Additional reporting by Shaunna Murphy.
The most recent episode of "Game of Thrones," which featured the brutal rape of Sansa Stark in the hour's closing moments, ignited a firestorm of discussion. Some said that the way the rape was depicted took away Sansa's agency as a character, unnecessarily tearing her down. Others argued that because a version of the scene was in the books, no one could really claim to be that surprised. Regardless of which side of the controversy you found yourself on, the story line made us think: how can TV handle rape responsibly?
Perhaps no series in recent memory has crafted a rape story line as carefully as "Degrassi: The Next Generation." In its second season in 2003, the Canadian teen soap aired "Shout," a moving two-part episode in which one of its female characters, Paige Michalchuk, gets raped at a high school party. The scene was haunting -- Paige, confused, scared and crying -- and its aftermath, powerful. The story line stayed with her through seasons two, three and four.
"Degrassi: The Next Generation" executive producer Linda Schuyler told MTV News that they went into the plot knowing that the effects would linger.
"We have an ensemble cast, so when things happen to somebody, that character stays with us," she said. "It's not like we bring in a character just do a specific topic. So it does allow us to do the follow up and see all these traumatic events that do have a long-term effect."
A show like "Degrassi" benefits from the sheer volume of episodes; story lines tend to reoccur throughout the series, with new generations of characters at the center. In season seven, Darcy is raped after being drugged; in season 10, Holly J is raped by her ex Declan; in season 13, Zoe is sexually assaulted while intoxicated at a party.
"Twelve years ago, when we did that story line, that was very much at a time when we were talking about 'no means no,'" said Schuyler. It's very interesting now what's happening, it's not even 'no means no' now -- there’s this whole movement for consensual sex and it's 'yes means yes' and if you don't have a yes, it's a no."
However, it's Paige's story that still resonates with the Millennial viewers who grew up watching "Degrassi."
Lauren Collins, who played Paige, said that she was told about the plot line in a meeting with Schuyler at the end of season one.
"They wanted to expand beyond [Paige's season one persona] and have something kind of traumatic happen to her to see how that would affect her whole mean girl, super-confident persona," Collins told MTV News. "They wanted to do a rape storyline, and so [Schuyler] asked me how I felt about it, and if I felt like I was prepared to take that on. I was 14, maybe 15, so it was definitely overwhelming, but I was certainly ready for the challenge."
HBO's "Game of Thrones" is often criticized for its presentation of sexual violence against its female characters. And while it's not the only show to use rape as a plot device, it often doesn't dwell on the act -- or its aftermath, as it affects the characters in the long run. So how did "Degrassi" go about telling Paige's story responsibly? They brought in the right people.
"When we begin each season, we start with our white board that we just fill with all the topics and the issues that we might want to tackle," Schuyler explained. "And then what we do is we say, 'We don't want to take any of these issues or subject matters on unless we have the right character to do that with.' Because we want our stories to be very authentic, and Paige just seemed like a very good character to actually have to go through this because she is a very bold character.
"We also knew then that we wouldn't just want it to be a one-off, that we would subsequently follow up -- and it's not like every episode after that all Paige could talk about was her rape, not at all. But there were touch stones that were important to follow up on."
Collins said that her character's long-term experience mirrored that of many real rape victims: "We got to see how much it affected Paige over the years as well. It really, you know, just bled into so many of her other relationships and story lines, which I think is very accurate too."
The next step for "Degrassi" was educating its young viewers. The show took the necessary steps to ensure teens were having discussions about rape and consent after the episodes aired.
"When we take on subject matter like that, we always make sure that we bring in some experts and professionals who deal with this," Schuyler said, "and we have them talk to us at the beginning before we work up our script, and then we have them read the script afterwards before we take it to camera. So, there's a lot of work that goes in beforehand. Then they did a PSA around it, and they had panel discussions, and there were online forums -- so we made sure that we followed up afterwards."
The harrowing episodes were positively received by critics, advocates and fans. For some, Collins' nuanced portrayal of a teenage rape survivor was life-changing, a mirror of their experience of being hurt by someone they knew.
"It’s almost been 15 years, people still come up to me because, I think so often that’s what happens: These girls -- or sometimes its guys, too -- find themselves in a situation where they do think they’re comfortable and they do think they’re with someone they can trust, and that’s exactly what happened to Paige," she said. "The biggest part, her biggest struggle, after the rape, was coming to terms with the fact that it wasn’t her fault, that it wasn’t the fact that she put herself in that situation."
Collins said that the story line in season four, when Paige took her rapist to trial, contained some of her favorite scenes -- and ones that fans often talked to her about, afterwards.
"At that point, it really started to click for me just how important these episodes were for so many people," she said. "And I was just so gracious and thankful and it just kind of made it all worth it."
Schuyler said that she created the story line because she wanted to drive discussion of the issue within the audience.
"My show is very much geared for a teenage audience, and I’m not just driven by wanting to get ratings, but I'm also driven by really wanting to open up a teenage dialogue to talk about these difficult issues," Schuyler said. "As an executive producer and co-creator, I have a different mandate than 'Game of Thrones' and some of those others that are really so much driven by ratings and advertising."
For her part, Collins said that the aftermath of a rape story is just as important as the act itself.
"The rape story line in any context, on any show, in any book, in any way you talk about it is really about what happened after, and we need to see that," Collins noted. "That’s the most important thing, how it’s handled after."
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org, y en español: rainn.org/es.