Monday, 13 December 2010

Dawson's Creek and rape culture: the connection they thought couldn't be made

Here's a strange and possibly embarrassing admission: what I'm looking for in relaxation-television is, pretty much, a tragic, star-cross'd, I-love-you-but-we-can't-but-I-love-you type relationship. Whether the dude is best friend of the lady's recently-paralysed boyfriend, best friends with the lady's ex, from the wrong side of the tracks and constantly punching the lady's ex, wrongly accused of murder and best friends with the lady's ex,  or just a vampire, the presence of such a storyline is a major factor in whether I will get hooked on a TV series.

I mean: you are reading the words of someone who paid actual money to own a series of Dawson's Creek. As an adult! If you want to stop reading right here, I would not blame you.

So I was watching Friday Night Lights (oh Higgins, follow Lyla to college, FOR LOVVVE) and it suddenly clicked, in one of those "how was this not blindingly obvious?" moments, that the one thing all these storylines have in common (apart from exes, or often vampires) is: it is always the dude following the lady around saying I LOVE YOU LET'S MAKE LOVVVE, and the lady saying I can't I can't OH WAIT I CAN, because if it was the other way around we would say "damn, pushy lady, get your ensnaring ovaries off that poor guy!"

We frame the male pursuit of women as natural, as sexy; a guy forcing a kiss on an unwilling woman until she relents because she wants it really is shown as hot, not as assault. Bombarding a woman with flowers and impromptu Frankie Valli performances and breaking into her car to leave presents are shown as romantic, "persistent", not as stalking. This dynamic is taken to its logical extreme in Buffy: "I know you felt it. I'm going to make you feel it." And with that one line, the show lays the grotesque underpinnings of this trope bare.

I mean: it's a fantasy. We can suspend disbelief and enjoy it because we accept the internal logic of the storyline, which is that the girl does welcome his attentions, and so whatever the guy does in the cause of True Love is justified: the fact that in reality these would be less romantic gestures and more arrestable offences doesn't matter, because the story of "I love you / no no I can't / I love you, you love me too / I do! I love you too! Let's have lots of hot sex but then break up because the world is against us but I will love you foreverrr" makes for better TV than "I like you / you too / let's get drunk and have sex and after a few months observe that we're feeling a lot less frisky and a lot more concerned with who does the washing up". What we want from TV and what we want from our lives are not the same thing. (Fact.)

I'm not a big fan of policing fantasy; I don't think anyone is, really: I'd imagine we can all agree on the basic ground rules that "if you're not hurting anyone and all your sex-shenanigans involve only consenting grown-ups, then whatever gets you off is lovely, well done". I don't think the fact that I'm susceptible to this particular romantic narrative makes me a bad person, or a bad feminist, or a rape-apologist, and I don't think it's something I need to fix. But I find it interesting to wonder why it has such a pull on me, where it comes from, what it means.

And I keep coming back to this:
Rape culture is regarding violence as sexy and sexuality as violent. Rape culture is treating rape as a compliment, as the unbridled passion stirred in a healthy man by a beautiful woman, making irresistible the urge to rip open her bodice or slam her against a wall, or a wrought-iron fence, or a car hood, or pull her by her hair, or shove her onto a bed, or any one of a million other images of fight-fucking in movies and television shows and on the covers of romance novels that convey violent urges are inextricably linked with (straight) sexuality.
Pursuit, conquest; yielding, submission. They exist on a fictional continuum from Ryan Atwood the loveable rogue (with his complete lack of facial expression - a running theme, perhaps?) to Spike the attempted rapist; the fire at the PG-13 end of the spectrum relies on the ugliness at the other.

Obviously I will still be rooting for those two crazy kids to work it out somehow (but you LOVE EACH OTHERRR), because my love of US-high-school-centric soap operas exists somewhere separate from my intellectual patriarchy-bashing brain: I can be merrily dissecting the troublesome messages purveyed by a show while simultaneously getting swept away by the incredible heart-tugging cheese of it. There are people who refuse to watch TV with me because it can be hard to hear the dialogue over my never-ending mutters of "oh right, so every time you kiss her she pushes you away and says DON'T KISS ME, so obviously the sensible thing to do is carry on kissing her? WHO SAYS ROMANCE IS DEAD".

Then again, these people might just be refusing to watch TV with me because I am watching Dawson's Creek.

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