Trigger Warning: Content regarding sexual assault.
It has been a really busy past couple of weeks so only today did I get around to watching the season finale of Scandal. Throughout this season we have found out more about Mellie including that her father-in-law, “Big Jerry” raped her. Several times throughout the season Mellie alluded to the rape, saying things to her husband President Fitz, along the lines of “You have no idea what I’ve been through for you.” In the season finale, Olivia Pope told Fitz that Mellie had been raped.
When Fitz approaches Mellie after finding this out, he kisses her on the head and she says, “I fought him.” Why did she say this? Would this trauma have been less real or valid if she had not fought him? What does this say about how we teach survivors/victims/experiencers* of sexual assault how to feel about trauma that occurred to them?
We live in a society that overwhelmingly does not believe individuals who have experienced sexual assault or trauma. When Mellie said, “I fought him”, it sounded to me as if she did not see her trauma as valid without taking a physical action against the perpetrator of rape. This expression appears to confirm this notion that rape is always easy to identify and notice. When I say rape in a noticeable way, I mean extreme violence and often an inclusion of yelling, pushing or screaming. Rape is inherently violent though; all sexual assault is violence.
All sexual assault is violent but we are not taught a full explanation of what consent, assault and violence looks like. As I write this, Sexual Assault Awareness Month is ending, the White House just released this PSA regarding men intervening and standing up against sexual assault. When it comes to this work, I see men as absolutely vital and central to ending sexual assault. I also understand that our work needs to start at much younger ages; we cannot expect to have a thorough understanding of assault if we do not begin until the adult age. This teaching also needs to go beyond simply “no means no” and into discussing what we often call “gray areas”, what we often do not categorize as assault.
Since I do not believe that our society overwhelmingly understands what consent means or how to label assault; I also believe this can impact the psyche of victims/survivors/experiencers. If we do not teach what can be considered assault, this lacking is impacting both perpetrators and those who experienced assault.
When our understanding of consent is limited to acts of extreme violence, it makes sense that Mellie felt the need to say she fought Big Jerry. Individuals might find it more difficult to blame themselves (not saying blame does not still occur) when they put in as much physical effort as possible; this however disregards the shock, trauma, numbness and confusion that overcome individuals in times of panic. After the experience I had, I told a friend about what happened, I shamed myself for not being more firm and physical. She said so poignantly that when in situations of panic we often do not want to be too dramatic. We do what we need to do to get through that moment.
On television though, there is seldom time and space for this type of nuance and coping. Scandal is not a perfect television show, however it does bring up topics along the lines of sexual assault, racism, homophobia, image and sexism that mainstream media often does not. In the case of Mellie and the trauma she experienced, this was an example of something we can fairly easily identify as rape. I am glad we are having these conversations about sexual violence in dominant spaces. I hope that our understanding of the widespread impact of sexual assault expands and that we can create a society where sex is not so often connected to violence and trauma.
*I use all three of these labels as some individuals do not like the term victim or survivor and some individuals like myself, hesitate to label their experience in any specific way.