Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Evolution of Rape on TV

Edith (Jean Stapleton): There were two things that my father taught me: One, don't ever order a hamburger from the drugstore, and the other thing had something to do with knees.

Television has come a long way in 40 years.

An excellent example of that is the episode of All in the Family that aired on this date in 1973 — "Gloria the Victim."

It was about rape, a topic that was seldom mentioned on TV in those days, and the writers for All in the Family deserved credit for being willing to accept the challenge, but they chickened out when it came to the actual sexual assault.

So it was a near rape. No penetration. Remember, this was network television in the early 1970s. Norman Lear, the developer of the series, took on a lot of subjects in those days that TV had never really taken on, but network TV really wasn't ready for something like rape in 1973 so it was necessary for Gloria not to be violated.

With that kind of a history, is it any wonder that the subject of rape is still a bit ticklish for many Americans? Was it really any surprise that some candidates for political office ran into problems last year when they tried to articulate their thoughts on the topic?

Gloria (Sally Struthers) told her family that she had fainted, and she assumed that had frightened her attacker because he left. And everyone was relieved.

But I knew a young woman in college who watched a rerun of that episode with me, and we started talking about it afterward. Somehow, the topic of Gloria not being penetrated came up, and this woman observed, "Well, she told them that she wasn't penetrated. She might not have told the truth."

That thought had never occurred to me, and I asked her about it. Gloria might have wanted to avoid any number of things, this woman replied. She might not have wanted to go through the kind of physical exam that is required of rape victims. She might not have wanted to endure the kind of questioning to which rape victims are subjected in open court.

She might have wanted to avoid the kind of reactions she was sure an admission of violation would elicit from the men in her life.

And, too, it was still a time when too many women were discouraged from telling the authorities everything because society tended to blame the rape victim. She was asking for it, society said, by dressing too provocatively or behaving in a way that was interpreted as flirtatious.

(That never really made a lot of sense to me. I couldn't see how blaming the victim of a crime furthered the cause of truth and justice.)

OK, it is still that way in places, but I believe things really began to change on that night 40 years ago.

Attitudes certainly seemed to be changing the following year when Elizabeth Montgomery starred in a made–for–TV movie called "A Case of Rape."

Montgomery's character was raped twice by the same man, and she had to navigate a minefield of legal traps to take her attacker to court. It was all handled very realistically, but I have often doubted it would have been made at all if All in the Family had not done the episode it did 40 years ago.

Also in 1974, Linda Blair (who was not far removed from her attention–grabbing role in "The Exorcist") starred in another TV movie that dealt with a different kind of sexual assault. In "Born Innocent," Blair played a frequent runaway who was sent to a girls' juvenile detention center and was savagely raped in the shower by a group of girls using a plunger handle.

The scene was not explicit, but it was powerful — and very controversial, in large part because Americans were still squeamish about confronting the subject of rape. Not as squeamish as they were before Gloria's assault, but still squeamish.

All in the Family revisited the rape theme a few years later when Edith (Jean Stapleton) was attacked, and the show's writers proved that they had grown. Like her daughter, Edith wasn't sexually violated, but viewers saw her fight back against her attacker. In that respect, Edith was a strong role model for the girls and young women who watched that night.

But however admirable her character was in that episode, she had her problems. Long after she escaped from her attacker, she still suffered from the trauma of the experience.

Edith was fearful and suspicious, withdrawing from everything. That episode had a much harder edge than the one that aired in 1973 — although I'm sure the episode in which Gloria was the victim shocked a lot of people.

Rape just wasn't something that polite people talked about in 1973. It was something, as Gloria learned from conversations with a detective, that was frequently used against the victim, and that knowledge often discouraged victims from pursuing justice.

To an extent, that had changed when Edith was attacked.

But it took Gloria's special brand of tough love to bring Edith out of hiding.

Edith had been refusing to identify her attacker, and Gloria called her "selfish."

"You're not my mother!" Gloria yelled at a visibly stunned and speechless Edith. Her mother, Gloria continued, never refused to help others, and, by identifying her attacker, she would keep him from hurting others. But Edith wouldn't do that.

And Edith slapped her — and then burst into tears and embraced her daughter in a way that only a repentant parent can, apologizing over and over.

"It's all right, Ma," Gloria said with a knowing, been–there kind of expression on her face, and Edith left to go to the police station. She had mustered the courage to overcome her fears.

In a wonderful example of comic relief, Gloria smiled at her mother as she walked out the door, then turned and looked at her husband, touched her hand to the cheek her mother had slapped and began her trademark wailing cry. (I guess that was inspired by Lucille Ball. Whenever Gloria began to wail, I was always reminded, however fleetingly, of Lucy.)

That was so typical of All in the Family. Viewers often found it hard to determine which had been bigger, the laughs or the lumps in the throat.

Within the life of the All in the Family series, the writers had matured. That could be seen in their initial handling of the issue of rape and their revisiting of it a few years later.

Gloria had matured, too, from the girl who was nearly raped to a strong young woman. Her transformation began 40 years ago tonight.