Sexual Assault, ‘The Shield’ and ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ and Using A License To Be Dark

I’ve been watching a lot of The Shield lately, and I’ve just hit season four, so I think I’ll have a lot of things to say about asset forfeiture and corruption (not to mention female leadership styles) soon. But I wanted to take a minute to write about one of the things I’ve found most striking about the show: the storyline in which a male character is sexually assaulted. In between them, The Shield and Sons of Anarchy have really put on a master class on telling sexual assault stories not simply because they want something dark and ugly to happen and that’s what they lighted on, but because both shows have very specific things to say about sexual assault and how we respond to it.

In The Shield, Captain David Aceveda gets jumped by two criminals who manage to disarm him and force him, at gunpoint, to perform oral sex on one of them while the other snaps pictures on a cell-phone. The assault is hugely upsetting, if not explicit: we can hear Aceveda choking, and later, back in the Barn, gagging in the bathroom. And his trauma doesn’t end with the attack. One of the most shocking and upsetting things about Aceveda’s experience is how his wife treats him when she finds out what’s happened to him, shaming him for “letting” the men emasculate him, acting as if it’s impossible that he would be disarmed, and turning away from him rather than comforting him. Later, when he struggles in therapy and she feels like he isn’t making sufficient process, she tells him “I’m tired of feeling like I was raped, too.” It’s a nasty line, and one that gets at the assumption that rape victims are wallowing or oversensitive. Aceveda is presented as a canny operator, a strategic man who is able to put a good face on tough challenges. That he’s this affected by a sexual assault is a statement about how devastating the experience is, no matter your gender. A failure to recover from a sexual assault in a pre-determined time period is not a mark of weakness (nor, I should mention, is bouncing back more quickly a sign of denial).

Sons of Anarchy does something similarly powerful in the second season when Gemma Teller, the queen of the SAMCRO motorcycle gang, is raped by white supremacists as a warning to her husband and son. The plot point is important not just in the ongoing jockeying for position among the gangs, but because the show has something to say about sexual assault, and that’s the reason the arc remains the best thing Sons of Anarchy’s ever done. As I wrote in a longer consideration of Gemma Teller back in February, Gemma keeps the assault a secret both to deny the racist gang its desired impact on the men in her life, and because she believes it’s rendered her disposable. “Clay’s never gonna… want to be inside something that’s been ripped up like me,” she says. “Love don’t mean shit. Men need to own their pussy. His has been violated. He’ll find another. It’s what they do.” The show goes on to her belief in her own ruination, showing multiple men attracted to her even though they know she’s been attacked, and demonstrating how devastated her husband and son are when they learn she was assaulted. Rape affects men in this storyline too, and not simply as a matter of strategic positioning.

A lot of cable networks seem to think that a license to show and say things means that they should, or that saying or depicting them is inherently meaningful. With both of these storylines, Sons of Anarchy and The Shield demonstrated what can happen when a show is thoughtful enough to use its latitude to convey an idea, not simply an atmosphere.