An affluent man does a big favor for the au pair employed by one of his neighbors – he replaces a ruined dress for her, a favor big enough to save her from being fired. As she’s expressing her gratitude, he suggests they celebrate together – alone. She politely declines his advance, being sure to mention her boyfriend. He leaves, but returns a couple of hours later, drunk. He insists that, in return for all his trouble in getting the replacement, she "owes" him at least to try it on for him. Reluctantly, she lets him in. Once he’s in her bedroom, she attempts to go get the dress, but he physically blocks her from leaving. Instead, he announces his desire to kiss her. She does not respond at all, staring at him, frozen. He kisses her passionately, and then proceeds to have intercourse with her.
Was it rape? Not if you’re a character on a popular television show, evidently.
As some of you have no doubt recognized, that exact scenario played out on Mad Men last week. And while I have no doubt that show creator Matthew Weiner wrote that interaction as a rape scene, TV critics and commentators seem disturbingly reluctant to name it as such. Here’s what Television Without Pity had to say:
And while I don’t think he physically intimidated her (I mean, look at him, how could he?), he obviously took advantage of the situation. I think he did feel bad for her when he offered to help her out, and if she’d invited him in willingly when he first turned up maybe there wouldn’t have been a problem, but she made it clear earlier that she didn’t want to do this, and taking advantage of her fear of being sent home, even if he didn’t explicitly say anything about that, is at the very least horribly awful and gross.
Wait, what? He shut the door on her and prevented her from leaving, but he didn’t "physically intimidate" her? At least Entertainment Weekly doesn’t make that error, but they do make some doozies:
It was Pete’s ugliest moment yet when he shut that door on Gudrun, effectively locking her in her servant’s room. Women like Betty get lingering kisses in their father’s Lincolns. Poor Gudrun gets pawed on her thin, borrowed sheets. The au pair would tearfully confess to the man’s advances, but of course it turned out her boss is every bit the brute. His smack-down of Pete consisted of telling the man to go get his rocks off with nannies in other buildings.
She wasn’t crying about his "advances," EW. And there’s no comparison to be made here between what Pete did to her and the consensual (if illicit) kiss between married Betty and her forbidden crush, Henry. Gudrun went through (we’re told when her boss complains about it to Pete) four boxes of tissues because she was experiencing the trauma of rape.
Why is it so hard to say the damn word? It’s bad enough that rape apologists have made it seem like avoiding the rare occasion when a man is falsely accused is a greater good than addressing what is a very real, incredibly traumatic, entirely preventable, actual felony crime committed against hundreds of thousands of women every year. Is it necessary that we extend this kind of protection-from-accusation-at-all-costs to fictional men as well?
This isn’t the first time Mad Men has addressed rape. In Season Two, Don sexually assaults his mistress, Bobbie, when she doesn’t do his bidding in a business deal, and then later that season Joan is raped by her fiance after he becomes jealous of her sexual past. And in both cases, the fandom and commentators have been squeamish about calling it for what it actually is – a squeamishness that shocked actress Christina Hendricks, who plays Joan:
“What’s astounding is when people say things like, ‘Well, you know that episode where Joan sort of got raped?’ Or they say rape and use quotation marks with their fingers,” says Hendricks. “I’m like, ‘What is that you are doing? Joan got raped!’ It illustrates how similar people are today, because we’re still questioning whether it’s a rape. It’s almost like, ‘Why didn’t you just say bad date?’ ”
Look. Being falsely accused of rape would be a pretty awful experience, I’d imagine. But it happens a tiny percentage of the time (2-8% is the best estimate of researchers, and that’s out of reported rapes. When you consider that somewhere around 60% of all rapes are never reported, that 2-8% becomes a teeny tiny sliver compared to the number of real rapes). And, speaking as a survivor of sexual violence, if I could go back and do it all again and choose to be falsely accused of a violent crime, rather than be the victim of a violent crime, I’d choose the false accusation in a heartbeat.
But all of this is moot, because we’re not even talking about real people here. Pete Campbell’s life is not going to be changed by us calling him a rapist, because Pete Campbell is not alive. He’s the creation of a team of people who are challenging us to see that rape isn’t always physically violent, and that, more often than not, it’s perpetrated by guys we wouldn’t mind having a beer with. And that’s why so many of us refuse to call it rape. Not because it’s ambiguous in any way, and not because we don’t want to hurt Pete’s or Don’s or Joan’s fiance’s feelings. They don’t really exist, and we all know it. But if we admit that what they’re doing is rape, we’re going to have to see the real rape that’s happening around us. The kind of rape that doesn’t involve a monster jumping out of the bushes, but instead is like what we know is true of 70-80% of all rapes in the US – our coworker, our buddy, our classmate, our brother, assaulting a woman he already knows, using coercion and threats in order to avoid physical violence.
We have to start seeing rape when it’s right in front of us, and calling it for what it is. Could we at least start with Mad Men?