Here's Why One Popular TV Show Banned Sexual Violence

"Hannibal" boss Bryan Fuller explains why rape on TV is "so overexploited."

If you watch as much television as we do, then you're definitely already used to seeing a whole lot of rape. On "Game of Thrones" alone you saw Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) being raped on her wedding night, then watched Gilly (Hannah Murray) deal with the very real threat of rape the following week... arguably as a plot device to finally bring her into the arms of her longtime friend Sam (John Bradley).

Add that to the rape of Cersei (Lena Headey) in season four, all of the background rapes throughout five seasons, and rapes on countless other shows -- "Reign" and "Outlander" have also featured rape scenes in recent weeks -- and you're left with a whole lot of sexual violence, which has been proven to be extremely traumatic for viewers who have survived sexual assault.

Even if viewers haven't experienced sexual assault in their personal lives -- and according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) 1 out of every six American women has -- it can be a lot to ask viewers to deal with cavalier treatment of a very real, very life-changing crime in their popular entertainment. That's why it's so refreshing to hear "Hannibal" boss Bryan Fuller tell Entertainment Weekly about his "self-imposed" ban on rape in his (extremely violent) show.


Game of Thrones

"There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience," Fuller explained. "The reason the rape well is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that it happens. But because it’s so overexploited, it becomes callous. That’s something I can’t derive entertainment from as an audience member -- and I’m the first person in the audience for 'Hannibal.' My role, as a showrunner, is to want to watch the show we’re creating. And if something feels exploitative or unnecessary, I’ll try to avoid it."

Fuller -- who also told EW that he thought that Sansa's rape was "handled tastefully, all things considered" -- added that, while Hannibal's crimes of cannibalism seem far enough removed from reality that he can find irony and amusement in them, there's something about the vicious realities of rape that he can't "get behind" on his show.

"'A character gets raped' is a very easy story to pitch for a drama," Fuller continued. "And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation -- it’s an incredibly personal and intimate betrayal of something that should be so positive and healthy. And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in 42 minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape. It appears over and over again in crime procedurals without upping the ante and without exploring everything that happens. All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience."



The lack of television "real estate" to respectfully cover what happens to a rape survivor after the crime is exactly why "Game of Thrones" has come under fire -- with so many characters in its sprawling cast and so many plot lines in its epic story, the show just doesn't have the time to devote an entire episode or two to Sansa. Shows like "Degrassi: The Next Generation," have been able to accurately depict the aftermath of a rape, but "Hannibal" is never going to have the bandwidth to devote three seasons to a character's inner journey to overcome a crime.

That's why Fuller chose to cut the rape element out of the Red Dragon story arc on "Hannibal" -- because "if I was really putting my money where my mouth is, I would have explored rape so thoroughly that it would have taken over the show...

"In the case of Sansa Stark, it feels like they are building toward something for this woman to overcome, and some horrible lessons that she has to learn about the patriarchy that surrounds her -- such as Littlefinger knowing what could happen to her and knowing it might force her into taking more drastic vengeance [toward the Boltons] that could benefit him," Fuller concluded. "If I was the showrunner of 'Game of Thrones' would I make those choices? I have no idea. But in terms of me coming into a crime procedural story on 'Hannibal' and seeing the things I don’t like about other crime procedurals, it’s easier for me to say I don’t want that aspect in the one I’m doing."

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