I arrive home from another bartending shift a few hours before my boyfriend and scroll through the guide looking for something to fall asleep to. Usually, I land on the channel I’m convinced only plays reruns of Forensic Files, but if not, there’s a late night marathon of Law & Order: SVU or another run through of Making a Murderer on Netflix. I’ve been falling asleep to the TV since I was 15. I’ve been falling asleep to violent crimes for at least as long as that. Recently, I’ve been having night terrors, but it didn’t occur to me to watch something else to fall asleep to until I woke up crying for the third time in a week.
“Maybe you should watch something else,” my boyfriend offers. I scoff. At any given time on basic cable, there is most likely a rape being simulated and sold as entertainment, making it hard to avoid rape on TV if I wanted to. It’s something I expect to turn up at some point in every show I watch. I grew up on General Hospital, the longest running soap opera I can think of, a show whose most talked about episode was a wedding between Luke and Laura Spencer, a rapist and his victim. Their “love story” is still central to the plot decades later, their relationship branded as one of the greatest love stories in the history of television. General Hospital gave way to Oprah, where women often spoke tearfully of their own assaults and their lives since. I watched while doing homework. Oprah segued into the five and six o’clock news broadcasts. Often, that meant more rape.
On the pay-to-play channels rape might be even more frequent than it was in my elementary school afternoons. I fell off the Game of Thrones bandwagon ages ago because of it. I avoid all kinds of movies and TV shows because of it. But others I can’t look away from. I am an ardent, if critical, disciple of Dick Wolf’s Law & Order juggernaut. I have seen every episode that ever aired of Criminal Intent (my favorite varietal), but at times have fixated most closely on SVU. I don’t know if this predates my first experience of assault, but I do know it escalates whenever I am most disassociated as a result of trauma or triggering.
“I watch because if someone has written it, it means it can’t happen to me, not exactly that way,” I say to my boyfriend. I am mostly telling the truth. Anything scripted has that sheen of unreality, no matter how ripped from the headlines the content. Another truth is that every time I see a victim on TV, I am seeing someone I recognize. Even highly dramatized and crammed into roughly 45 minutes, the narrative is so familiar as to be at once repulsive and comforting. I see the women who can’t bring themselves to report and I see myself. I see the ones who are afraid of bodily autonomy or kink or clothes or drinking or drugs or self-esteem or relationship status being used against them as justification for their rape and I see every time I have been harmed by someone who’s touched me without my consent. And yet, I keep watching.
I didn’t tune in during its original airing, so when I finally binge watched Gossip Girl, my horror at and fascination with Chuck Bass was visceral. Chuck Bass, styled as a sexily redeemable bad boy instead of the smarmy oft-rapist he was in the source material. He looks and acts like the boys I went to private school with. Maybe this is just Ed Westwick’s charm. He leers and though I hate myself for it, I keep watching. In the pilot episode of the show, Chuck offers a drunk Serena a grilled cheese as an excuse to get her alone, then assaults her in the kitchen of a hotel he has unlimited access to because of his wealthy father. He uses information about an earlier sexual encounter to try to extort her consent and when she refuses, he proceeds anyway. She kicks him in the groin to get away. In the next scene he appears in, he leads Jenny Humphrey to the roof where he kisses her against a wall despite obvious protest until someone arrives to intervene.
Chuck Bass’s reputation for entrapping his classmates in unwanted sexual situations evolves into that of a misunderstood business tycoon-to-be. He buys a burlesque club among other business, ultimately seducing Blair in spite of her demonstrable disgust for him. The two enter into an on-again, off-again relationship that provides most of their respective storylines for the duration of the show’s six seasons. After a certain point, no one mentions his teenage penchant for nonconsensual sex again. He is wealthy and attractive and successful, and his victims fade from the show’s view. He has the same detached parents and barely limited resources as so many of the men who have assaulted me. They get away with things because they are too supported to be wrong, to have done wrong. Privilege worn as absolution.
One of the students in my workshop writes a poem about the Stanford rapist in response to an assignment on point of view. The first section is in the voice of the victim; the second, in the voice of the rapist; the third in the voice of his father, answering a phone call from the police. Another workshop member, not quite recognizing the story, calls the author brave for writing such a difficult piece so clearly from personal experience. I guide the class in unpacking this reaction—how an “I” voice shouldn’t necessarily be collapsed onto the author; what would change if we heard from the rapist first in the poem; how our perception of him is colored by careful choices about order of information, strength of imagery or verbs. Because we hear from the victim first, we know how to feel about the attacker’s narrative that comes after it.
Which brings me back to Chuck. Serena and Blair and their group of well-heeled friends certainly roll their eyes at his misdeeds in the early seasons of Gossip Girl but they do not ostracize him. He’s still best friends with Nate, still invited to all the events on their social calendar despite his reputation of drugging and assaulting women in their extended social circle. I watch and re-watch this dialogue of “Chuck is gross” versus “Chuck is one of us” and can’t help seeing Brock Turner’s cries of “what about my burgeoning swimming career” as weighed against his commission of a crime. “Chuck likes to brag about his conquests,” Blair tells Jenny in the second episode. By bragging, he controls the narrative, becomes its hero. On Forensic Files the hero is the gathering of information; on SVU, it is the victim’s tearful declaration in open court.
I fall asleep most easily to crime shows because the rapist isn’t the protagonist. The tone of the shows he appears in has already condemned him. He’s in jail because of some against-the-odds trace evidence, some witness chased out of the shadows. Olivia Benson traps him in a lie and then the frustrated confession: I did it; I’m not sorry; she got what she was asking for. The gavel falls and that unplaceable sound at the beginning of every Dick Wolf franchise ushers in the cleaner version of another crime. One that gets prosecuted, where the victim has her day in court at all.
Emily O’Neill is a writer, artist, and proud Jersey girl. Her debut collection, Pelican, is the inaugural winner of YesYes Books’ Pamet River Prize for women and nonbinary writers and the winner of the 2016 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Series. She is also the author of three chapbooks: Celeris (Fog Machine), You Can’t Pick Your Genre (Jellyfish Highway), and Make A Fist & Tongue the Knuckles (Nostrovia! Press). She teaches writing and tends bar in Boston, MA.