Scandal, the intense and innovative drama from the mind of pop-culture engineer Shonda Rhimes, has never hesitated to tackle contemporary issues. Aside from the flux of murders and affairs, Scandal typically promotes admirable positions — wear the white hat, stand up for your friends, try not to commit election fraud, etc. One repeated plot point, however, is both troublesome and redundant, and it begs an important question: Why are there so many false rape accusations on an otherwise progressive show?
Although assumedly feminist Olivia Pope and her creator take the best position whenever this issue arises, one still has to wonder why it has arisen so often. In the first season, a playboy (who, it turns out, really is a rapist) is accused of rape by a woman he never assaulted. In an episode from the next season, a major plot point revolves around a woman shouting “rape” when caught by her husband in a consensual affair. And in the current season, yet another woman lies about being assaulted.
Repeating, almost annually, the stereotype that women frequently pretend to have been assaulted becomes problematic regardless of the context. Whatever the writers’ intentions, emphasizing the idea that false reports of rape are extremely common is problematic in a show that has such an impact on our culture. In light of recent events, it is even worse.
Recently, Rolling Stone issued a statement regarding its explosive piece about sexual assault and its consequences at the University of Virginia. The article in question is gripping and gruesome, combining a first-hand account of a brutal rape at a frat house with vivid observations about modern university life. The magazine’s statement claims that, in light of recent information, the subject of the article was not a reliable source of information. The publication places the blame on Jackie, the alleged victim, rather than acknowledging flaws in its reporters’ investigations and its own fact checkers’ efficacy.
Rolling Stone’s statement was almost as incendiary as the article itself, and many readers jumped quickly from the realization that not all of the facts presented were accurate to the conclusion that the entire piece was fiction. This, sadly, is not the truth. Jackie’s story aside, the article reveals the dangerous culture that thrives on campuses nationwide. It references survivor groups, reveals unsavory UVA traditions, and reports on observed aspects of the intense party scene. Even if Jackie’s story is false, there are countless, very true, stories just like it.
If Jackie was lying, if she made it all up — which comments from her friends imply is very unlikely — she has done an enormous disservice to victims everywhere by taking their pain for granted and, more significantly, perpetuating the damaging idea that women routinely invent rapes to gain attention. What’s worse is that now, to a certain extent, the truth is irrelevant. Even if her story is verified completely, the damage to the national psyche has been done.
The news of accusations against Bill Cosby, another recently inescapable story, has been met with criticism in many places. Although women have been coming forward for years with claims that they were assaulted by Cosby, the recent ignition of the topic in the media has caused widespread, often negative attention. Predictably, many have questioned the credibility of the women making these accusations, saying that there is no reason to believe their stories. Most would rather trust in the persona of a beloved celebrity than give credence to the idea that he could be a serial rapist.
For those who stand by victims, it can be difficult to understand this tendency. Yes, Cosby is innocent until proven guilty, but with more than fifteen women presenting detailed accounts of rape, innocence seems less realistic every day. While it is certainly possible that one or two of these women are seeking to benefit personally from the popularity of the story, it seems astronomically unlikely that every one of them made it all up. These women, especially those that have been speaking out for years, originally stood to gain little and lose much from sharing their stories. Besides, as public opinion has squashed these women’s unpopular accusations, Cosby has been clinging to his assumed innocence for years. Maybe it’s finally time for some guilt.
So why are so many people dismissing the claims against him? Why are UVA students posting #DontStandWithJackie on social media? Why, in a year where we’ve finally made some progress in discussing sexual assault, is it still the natural reaction to accuse victims of lying?
Olivia Pope says it best: “I hate to accuse a woman who says she’s been sexually assaulted of lying. I really do… Women don’t lie about that. There is overwhelming evidence that women do not lie about being sexually assaulted, but you are.” And regardless of whether Jackie and Cosby’s accusers are lying, the terrible truth remains; sexual assault is pervasive, destructive, and notoriously difficult to report in our culture.