I have a few thing to say about the new FX drama "Tyrant," but many more things to say about one of TV's most offensive and undying tropes.
This post was written in the specific context of the last few months and years of television programming. But in truth, this reaction has been a lifetime in the making and applies to any sort of filmed content.
When it comes to female characters and certain kinds of rape, sexual assault, sexual subjugation, physical assault and jeopardy, I'm done. I'm just done.
Ask yourself this question next time you watch a character raping, assaulting or otherwise threatening and menacing a woman: Do I know the name of the woman being attacked?
If her name -- let alone who she is and what she wants -- isn't important to the story, what does that tell us about the story being told? Too often it's indicative of deeper problems on even the most ambitious shows.
"Tyrant" is an ambitious show -- not that it achieves much of what it set out to do. In any event, one aspect of it finally broke a certain part of my brain. Maybe I should thank the show for prompting me to write this post, which I'll be able to point to when people ask why I didn't review or stopped writing about certain programs. The truth is, I just can't reward certain forms of laxity, obliviousness and laziness anymore, not when they involve rape and assault.
I could take "Tyrant" to task for its clunky plotting, its thin characterizations and its unfortunate Middle Eastern stereotypes. It's surprising to me that this ever got past the development stage, because nothing about "Tyrant" truly works. It's a halting, strained hodgepodge that ends up being an awkward mixture of bland and offensive.
The tale of an L.A. pediatrician who returns to the repressive country ruled by his family may contain the seeds of interesting ideas, but those concepts are not developed with much subtlety (take your pick of stereotypes: There are brutal Arab men and an attractive blonde wife who Just Doesn't Get It). The cast is not impressive, nor are the characters particularly interesting. I couldn't quite believe that several lumbering lines dialogue were spoken by people on an FX program.
What I could believe, unfortunately, was that, in multiple scenes, unnamed or barely characterized women were assaulted, menaced or used as bargaining chips. Such scenes are all over television, and trust me, I'm more tired of writing about them than you probably are of reading about them.
To be clear, I'm not against the depiction of violence, sexual or otherwise, as the basis for storytelling. In the right hands, the exploration of any kind of assault can result in effective, character-driven drama. Handling the aftermath of a sexual assault with sensitivity can be a challenge -- these kinds of complex experiences go against television's inherent bias toward resolvable stories -- but it can be done. A number of shows over the years have treated the subject with the intelligence and rigor it deserves, and if you need more proof that these stories can be told well, look no further than "Rectify," which is, among other things, the tale of one man's survival of prison rape and many other forms of physical and mental brutality.
"Tyrant" doesn't have to be "Rectify" -- the shows obviously have different goals, themes and tones -- but those differences don't excuse the FX drama's laziness. And I don't care what kind of production agonies the show has gone through or how much research its creators did. A lot of laziness, myopia and stupidity is on display in this show.
Here are a few things you'll see on "Tyrant," which depicts the lives of Jamal Al-Fayeed and Bassam "Barry" Al-Fayeed, the sons of the dictator of a fictional Middle Eastern country. (Note that this list describes incidents that happen in the first two episodes.)
- Ten minutes into the "Tyrant" pilot, Jamal is shown raping a nameless woman in her home as her miserable family sits in another room.
- Later in the pilot, Jamal terrifies and assaults his new daughter-in-law on her wedding day.
- Near the end of the pilot, Jamal forces the first woman into another sexual act.
- In the second episode, a woman is kidnapped. During her captivity, she's terrified and helpless -- and she's mostly shown in her bra.
Here's what these incidents have in common:
- They represent the laziest kind of shorthand. Want to give a male character's personality a gloss of darkness? Want to give your show a "complicated" storyline? Want to give your show the air of an "edgy" drama? Let a man menace, attack or rape a woman.
- When these incidents occur on "Tyrant," we don't know the woman's name, or if we do know her name, we don't know much about her. The women in these scenes are devices -- they are there to create an atmosphere of danger or to move the plot along.
In subsequent episodes, the show makes attempts to paint a more complex and even sympathetic picture of Jamal -- the man who sexually assaulted two different woman basically because he could.
Apparently "Tyrant" wasn't confident that showing Jamal doing many other violent and crass things in the first couple of hours would convince the audience he is a scary person. Taking the sexual assault or woman-in-peril shortcuts, as "Tyrant" does repeatedly, isn't just offensive here because it plays into a host of stereotypes about Arab males and the dangers they purportedly present. It also made me check out of the story for other reasons as well.
In general, when these ploys crop up, they make me suspect that the writers don't have a firm grasp on the characters or how to make them memorable. These strategies make me wonder if the people making the show trust the audience's ability to assess a character's actions, history and morality. With plenty of other ways to characterize Jamal as a dangerous and volatile man, "Tyrant" took the most obvious and least interesting routes.
Even on a show that has often thoughtfully depicted the consequences of violence, things can go jaw-droppingly awry. In recent seasons, "Game of Thrones" heartbreakingly depicted the agony and confusion of Theon, who was assaulted and sexually tortured by Ramsay Snow. "Game of Thrones" was clearly committed to telling Theon's story and making us feel for him -- but that only served to highlight the fact that we never know the names of the women who were repeatedly raped in Craster's Keep. And then, of course, there was the whole Jaime-Cersei debacle.
Even Masterpiece Theatre can't resist a patronizing cliche. Last season on "Downton Abbey," the rape of the servant Anna devolved into a C-grade suspense story that mainly revolved around what Mr. Bates might do in retaliation. Less attention was paid to how the woman in question survived, mentally and physically, and far more attention paid to the husband's response to what had been done to his wife.
At least we knew Anna's name.
The women in "Tyrant," on the other hand, are mostly placeholders -- even the ones who aren't kidnapped or raped. But even if all the other characters on the show, male and female, were fascinating, I don't think it would matter. The presence of well-drawn characters who do not get raped, assaulted or attacked does not give a program a free pass to engage in these cliches. I'm just so tired of violence against women being used as storytelling No-Doz -- something to juice up the proceedings and then discard at will.
Let's not kid ourselves: When it comes to the depiction of sexual assault on TV, those who are assaulted are usually women. Many who are raped, beaten, menaced and assaulted on our screens don't get a quarter of the screen time Theon did -- if we ever see them again. If a show is going to depict a sexual assault -- which is any show's right -- it should follow through on the ramifications of that experience for the survivor, male or female. If a drama is not interested in the person who was attacked, that show needs to find other ways to amp up the complexity or the "danger" factor.
I've just seen certain scenarios involving nameless or barely characterized women too many times. I've just had it with the sexual violence and physical subjugation of women that mostly exists to add "edge" or "atmosphere" to a show or to add complexity to someone else's backstory. Women's bodies are not the canvases on which storytellers can sketch out their sophomoric ideas about what constitutes "dangerous" storytelling. Enough with those played-out and offensive cliches.