Rape is no entertainment-How German TV can serve as a negative example on how to portray sexualized violence
About a year ago an episode of the German TV show "Tatort" ( "Crime Scene") called my attention to the problematic role sexualized violence plays in our national television programs. Only a few weeks later, the miniseries "Ku’damm 56" confirmed my first impression of the trivialization and voyeuristic depiction of rape in our TV shows and movies. In the first of three episode, we already have to witness several cases of sexualized violence. In the last one however, the heroine enters a consensual sexual relationship with the exact same guy who raped her in episode 1. You might think this is absurd, but the selection committee of the Grimme Preis, one of the most important German TV awards, obviously thought this to be perfectly normal: They rewarded “Ku’Damm 56” with a nomination for the Grimme Preis, which is by the way a prize intended to emphasize the educational aspects of German television.
What is a rape?
When women speak of their experiences with sexualized violence, the enormous gray area surrounding that term becomes visible, because quite a few of these experiences do not count as rape from a legal stand point. In feminist discourse, sexualized violence is defined as a sexual act that one of the people involved has not given their explicit consent to. Please note: I’m not talking about the question of guilt here, but about a definition! From a feminist point of view, the question of whether or not to speak of rape can only be answered by the person concerned (regardless of their gender) and not by the offender, and certainly not by uninvolved spectators.
Last year, the European Commission conducted a large EU-wide study on gender-based violence - with shocking results: one-third of all women had experienced some kind of violence, more than 50% sexual harassment. One of 20 women said they had been raped. Even more disturbing: a considerable proportion of the respondents felt that sexualized violence could be justified in certain situations, for example in cases of provocative clothing, intoxication and lack of counter-defense. And because this is so important I want to repeat myself: More than a quarter of all Europeans believe that rape is ok sometimes!
The complex discourse on the concept of rape, the multiple definitions and gradations, but above all the central position of those affected, show how quickly ambivalent representations of sexualized violence can lead to twisted perceptions of the incident. An unambiguous and responsible positioning of films and TV shows is thus of particular importance in this matter. Movies and shows that address sexualized violence should leave no doubt that rape is NEVER acceptable in any of its various forms and also put an emphasis on the perspective of the affected individuals instead of making us look AT them.
The status quo, however, is a lot different. German television in particular, much more than German cinema, makes use of sexualized violence as if it were the one and only true plot-point for crime stories. It is often doing that by ambivalent depictions of the act, euphemisms, and victim blaming. Institutions such as the aforementioned Selection Committee of the Grimme Prize still do not regard the representation of violence against women as a basis for evaluating media content. There seems to be very little awareness of the connection between real life violence as demonstrated by the EU study and its representation in popular culture.
I was a member of the said selection committee of the Grimme Prize for two years - not in the past year though, when “Ku’Damm 56” was nominated. So far no one has given me an honest explanation for my exclusion, which is a bit frustrating. It’s no that the committee would have made me rich and famous, or that examining a whole year of German TV would be such a pleasure (it is not!!), but it is a my ambition to bring feminist arguments into this kind of discussion, promoting a feminist perspective that in regard to the nomination of “Ku’Damm 56” was obviously missing last year.
“Tatort: Nachbarn” and the happy rape
Since I left the selection committee, I have reduced my TV to a minimum. But about a few weeks ago I switched on ”Tatort”. It is probably the most famous German TV show, screened on Sunday at prime time – the perfect family entertainment you would think. Well, I guess that depends on your idea of “entertainment”.
© Martin Menke
Here is a short summary of the episode “Nachbarn” ( "Neighbors"): A murder has been committed in a suburban area. The investigation focuses on the victim’s neighboring family, composed of stepfather Leo, stepdaughter Sandra and her daughter Mira – three generations. In the middle of the film, however, it turns out that Mira is Leo’s daughter and not his granddaughter. He claims to have had a completely consensual relationship with his stepdaughter ever since she was 18 (which means he didn’t commit a crime by sleeping with her – from a legal standpoint). But we cannot quite believe him: Sandra appears to be seriously traumatized and the way Leo approaches her is rather abusive and patronizing than loving and respectful. But we can never be sure because at no point does the film tell us whether Sandra entered the sexual relationship with her stepfather voluntarily and in how far she is consenting to it in the present!
