rape culture

Like a lot of teenagers, I grew up on a diet of teen dramas. If the cast was attractive, the plotlines were wild, and the romance was gut-wrenching and convoluted: I was there. I still am. To this day, my best friend and I have our Facebook nicknames set to ‘Blair’ and ‘Serena’.

The romances stuck with me longest, probably because they were the most pertinent growing up. When you’re thirteen and starved of interesting, handsome boys, you turn to The CW for what you don’t have. The same applied to fashion sense and beautiful hair. Those were remedied by puberty and GHDs; the romantic interests, not so much. The men we went on to meet never lived up to expectations. Sure, they created drama, but drama over a guy ghosting you or sexting other girls when you’re ‘exclusive’ isn’t quite as romantic as conflict over a boyfriend giving into his vampire urges or needing to ‘find himself’ before you can be together. There’s payoff for that pain; those dramas are solved by love and grand gestures.

But that’s exactly where these male love interests become problematic. They’re compelling because they’re dramatic and the drama is compelling because it’s targeted to their hormonal, teenage audience. It’s centred on relationships, sex and gender roles. It pertains to the binaries foisted upon us growing up – men are passionate and assertive, women are loyal and loving. In relationships, women soften the hard edges of masculinity, redeeming them: even of sexual assault.

Take Chuck and Blair’s relationship, spanning six seasons and triggering Chuck’s (kind of) moral transformation. He starts the show as a rich, arrogant dick with Daddy issues. He ends it as a rich, arrogant dick with Daddy issues, except now he doesn’t assault women. Blair loved that out of him. She was the first female character he was shown to offer any respect, asking for consent before taking her virginity. He later denies accusations of sexually assaulting his employees – not because he’s a good person, but because he “wouldn’t do that, not to [Blair]”. They’re definitively un-romantic gestures, yet Chuck and Blair are the ‘epic’ pair immortalised as ‘true love’.

The same romantic standards are evident in The Vampire Diaries, where Elena chooses murderous vampire Damon after agonising between him and his steady brother (also murderous but in, like, a gentlemanly way). Damon was the show’s on/off villain before getting with Elena and giving up serial-killing. Until each of their temporary breakups, that is. His sporadic killing sprees are almost always accompanied by a girlfriend he has ‘compelled’ with his vampire powers. She has sex with him whenever he wants, stays quiet and, when he’s done, remembers nothing. Elena forgives him; that was when they weren’t in love.

For a Tumblr generation, these are the two biggest couples of teen television. ‘Chair’ and ‘Delena’ were mine and millions of others’ blueprints of romance. Their inappropriate behaviour was excusable because love cured them of those ‘flaws’. If they relapsed, it’s only because they weren’t loved enough. It doesn’t come across as aggression because that’s not how it’s marketed; instead, male characters assault women because they’re troubled.

Even the ‘nice ones’ are guilty. Pretty Little Liars’ Ezra statutorily rapes Aria; she’s fifteen when they meet, he’s a teacher. He does it for a story because, of course, he’s also a tortured writer. After plenty of conflict and wooing, Ezra veers from creepy to loveable, and ‘Ezria’ are endgame. The only real repercussions are a two episode break up when Aria’s parents find out. Similarly, even though Damon is acknowledged as a “bad person” throughout the show’s run, he wins everyone – even one of his victims – over with his charm. He also briefly apologises to her. Chuck does the same in a throwaway Gossip Girl scene, while continuing to be best friends and step-siblings with another of his victims. It’s all put down to Chuck being ‘Classic Chuck’.

And that’s rape culture. The sweeping, grandiose romance of teen television perpetrates it on a regular basis. They follow the same guidelines every time. The male is angsty but the woman is patient and, despite a few hurdles, the men find redemption for their actions. It’s not just normalised, it’s romanticised – sexual assault is a chapter in their interesting love story.

That’s not to say that every male on teen television participates in rape culture. Consent is implicit in shows like Jane the Virgin where the female lead controls her sexuality, while Riverdale’s writers have announced plans to explicate it in its current season. But it’s still disturbingly pervasive. Rape culture is most terrifying when we don’t see it. If teen television shows no real repercussions to sexual assault, it feeds the monster.

Illustration: Natalie Harney

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