Sunday Reflections: On Watching TV as a Woman
Please note, this post will discuss sexual assault and violence. It will also share spoilers for The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix and The Maze Runner movie
** TRIGGER WARNINGS: SEXUAL ASSAULT**
This past few weeks, the girls and I were watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. For those of you who may not know about this series, it’s based on a book and it is set in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s about a young orphan girl who turns out to be a chess prodigy. It’s a remarkably good series in a lot of ways. I recommend it. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.
Early in the series, the main character, Beth Harmon, is sent to live in an orphanage. At one point she is asked to go to a basement to clean the erasers – which those of us old enough to remember will recall means hitting them together to expel the chalk dust. In the basement there sits a man playing a game of chess.
I almost stopped watching the series in this moment because my anxiety went off the chart because I knew, this man was going to sexually assault this little girl. And in a lot of movies or tv shows, and sadly in a lot of real life, that is 100% what would have happened. Thankfully, that is not what happens here. In fact after several visits to the basement, in which this man never assaults her, he finally relents and teaches her to play chess. He soon realizes that she is gifted and he becomes her champion.
I’ve thought a lot in the last few weeks about the anxiety I felt while watching this show. It is not the first time I have felt it.
When I watched the movie The Maze Runner, based on the books by James Dashner (and I had not read the books before watching the movie), I had a similar experience. The Mr. and I went to watch this movie and I remember distinctly the moment the lone female character is introduced to an environment where there are nothing but boys and immediately wanting to leave. I looked at my husband and said, “we have to go, they’re going to rape her.” I was wrong, but we talked a lot after this movie about what it is like as a woman to watch a movie like this. Even my husband, an arguably great man, admitted that he sadly felt that wasn’t realistic because in that scenario with those numbers, someone would have eventually assaulted her.
I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a woman engaging with various forms of media, because it’s complicated.
Sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape are often used too casually for a lot of media. It sometimes feels like a lot of mystery and crime shows center this type of crime. And a lot of books, tv and movies use this as a female back story. As if the only way you can give a girl a backstory is to have her have been traumatized sexually. And I’ll be honest, I often resent it.
The flip side is that the reality is that far too many of us have indeed been somehow been traumatized sexually. Depending on what statistics you use, that number can be as high as every 1 in 4 of us. That’s 25% of the female population. And that doesn’t take into account things like being non-traditionally gendered, non binary, or transgender. It also doesn’t take into account things like casual catcalling, sexual harassment at work, etc. When we really start talking to our friends I find that I am hard pressed to find a female friend who hasn’t experienced some type of unwanted sexual attention, harassment or violence.
It’s true, as I have shared here, that I am a survivor of sexual assault. So I am sure that this influences the way that I perceive these situations when I sit down to watch television or a movie. But it’s also true that there are a whole lot of us out there who have experienced the same. When someone recently asked me about The Queen’s Gambit one of the things that I mentioned was how many times I thought the main character was going to be assaulted and then she wasn’t, and several other women in the replies said that they had felt the same and were pleasantly surprised.
So that’s where we are at in 2020. You have entire generations of women who experience this type of anxiety while watching a television show and being pleasantly surprised because for once, the young girl who is the main character wasn’t sexually assaulted. That’s what generations of unchecked and unpunished sexual assault have done to us. And quite frankly, I feel like it’s a pretty sad commentary about the state of our world and our media.
Filed under: #SVYALit
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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