Here we can see the ambivalent representation of sexualized violence that is typical for German television: The audience is free to decide whether it is okay for Leo to impregnate his 18 year old stepdaughter and treat her like a child rather than an equal spouse. The film creates a lot of sympathy for Leo, especially at the end. He is shown crying heartily and as a selfless supporter of his family. This characterization makes it even more difficult to see him as the perpetrator of sexualized violence that he most probably is!
While the relationship between Leo and Sandra unfortunately is left for discussion, another case of sexualized violence in this episode is undeniable: the murder victim had been blackmailing Sandra, forcing her repeatedly to have sex with him. And because German television is so particular fond of scenes like this, we get a visual impression of the events. Off course the camera is focusing on Sandra instead of taking her perspective. There is no attempt to see the incident through her eyes but luckily there is no voyeuristic or sexualizing depiction of her body either. Nevertheless, as stated above, the survivor’s perspective is the one that matters, but “Tatort: Nachbarn” is not the least interested in this point of view.
And it gets worse: Finally Sandra confesses to the murder in self-defense that her loving (or abusive) stepfather had covered up for her. And just after the disturbing flashback that shows the murder and rape scene, music sets in: Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” forms the soundtrack for a montage of idyllic suburban life. And while we see Sandra getting arrested, Leo is shown as a loving parent to little Mira. Sandra’s experience of sexualized violence, the trauma, the helplessness, the pain, the rage - all this is buried with terrifying ruthlessness under feel-good-music.
No excuses: The solutions are already there!
Surprisingly, the TV show “Hannibal”, being extremely violent and presenting images of brutal murder cases in every episode, can serve as a positive example for crime shows working without any depiction of sexualized violence. As showrunner Bryan Fuller once stated in an interview, he intentionally abstains from rape scenes to oppose the rape culture established by other TV shows like Game of Thrones.
Another positive example is the German drama “Festung” ("Fortress") by Kirsi Liimatainen: The female director tells a story about domestic violence without ever showing it! And in his movie “Elle” Paul Verhoeven has quite a few good ideas on how to stage sexualized violence without presenting it voyeuristically (unfortunately he doesn’t stay with this approach and ends up showing graphic rape images after all while telling an extremely ambiguous story). A very good example of how to narrate sexualized violence is Jane Campion’s mini-series “Top of the Lake”, which is completely devoted to the heroine’s emotional world of experience and, accordingly, shows the incident through her eyes in a fragmentary flashback.
The solutions are already there, but to apply them we need to recognize the problem first. The answers are already there, but we need to pose the questions!
The grueling struggle for a discourse
During the past Berlinale, I sat at a round table with female representatives of the film industry and members of the European Commission to discuss violence against women and its representation in film and television. We all agreed on the importance of this matter: something has to change. Now! My report on the nomination of “Ku’damm 56” for the Grime Preis and how the show deals with sexualized violence caused a general state of bewilderment.
The problem here is that this general bewilderment does not reflect society as a whole. Therefore, unfortunately, we cannot present solutions right away. We have to explain the problem at first. People who create or evaluate film and television content must learn to question their own work in respect to (sexualized) violence against women. I am perfectly aware how difficult this is. During my time with the Grimme Preis, being the feminist voice of the selection committee, I had a very hard time convincing people to accept my arguments as being relevant for the discussion. I also had to listen to quite a few sexist jokes on my behalf. But I’m too dedicated to the cause to be silenced by mansplaining (maybe that’s why I had to leave the committee?). And you shouldn’t be either! We need to speak up and point people to the misrepresentation of (sexualized) violence against women whenever we see it in order to create a discourse and a general outrage. Not only in Germany, but in every society that struggles with this issue. Talk to your friends and colleagues, share this article with them, open their eyes. Because rape is not and never will be entertainment. Rape culture is a very serious problem that we as a society are responsible to resolve!