Recently I’d been following feminist discussion about a depiction of rape in this season of Downton Abbey. In her must-read article at The American Prospect, the fabulous Jaclyn Friedman did a great job of explaining what was wrong with Downton – not the decision to depict sexual assault in the first place, but the creators’ decision to use it to “heighten drama” rather than educating viewers.
(Note, there are Downton spoilers in Friedman’s article but not this post, only references to the broader issues)
“TV’s national and international audiences are certainly in need of better understanding of all of the issues surrounding sexual violence. But for all the dramatic and social good rape as a theme can bring to television, rape as a plot device is manipulative and damaging. It’s a difference of intention—why are we doing a rape plotline now?—and comes down to the execution,” writes Friedman.
“Fusion” is not the only Trek episode to depict assault – in addition to the numerous Troi assault-themed episodes we have the travesty that is Voyager’s “Retrospect”.
“Fusion” shows T’Pol experience a psychic assault with sexual overtones by Tolaris, a Vulcan who is part of a group that has left their homeworld in order to integrate their emotions. When I watched the episode it immediately occurred to me to compare it with Friedman’s list of seven suggestions for TV shows in depicting sexual assault.
1. Don’t use rape to make a character more “interesting”
“Fusion” is certainly an episode that develops T’Pol’s character, but I don’t at all get the sense that the creators wrote it because they thought T’Pol was boring, or because (as seemingly happened to Troi) they had trouble coming up with any other ideas.
“Fusion” is about more than T’Pol experiencing assault; we also learn more about her emotions and her practices to keep them under control. We see her challenge her preconceptions and prejudices about their emotional Vulcan visitors (known perjoratively as V’tosk ka’tur, or Vulcans without logic).
Perhaps most importantly, the end of the episode finally shows T’Pol’s human crewmates realizing they maybe don’t actually know what’s best for her. More on this point to come.
2. Don’t oversimplify the players
According to Friedman:
When we imagine rapists as irredeemable monsters, it’s harder to make charges stick against real, complex people who commit rape. Depicting victims as beyond reproach similarly makes it harder for those of us who have flaws and quirks, or whose lived realities don’t live up to cultural expectations of “good” womanhood, to find justice and healing when someone violates our bodies.
Of course, by this point in the show we already know T’Pol is complex. She’s one of the “good guys”, but clearly has complications and flaws. In this episode she reluctantly agrees to explore her emotions with Tolaris, and even to try mind-melding. But when Tolaris pushes it too far she clearly revokes consent by saying “Stop!”. Tolaris, however, refuses to break the meld and she has to throw him off.
As well, “Fusion” does a good job showing Tolaris as clearly wrong and culpable for his assault, without making him a monster from the get-go.
The first time we meet him, he and the other main Vulcan officers join Archer, Tucker and T’Pol for dinner. A bit later, he comes up on T’Pol alone in the mess hall. He makes her uncomfortable by standing too close and hinting that she’s more human and emotional than she’d like to admit. But while I wrote in my notes that he was “smarmy and arrogant”, you wouldn’t be able to predict definitively that he would later assault her.
According to RAINN, over 2/3 of assaults in the U.S. are perpetrated by someone known to the victim. 4 in 10 assaults take place in the victim’s home. But these all-too-common cases often don’t get into the media or pop culture the same way more sensationalized stranger attacks do.
It’s powerful for Enterprise to show T’Pol, a complicated person navigating a complicated situation with someone she has complicated feelings for, surviving an assault and not experiencing victim-blaming.
3. Make the story about the victim
“Fusion” definitely succeeds on this front. T’Pol is at its centre and her thoughts and feelings at the end are clearly of primary importance.
4. Expose rape culture
Regarding Downtown Abbey, Friedman argues the creators should not have whitewashed the type of victim-blaming that most likely would have been experienced in that era, since it still exists today.
I think Star Trek is a bit of a different ball game. In the Trek universe, humanity is supposed to be more evolved than we are today, so it actually speaks volumes to say that in the future, sexual assault victims will be unequivocally believed and supported.
I think what eventually made it onto the screen shows a good balance. Tolaris’ does engage in victim-blaming when Archer confronts him about the assault. Tolaris insists she involved herself in the meld willingly and that she was not assaulted but “simply panicked” because she couldn’t handle the “emotional turbulence”.
But Archer, as a model for future humans, gets to shut that shit right down.
5. Convey the value of recovery and support
“Fusion” is a key point in his shift. He starts out with one of his typical lectures about how she should really try being more open-minded about the new Vulcans, and then assigns her to work on the Vulcan ship even though he knows she’s uncomfortable, just because he seems to think it’d be good for her. Later he asks Trip what he thinks about T’Pol wanting to spend more time with Tolaris (Archer’s motto: “I know it’s none of my business, but…”).
But for all that, he ends up supporting T’Pol fabulously once she reports her assault. He calls Tolaris to his ready room to confront him. When Tolaris lies, Archer calls him out: “You know damn well what happened; you assaulted a member of my crew.”
Archer firmly accuses him of manipulating her and lets him know in no uncertain terms that Sickbay, where T’Pol is recuperating, is off limits.
I’m not 100% sure why Archer didn’t have the guy thrown in the brig, but I still think the message of his guilt is clear.
Maybe even more importantly, Archer later goes to T’Pol to see how she’s doing. The way he expresses himself shows his concern and support but also that he trusts her strength and ability to recover. It’s also almost an apology from him for not trying to understand her better earlier. And it makes me like him more than anything else he’s done in the show so far.
6. Take care of your viewers
Friedman suggests shows post a content advisory before the show advising viewers to expect potentially triggering content. She also recommends a message at the end of shows with information for viewers about resources to learn more about and/or report their own sexual assault. Since I didn’t see the episode on conventional TV I can’t say for sure this didn’t happen, so am just noting it here because I think it’s great advice for TV creators/networks in future.
7. Above all, take rape seriously before the cameras start rolling
In this case, there is some evidence that the answer is no. Brannon Braga and Rick Berman came up with the story idea and Braga said this show would be the “Vulcan version of 9 1/2 Weeks“.
“Many victims of physical or emotional abuse find [9 1/2 Weeks] upsetting…I found it disturbing that Braga would even consider producing an episode that might blur the line between sexual experimentation and degradation.”
Braga is also quoted as saying:
“We have a show coming up where T’Pol gets nasty with a Vulcan. And that’s a real sexy show.”
Braga’s comments make me really glad he didn’t have a hand in the teleplay, because it’s pretty disturbing that he’d feel rape made for “a real sexy show”.
No matter whether it was the influence of the teleplay writers, Phyllis Strong and Mike Sussman, or whether Braga was just talking out of his butt to try to get an audience for the show, his attitude doesn’t come out in the final product.
The characters in “Fusion” take the assault seriously, so, hopefully too would the audience.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: Fail
(don’t forget if you didn’t at the top, to check out Jaclyn Friedman’s article where she describes her tips in more detail, using examples from Downton Abbey and Scandal)