Rape is an extremely common plot device in the current television landscape. While some shows handle it with great care and intentionality, it is more often filmed to titillate the male gaze, raise the stakes, demonstrate how evil the villain is, provide motivation for a male hero, or make a woman character more likeable. Lately, it has even seemed like any woman on screen will inevitably be faced with at least the threat of sexual violence, if she manages to stay on a show for long enough.
Like many people, this fall I (finally) caught up on the CW’s post-apocalyptic Lord of the Flies-esque sci-fi drama The 100 thanks to Netflix, and am now eagerly awaiting tonight’s third season premiere. During my binge, I was surprised to realize that a show set on this violent earth, full of warring factions who have brutalized each other in so many personal, physical ways, had somehow managed to go 29 episodes without a single sexual assault.
In “Earth Skills,” the show’s second episode, Murphy held a girl’s hand over a fire to make her vitals spike before removing the bracelet communicating her health back to the Ark, thereby making them think she has died. I assumed there would be some reference to the idea of what else he would do to this young woman he had overpowered. But it never came. A few episodes later in “Murphy’s Law,” when the show focused on Murphy as a reviled villain drunk with power and entitlement, sexual violence wasn’t part of his repertoire, or even a threat. He deprived kids of water, threatened violence, and even urinated on one unfortunate member of the 100, but there was no threat of sexual violence.
Bellamy, another major source of conflict in season one, was the early proponent of a, “whatever the hell we want,” lifestyle on earth that quickly became, “whatever the hell Bellamy wants.” But that ethos never extended to sexual violence. The writers were sure to let us know Bellamy was getting his, showing a decent rotation of unnamed women, sometimes two at a time, as well as a brief romp with Actual Goddess Raven Reyes. But it was always clear that the relationships, though casual, were completely consensual. Further, there was no transactional nature, something one might expect in a post-apocalyptic survival scenario.
The Grounders, the native people whose land the Sky People are occupying, were first introduced as a faceless, spear-throwing, deathtrap-creating, murderous enemy. Over time, the series has shown us their world and even convinced us that the Sky People were often the true aggressors, drawing a nice parallel to colonization and imperialism. But even with a greater level of characterization and understanding for their perspective, the show maintains that the Grounders are a tribe that lives by a strict code, one that heavily involves violence. Yet, in spite of torture, bombing the bridge, and firebombing the drop ship, the Grounders have never once sexually abused the Sky People or anyone else, in combat or in capture. While the Lincoln-Octavia storyline eventually turned into a love story, it was not immediately clear why he was initially interested in her, and most shows would have taken the opportunity to at least raise the possibility of a male captor violating a female captive.
When the Reapers were introduced, I expected a mention of rape to demonstrate their utter inhumanity. After all, they would be in good company with sub-human sci-fi hordes, like the too-similarly-named-for-it-to-be-a-coincidence Reavers of Firefly/Serenity fame. The fact is: despicable, roving bands of savages always have rape in their toolbox. It’s a shorthand for the worst violation most people can think of, a quick way to raise the stakes and let the audience know that we should feel no sympathy for the perpetrators. But The 100 was able to demonstrate nonsensical, terror-inducing violence worthy of a mercy-killing without raising the specter of sexual violence.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason for the absence of rape from The 100: this show lives in moral ambiguity, in the space where you are pushed to have sympathy for characters you hate, and the characters you love constantly push the limit on your ability to forgive their actions. The 100 defies labels of heroes and villains at every turn, and choosing not to include sexual violence means we don’t have to wade into the waters of whether that is a forgivable or justifiable act. While some shows have no problem tacitly asking the audience to forgive rape, The 100 has never asked this of us, and I hope it never will.
I told a friend that I haven’t yet caught up on a popular prestige drama because I needed to relax and enjoy some escapist fun, a need The 100 fulfilled. It struck me as ridiculous at the time, to think of a show with graphic violence and devastating twists and turns as a relief, but it really is. There are many things about The 100, from their constant portrayal of women as varied, flawed and highly capable characters, to the nonchalant depiction of bisexuality and homosexuality, that make it an oasis in television right now. But I think one of the greatest things it has going for it is a complete and utter absence of sexual violence.
That’s not to say I would stop watching if season three includes a sexual assault storyline, but rather that there’s just something so refreshing about being able to watch hours of television and never have to contemplate rape. This must be what many men feel like all the time.