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Monday, September 8, 2008

Therapists and The Rapists

I suspect this won't be the only soap blog you read today that touches upon this subject. I also suspect there will be a ton of people going on the offensive this week.. not to mention some defensiveness.

I'm not sure why rapists became such complex character studies on soap operas - but at some point, it became common practice in daytime to delve into the psyche of these men who commit this atrocious crime. Practically every soap on the air contains at least one of these male characters: Starting with Bill Horton on Days, then moving on to Luke Spencer on GH and Roger Thorpe on GL... then Jack Devereaux on Days, Jake McKinnon on AW, Todd Manning on OLTL, EJ DiMera on Days (Geez, Days... somebody just can't seem to stay away from this story, huh? )... the list goes on and on.

I grew up on soaps in the 80's, so for awhile, a rape storyline to me just meant good drama. Once I hit late adolescence, and I understood the sheer viciousness of this crime in reality... the horror it inflicted, and the scars it left behind... the "deliciousness" of a rape story quickly dissipated in my mind. This was not subject matter to be treated lightly. If you're going to make a commitment to tell a storyline where the rapist is a contract player and not a faceless, nameless monster (i.e. Liz's rapist on General Hospital), then you damn well better make a commitment to your audience too - because far too many (far, FAR too many) in our audience have either been a victim of this crime, or is close with someone who was a victim of the crime. A commitment to not only make sure the story isn't whitewashed... but that the man who committed such a heinous crime not only pays the consequences, but goes through years of guilt, shame, self-loathing, and eventually, redemption... but never forgiveness. It's not an ideal story to tell. I'm seriously over the lightning-speed one-eighty with these guys from rapist to hero. It's unbelievably irresponsible, especially to young girls in this day and age. But if you find yourself in the position of writing this kind of story, you damn well better not shove it under the rug, and you better play out all of the crucial emotional beats. And in situations like this, you absolutely are obligated to take a second or third look at every word you write, and make sure it's exactly the correct language. Because one misstep, and you can turn a ground-breaking story into a firestorm of rage from an audience that feels betrayed.

Just ask One Life to Live fans who were left heading into their weekend with the final mind-searing image of Todd and Marty in a passionate kiss on Friday.

I'll be honest - I have been thoroughly intrigued by this storyline from the beginning. Because even though WE know a woman is falling in love with her rapist, the woman herself (a victim of amnesia) does not know. And the rapist in question - after losing his wife, his children, his whole life - is desperate for a "do-over". To prove he's not this horrible person everyone thinks he is. And somehow, by winning the respect and affection of the woman he brutally attacked fifteen years ago, he thinks he can somehow wipe the slate clean... and by "erasing" the one event that sent his life into a downward spiral, maybe he can be validated at last as a worthwhile human being. So in a character sense, it's both horrific to watch... yet the viewer is unable to turn away. There were so many levels to play here, so many interesting angles, the kind of psychological warfare and subconscious emotions that make us all rant and rave and scream and yell... and still keep us tuned in day after day. Todd is looking for a therapist, and Marty is looking for her savior, and the reward we get (one hopes) is that when her memory finally does return, hell will seem like a vacation compared to what Marty will do to Todd. I may feel slightly queasy at their scenes now now, but the soap fan in me believed that all would redeemed when the explosive reveal finally happened. (Perhaps in time for the all-important November Sweeps period?).

So when early spoilers (and a somewhat exploitative TV promo from ABC) revealed there would be a Todd/Marty kiss on Friday, there was definitely a lot of buzz in the air... and not all if it good. But can you blame the dissenters? It's well known Roger Howarth had issues with the romanticizing of Todd Manning, and fans screaming "Rape me, Todd!" gleefully at a fan event only cemented that distaste. Other previous head writers also toyed with the idea of a Todd/Marty pairing (without the conceit of amnesia though)... and were shot down everytime. So for Ron and Company to take this plunge - it's not like they didn't know they were in for a world on controversy. But this is a show that has succeeded (ratings-wise) telling stories about gay serial killers, and Scott Peterson-esque murders of pregnant women, so the jaw-dropping audacity of this story, combined with the psychological possibilities and strong actors being able to play emotions that are both stomach-churning, and truly fascinating from an actor's standpoint -- it all adds up to a storyline arc that could wind up being voted the worst story of the year... or the best. Unfortunately, there's no way any of us can make a decision at this point, because we have no idea how this story will play out. If Marty ends up pulling a Sami Brady and puts a bullet in Todd's family jewels, thereby making sure he can never sleep with or impregnate another woman again? This could all be turned around quite nicely.

