[Parental advisory: this post is about rape and rape culture, and the comic book excerpts may not be appropriate for younger readers.]
Rape is about power. Rape is about one person taking power from another using a sexual act to do so. In many cases, rape is about a man asserting his power over a woman by forcing himself into her body.
Personal and institutional power structures are inherent in the act of rape and in the act of surviving rape. Much to many women’s chagrin, convicted rapist Brock Turner was given a minimal six-month sentence and also found many people supporting his right to continue his Olympic dreams unimpeded. He asserted his personal power over a woman, and institutional power structures in place implicitly enable these kinds of actions.
When the Stanford survivor spoke in court, she was again subject to the institutional power structures that enable these behaviors. People again condemned her for getting drunk. They condemned her for not being a witness in court. They called her weak. They called her slut. They undermined her personal power in standing up to both her rapist and the patriarchy that allows people like him to feel a sense of impunity for their actions.
Media plays a fundamental role in reinforcing or changing these institutional structures. Portrayals of survivors or rapists can either reinforce the sense of weak victim or the strong survivor. They can humanize a rapist thus making him sympathetic, or they can demonize a rapist thus making him a villain. These representations seem as though they would be meaningless. After all, it’s all just a story, right?
The problem is that when men and women engage with these representations, the narratives become part of the individual’s subconscious. Society aggregates millions upon millions of individuals and their subconscious. This what makes these narratives so dangerous. These narratives can teach lessons or reinforce the existing problems. This is where Outcast, the television show, failed us, women, and our society.
Very few representations in media appropriately negotiate the power dynamic between rapist and survivor. Mr. Kirkman’s original confrontation between Megan and Donnie in Outcast portrayed Megan as powerful. Megan seeks out Donnie, and she does so in a public place. She approaches Donnie without a weapon. Her hand shakes and clenches into a fist, but she remains calm and strong. Instead of letting Donnie express himself to her, she interrupts him and speaks over him. She doesn’t let him tell her how he feels. She tells him how he feels. She takes his power. She regains her agency by removing his. More importantly, she “mansplains” to the man. It’s awesome. Truly, truly awesome. She blindsides him and shuts him down. She leans into him, forcing herself into his space, making him feel uncomfortable. He leans away. She has intimidated him. She has taken back the power that he originally stole. The last two images show her looking angry and determined while he looks sad and afraid. Simultaneously, the narrative in the story gave him a sense of pathos. He appeared to be remorseful. However, that remorse, whether real or pretense, is superseded by Megan. Megan’s power becomes the focus of the entire scene. Megan confronts Donnie for herself and her own sense of renewal. The only two people involved in the confrontation are the rapist and the survivor.
Outcast the television show does the exact opposite. Whether the goal was to make Donnie appear menacing or for additional theatrical tension, Cinemax, or perhaps more specifically Chris Black who earns the “written for television by” credit, effectively removed all of Megan’s agency. First, she stalks Donnie before confronting him and breaks into his hotel room. This is problematic in that it changes her narrative arc by making her creepily, stalkerily intrusive, only to find out that Donnie has been stalking her online. In doing so, the show effectively makes a parallel between the rapist and the survivor. This removes both sympathy as well as agency for the character. When Megan does confront Donnie, she does so privately and enters his hotel room, insinuating that she is worried that others might see her or overhear the conversation. This sense of being embarrassed, ashamed, or worried about societal repercussions is one of the hallmarks of rape culture that keeps survivors from stepping forward. By reinforcing this narrative, the show removes Megan’s power, placing her at the mercy of her rapist, yet again. In the show, Donnie acts as the main speaker. He is allowed to apologize, allowed to tell her that he sees she still hurts, and allowed to emotionally terrorize her. He controls their location and their conversation. Meanwhile, Megan carefully reaches into her purse to reassure herself that her concealed gun is still in it. Most importantly, Megan’s reason for confronting Donnie is to protect her husband from wanting to assault her rapist. The rape survivor’s reason for confronting her rapist becomes about protecting a man. Not only has Megan’s power been removed, but her own emotions are subordinate to her husband’s anger at what happened to her. Everything about a woman being raped boils down to the men involved directly or tangentially. All power is removed from the woman, from the person who was violated.
Mr. Kirkman wrote an amazing scene. He empowered Megan and functionally neutered her rapist. However, Cinemax took everything that was amazing about this scene and reduced Megan to a vaguely cowering ghost of the comic character. Cinemax’s rewrite of this scene embodies everything in popular culture that allows a male judge to give a rapist a six month jail sentence. When these kinds of representations are allowed in our popular culture, they implicitly promote acceptance of the rape culture that allows survivors to be continually demeaned and judged for being attacked. These representation inculcate a sense of male entitlement to power over women’s bodies and emotions. These representations inculcate a sense of female disempowerment over their bodies and emotions. Media is powerful. Popular culture is powerful. In some cases, the media may be presenting narratives without thinking. Perhaps, despite the best efforts of a lot of people, sometimes mistakes are made by writers who do not clearly comprehend their power.
Cinemax, however, purposefully changed the narrative. Cinemax purposefully undermined the strong rape survivor. Cinemax purposefully reinforced the personal and institutional power structures that allow rape culture to continue.
Shame. Shame. Shame.