ABC’s “Nashville” is Nailing Their Conversation on Rape Culture

Generally speaking, rape is too uncomfortable a subject for most prime time dramas to start exploring it, and rape culture a seemingly too abstract issue for them to handle.  But I have to hand it to the writers of Nashville, because they’ve managed to depict rape culture, and not just rape.  Unlike shows which may have the rare victim of sexual violence appear and either testify to her experiences or be treated at a hospital, in which rape is still depicted as a seemingly isolated, seemingly rare act of violence committed by strangers, an act inviting revulsion (e.g., Grey’s Anatomy Season 8 episode 20, “The Girl With No Name), Nashville depicts a culture which objectifies and uses women, and looks the other way when they get hurt.  In doing so, the show offers a platform to critically discuss the ways in which society has come to look the other way on and accept acts of sexual overreaching and the punishment of victims in society.

The following is a quote from this week’s episode of Nashville:

People in the business call him [a radio host] “Santa Claus” because young girls have to sit on his lap to get airplay…You have no  idea what it’s like being a girl in this business.  Everybody else holds the cards: the labels, the managers, the programmers, and you just have to play nice, and beg, and if you’re pretty, sometimes you’re asked to do more.  So you just smile and pretend like you don’t have everybody who is using you.  That, that’s how it works.

Juliet Barnes (played by Hayden Panatierre) hits the nail on the head with that line.  She says it after the radio host in question publicly badmouths her act and instigates a movement by the press to leave her show after her opening act finishes, retaliation against Juliet after she tells him to take his hands off her body.

Earlier, at the start of season 1, Scarlet (played by Clare Bowen) is taken aside by one of her uncle’s band-mates and held alone because he wants to attempt physical intimacy with her.  As he’s cornering her, everyone leaves the room, and he leaves guards outside the door.  There’s a sense that people know what’s going to happen to Scarlet, but they still stand by and allow it.  Even when Scarlet’s uncle, Deacon, insists that they let him in because he wants to intervene, they refuse to do so, despite Deacon’s obvious concerns for Scarlet’s welfare.  He eventually breaks into the room and rescues her, but that’s besides the point.

The issue Nashville raises is simple, but huge: people are willing to stand by and let these young women get hurt because it serves the pleasure of powerful men within the industry.  It’s the problem we see across our culture: those in power are somehow exempted from our standards for decent behavior.  We elevate musicians, athletes, etc., to a point where no one wants to challenge their right to take whatever they want, even if others get hurt.  We need look no further than Steubenville for further evidence, though it’s hardly the only example.

Worse, our society tells young women that we should just allow minor transgressions that are not rape because they’re not rape, and allowing them will theoretically keep us safe or get us what we want.  This is a subject that gets discussed more meaningfully in one of the early essays in Yes Means Yes (ed. Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman), and I think it’s certainly one we need to look more closely at.  Why do we tell young women that it’s okay for men to touch them when they don’t want to be touched, it’s okay for men to comment on their bodies, it’s okay for men to pressure them to go just a little further than they want to, because “it’s not rape”.  Why does the music industry in Nashville accept a man who forces young women to accept violations of their personal space in order to get airtime, and why is it acceptable for victims of sexual transgressions like Scarlet (whose uncle loses his job for defending her) and Juliet (whose tour gets bad press) to be punished or see their family members be punished because they dared to resist the demands of older men who held all the cards?  And of course, more importantly, why does our actual society permit the proliferation of that kind of attitude?

The writers of Nashville aren’t forcing the conversation down anyone’s throats.  Their characters operate in a universe that accepts these attitudes and behavior even as they discuss them, complain about them, or lament them, but feel powerless to change them.  That’s our universe that we are watching, no matter how far away from the glamour of country music and backstage passes our lives seem.  In opening up these issues on the show, the writers are giving us a chance to look at how our society treats women and question how willing we’ve been to accept it.  It’s a chance to further a much-needed conversation, and it’s a chance I hope viewers won’t waste.

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~ by Randi Saunders on November 15, 2013.

3 Responses to “ABC’s “Nashville” is Nailing Their Conversation on Rape Culture”

  1. Just watched this episode. Been following this show since it began, and have been generally been impressed with how they’ve handled a variety of issues, such as aging and career management (even especially as they affect women), addiction, etc.

    Of course, in the other story line, you have Rayna trying to negotiate a business deal with someone who has repeatedly suggested sexual involvement in exchange for a business agreement. And NO ONE in the show, including Rayna, seems bothered by that…so…yeah…that is apparently normal and ok. Can’t expect perfection out of a primetime show on a major network, I suppose.

    I also caught up on Scandal, another show I follow. And much to my chagrin, at 11am on a Thursday morning, I was treated to a scene of rape. On a major primetime show rated TV-14. Certainly wasn’t how I planned on starting my day. What is it, rape week on tv?

    • If you’re talking about the guy whose tour she put Scarlet on, I think it could be argued that their situation isn’t really coercive, he just likes her. He agreed to put Scarlet on his tour without requiring sexual involvement in exchange.

      Scandal is a whole other issue though. I DO think it’s an issue that needs to be discussed, but that episode had the potential to be severely triggering for viewers, and viewers weren’t given any way to prepare themselves. There’s no actual discussion of the fact that it was rape, though it was clear that it was, and its impacts on Mellie were never explored. I think that episode definitely could have been handled better by the writers and producers.

      • I would agree that the Rayna situation wasn’t necessarily coercive (even though the initial proposal was framed as do dirty things with me and maybe I can help you out). But I am bothered by the set-up of business dealings and sexual involvement, and the almost presentation of them being so necessarily entwined. Especially in a show that has been slightly above the norm in dealing with issues affecting women in the workplace. Last season felt more like responsible adults trying to make good decisions, and this season feels lazy in a soap-opera way.

        I am quite bothered by Scandal. It certainly felt like a sneak-attack. And with the parallel of what happened with Quinn, the episode left me feeling a bit queasy. And I’m concerned about how they continue to handle what happened.

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