In any case, we all knew Friday's tag would happen sooner or later, so it wasn't so much a question of "Are they going to go there?" (Of course they're going to go there!), but "How will they handle it?" It's not what you're doing, it's how you do it. And in the end, it boils down to the last three words in the script of Friday's show - three words that will make or break it.

"Todd kisses Marty"


"Marty kisses Todd"

Because there is a vital difference between the two. And OLTL had me glued to the TV until Trevor moved in for the kiss before Susan did -- and suddenly the rapist was making the first move agains the woman whose life he so severely violated. Had Haskell moved in for the kiss first? The whole tag of the scene would have changed from a man taking advantage of the helpless woman he once tied down to a bed and raped, to being about a frustrated woman expressing gratitude to the kindness of a stranger. Two entirely different tags, both ending with a kiss that implies two very different things.

Is this a writing decision? A directing decision? An actor's decision? I have no idea, so the purpose of this blog isn't to point fingers. I've been a part of way too many of these kinds of polarizing storylines to start placing blame. These shows are produced by committee, so you can't always assume you know what really happened. It's too late now - the scene has aired and the best you can do is find a way to salvage it... and what do I know? Maybe it will be salvaged in the pick-up of today's episode! But that's not really why I wanted to write this.

The top two shows for most of the summer in the Girls 12-17 demographic were One Life to Live (Number ONE for over seven weeks!) and Days of Our Lives -- the two shows featuring women falling for their rapists as their front-burner storylines. I congratulate both shows for having such astounding rises in their ratings, but when you're at the top, don't you have a responsibility to your young, impressionable teen viewers, to not subconsciously imply that this kind of behavior is acceptable? That one or two scenes of somebody expressing guilt and shame for a mistake they made one night years ago makes it all right to give in to their desires? That it's okay to go jump into bed with someone as long as they say they're sorry? Wracked-with-guilt apologies does not erase such a monstrous crime. There's a fine line between telling a fascinating character study of this kind of brutality, and just throwing something on the air for shock value. It's not that these stories are being told that's the problem - it's how they're being told.

Soaps are passed down from generation to generation - everyone I know who watches soaps got into their routine because of their parents and grandparents. But what mother would want to encourage their daughter to watch a show that might plant the suggestion in their minds that the bad boy can always change, and sometimes all it takes is one or two moments of "I feel terrible for what happened for you" to make everything okay? EJ and Sami's struggles to be around each other, in spite of the positive and negative parts of their pasts, supplies story for years... not to mention that EJ's sexual crimes should definitely have an effect on the other object of his affections - Nicole, who herself is a victim of men taking advantage of her sexually for their own selfish gains. Even more story possibilities if it was taken advantage of! Todd, the rapist, looking for a therapist in his victim, has endless possibilities as well. And even though he's not a rapist, I'm also looking at Grady and Daisy on Guiding Light. He's a murderer, but he's "really, really sorry", so it's okay?

In stories like these, every sentence... every word.. needs to count. One wrong move, and your audience will revolt. Only time will tell how these stories play out, and it won't be for another year or two, when fans can look back in hindsight at these stories as a whole from beginning to end, that we all will be able to say whether they were successes or failures. But at the moment? They're tottering dangerously close to the abyss.

And a simple change from "Todd kisses Marty" to "Marty kisses Todd" can make all the difference in the world.

Tread carefully, my friends. No one can afford to lose more viewers at this point.

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