Cuklanz, L.M. 2000. Rape on Prime Time.

Cuklanz, Lisa M. 2000. Rape on Prime Time: Television, Masculinity, and Sexual Violence. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Prime time television has a tendency not to take on too terribly sensitive materials, instead favoring issues that have had some time to “settle,” or offering subtle references to these; not necessarily viewed as a particularly aggressive actor in promoting social change. Lack of longitudinal focus on developing issues; instead, cross-sectional representations, often linking public advocacy to the dramatic narrative of the story/news. Television as a form of soft power – offering tools of ideological change, but subtly, slowly, and without much viewer pushback. Television depictions of police and courtrooms “taking it into their own hands” is far removed from the realities of the aloof nature of the criminal justice system (and kx^ the backlog of rape test kits that are left under/un-funded each year). Also, television seems to ignore the complex relationship between rape and race.

Mid-1970s as time of feminist rape reform advocacy, led into television programming. Rape presented as an attack by a misogynistic (read: outdated gender beliefs) stranger, who brutally tortures the woman, who escapes – barely survives. Detective (often male) avenges this – no further trial or counselling offered to the victim. By the 1990’s, a diverse and complex range of rape and survivorship narratives presented on prime-time television. Mainstream news coverage (and some television) offer highly sensationalized narratives (and opinions) about rape cases – often moving personal issues to high-profile cases – help to purport “rape myths” (Brinson 1992) – which offer untrue generalizations about the victim, perpetrator, and rape scenario – which feed into our cultural understandings about sexual violence, justifications, and survivorship.

The Rape Reform Movement

Rape definitions sourced in British Common Law, which was passed down to US definitions – as violent attack by stranger on unsuspecting victim – always male on female crime. Cast, in ways, as a “robbery” of men’s resources by other men – that is to say, women’s sexuality was taken (and thus, her worth to a marriageable man) – therefore, treated as a property crime. Feminist attribution of the cause of rape range from criminal activity that sources from men and women’s socialization , rape as a fundamental part of domination of women – relying on women’s subordination, and men’s violence to ensure this. Rape reform undertaken to deal with the social and legal implications of rape – that survivors were not believed, that they were somehow “asking for it,” that their claims were exaggerated or false, that law enforcement (both police and courtroom proceedings) prioritized secrecy and victim-blaming over prosecution, as few perpetrators were caught and if so rarely sentenced. Some jurisdictions required penetration as to count for rape, leaving many without means to prosecute. Ignored intimate partner violence – courts seemed to believe that rape could only occur through the accost of a stranger – strangers who were depraved, abnormal — not at all the family members or partners that these women had. Feminists noted the frustration of having to demonstrate “moral purity” to be taken seriously for a rape – that any character disparagement to the survivor could render the prosecution asunder. Racial prejudice factored in, as many more black men were tried for the rape of white women than white men of black women; in fact, intra-racial rape was far more common than interracial rape – rape as a means of justifying racial violence (i.e. lynching). Media depictions of rape victims are almost completely white women. Date rape, though increasingly shown throughout the 1980s, seems to lose its criminality, as survivors are accused of revenge, etc. Unsurprisingly, date and acquaintance rape continues as some of the most underreported crimes.

Estrich (1987) in book Real Rape, regards public’s dichotomization between “real rape” – the brutal, stranger rape; and those of acquaintances, partners, and family members – a phenomenon that continues today as cases where victims know their perpetrators are far more hotly debated than the crimes mentioned prior.

Men’s depictions in primetime rape narratives are the aggressive attacker or the relatives, boyfriends, etc. that serve as an emotional, rational foil to the perpetrator. Despite women’s victimization, male relatives or detectives seem to take on a central role in accusation, pursuit, or doling out vengeance on the perpetrator, leaving women as peripheral actors in their own victimization – (paternalism in rape narratives). Earlier depictions of men as rapists are marked with physical abnormality and signs of “criminality;” later iterations “appear” to be normal, but are slowly uncovered as pathological (particularly acquaintances of survivors).


Brinson, Susan. 1992. “The Use and Opposition of Rape Myths in Prime-Time Television Dramas.” Sex Roles 27(7-8): 359-375.

Estrich, Susan. 1987. Real Rape: How the Legal System Victimizes Women Who Say No. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


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