being raped, she has come more strongly to identify with the tribe of women.

Portrayals of rape on TV in 2020 suggest that even as more survivors are allowed into mainstream representation, they are not all able to access the same genres.

The founding of a “tribe” of women is also staged in the penultimate episode of Season 2 of Sex Education, released in January 2020. Six high school women are sent to detention for allegedly leaving a slut-shaming message for their teacher in lipstick on a locker room mirror. They are told they cannot leave detention until they find something they all have in common, an unlikely aspiration given not only the diversity of bodies but the range of identities they occupy, from fashionista to anime nerd. But when one of them, Aimee, discloses that a man masturbated and ejaculated on her while riding the bus—leaving her terrified to take public transportation again—the six women discover that what they all have in common is the experience of sexual aggression from men, whether being groped, flashed, or followed. “Maybe it’s a power thing,” one of them offers, attempting to explain the male behavior. Aimee agrees: “Yeah, I think the man on the bus liked that I was afraid.”

In 1975, Susan Brownmiller published Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape, a book seen by many to have brought sexual violence out of the realm of private personal tragedy and into public political consciousness. There, she defined rape as “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” Sex Education is in many ways a utopian show, unlike, say, HBO’s 2019 offering Euphoria. Instead, the teenagers in Sex Education have ready access to supportive information about sex and how to have it, and the world they occupy doesn’t seem to be organized by racial or class difference. But the world of the show is still one, like Brownmiller’s, in which rape is understood as the political crime of an entire class of people—men—against another: women.

What such an account has tended to miss—in its essentializing definition of “women” as, to use Ann Cahill’s word, “rapable”—is how gender intersects with race and sexual orientation.3 The first incident of gendered violence depicted on Sex Education was actually in the first season, when the Black gay man Eric, in drag to attend Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is beat up by two white men. Eric is walking home after his money is stolen and he can’t catch the bus. If Aimee’s experience on public transportation suggests the ordinariness of sexual violence against women, Eric’s experience suggests instead the vulnerability of someone who is out of cash while performing a nontraditional gender role, a vulnerability that is in line with the astronomical rates of violence against trans women, especially trans women of color.

The symbol of the bus, a public and state-subsidized service, suggests that for a woman to be a part of the public is to be at risk for violence. But Eric can’t even get on the bus, into public consciousness, in the first place.

The greatest shortcoming of the hashtag denoting “I Hate Straight White Men” is made visible in I May Destroy You by the storyline of Arabella’s close friend Kwame, who is raped by a gay man he met on Grindr. Many feminists have pointed out that heterosexuality is still at play in sexual violence, even when heterosexuals are not: it is the same male entitlement that motivates Kwame’s rapist to fuck him without a condom that also motivates Arabella’s rapist to fuck her while unconscious.

But Kwame’s narrative nonetheless complicates how we tell the story of rape. It is not just that he has male privilege, too, something he leverages into sleeping with a straight woman who believes, and would require it to be the case for them to sleep together, that he is straight himself. (In the social-media episode that interrogates binaries, it’s Halloween, and Arabella is a black angel, her best friend is a white angel, and Kwame is both.) As Lakshmi Padmanabhan has also pointed out, every character, not just Kwame, shows a capacity both to harm and be harmed in the show. Instead, what Kwame brings to the show is a disturbance in how we should feel about this harm.

Kwame’s story performs a genre lag: the male survivor of rape is still trying to catch up to the genre conventions that have been expanded by the women in the series. The female detectives who interrogate Arabella in the first episode have learned the right, trauma-informed language for doing so; the straight male detective who interrogates Kwame has not, scaring him off from sharing his story with others. In her article on laughter in I May Destroy You, Rebecca Wanzo points out that marital and date rape of women used to be joked about in earlier television shows, as in the Barney Miller episode actually titled “Rape.” What Coel’s show does is reclaim this laughter for the female rape survivor, without making rape itself a joke.4

But even if, for women, rape has gone from being seen as a joke at the survivor’s expense, to trauma, to possible grounds for humor within the survivor’s experience, nevertheless, for men, the rape genre seems to be stuck between the first two stages. If you do hear about the rape of men on television, it’s still likely to be in a joke, such as in the recurring Scared Straight! parodies of prison rape that aired on Saturday Night Live from 2008 to 2012.

I May Destroy You seems to overcorrect for this genre assignment, giving Kwame the narrative of trauma—and trauma only. The rape of Arabella is depicted from her point of view, which means we see the rapist’s face but not the mechanics of rape itself, and not even Arabella’s own, vulnerable body. In contrast, the rape of Kwame is depicted graphically, from the perspective of a bystander who sees the whole scene. In turn, his body performs the labor, traditionally delegated in sensational fashion to women, of bearing the physical locus of harm. Once that sort of graphic depiction enters the scene, it seems that other narrative outcomes are foreclosed for him. Stuck in trauma, he never gets to have the laughter that Arabella gets.


Facing Our Demons

By Lakshmi Padmanabhan

In the series finale, Arabella tries out three different ways of ending her story. The first two pursue a kind of retribution: either vigilante violence in the genre of rape revenge (à la Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) or police capture that turns into private counseling of the rapist in the genre of the redemptive melodrama. In the third version, a utopian genre, gender roles are more malleable; we see Arabella’s naked body, but, rather than being raped like Kwame’s, it is sensually positioned on top of her rapist, penetrating him in what seems to be a mutually pleasurable experience.

The fantasy that gender fluidity might be the best form of rape prevention is a compelling ending. But it is one that reduces the more complex analysis suggested earlier in the series: that gendered violence intersects with racial violence, especially when overseen by institutions of the state such as the police.

This past year’s television has come some ways from the stereotype of rape as involving Black male perpetrators and white female survivors. But it is still looking for a genre—and therefore a mode of redress for the structure of violence being examined—in which Black men are survivors, too. icon

  1. Lauren Berlant, “Genre Flailing,” Capacious: Journal for Emerging Affect Inquiry, vol. 1, no. 2 (2008).
  2. Mieke Bal, Reading Rembrandt: Beyond the Word-Image Opposition (Cambridge University Press, 1991), chap. 2.
  3. Ann Cahill, Rethinking Rape (Cornell University Press, 2001), p. 21.
  4. Rebecca Wanzo, “Rethinking Rape and Laughter: Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 22, 2020. Wanzo also discusses rape and the aesthetics of humor in chapter 5 of The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (NYU Press, 2020).
Featured image: Still image from I'll Be Gone in the Dark (2020). IMDb