The Feedback Loop of Rape Culture in Media

Media shapes our perceptions of society. If that media is consistently driving harmful and falsehood-ridden portrayals of sexual assault, where does that leave us?

By Darya Foroohar

The TikTok isn’t especially long, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s the first post of the account and doesn’t have too many views, but there are thousands more just like it. It features a skinny teenage boy with his shirt on his head (for the purpose of pretending to be a girl), leering at the camera and dancing jerkily. The caption reads, “When girls ruin a star athlete’s career with a rape accusation.” The boy in the video? A 14-year-old family friend. 

I came across this TikTok while scrolling through his account during a bout of procrastination. A few of his videos had gotten pretty big on the app, so I wanted to see what he was up to. This particular TikTok is an extreme example of his videos, where he cheekily dances around so-called “touchy” topics, indirectly (or not so indirectly) making fun of marginalized groups. I’m not going to describe these in detail, nor give the name of his account, because I don’t want to spend an entire article publicly shaming and doxxing a 14-year-old. I will, however, note the betrayal I felt when I saw that the kid with whom I’d shared so many meaningful experiences could so brazenly state that he saw rape as a joke, nothing more than something girls accuse boys they don’t like of. Instead, I’m sharing what I saw not because it was surprising, but because it wasn’t. And that lack of shock was the most surprising of all. 

I know I’d be preaching to the choir here if I analyzed every clip of a teenage boy equating false rape allegations to actual rape—the content is provocative enough to get views and enraged comments, adding to these clips’ engagement and ensuring they will be seen by even more people. Instead, I want to discuss how these videos are part of the vicious cycle of misinterpreting and misrepresenting systemic issues like rape culture. These videos often spawn as a result of misinformation; young people like my family friend are fed TikToks that twist the reality of rape culture and fail to include survivor narratives. They are evocative, pervasive, and convincing, enough so that many viewers decide to join in, retransmitting deeply misguided and damaging vitriol that they perceive as gospel. This desensitizes audiences to casual assault and often portrays women as using assault as a bargaining chip, subtly lessening sympathy to those who speak out about their experiences. 

This pattern can be traced back to portrayals of sexual assault in mainstream media, which have at best not been condemned as assault and at worst considered normal or even desirable. Such examples include Blade RunnerLove ActuallyThe Breakfast ClubGrease, and The Godfather have gross lines, such as “Did she put up a fight?” from the musical Grease. Although this trend has become slightly less common in recent years due to Hollywood’s new “wokeness,” it still exists in many modern movies and TV shows, often forcing conscious viewers to choose between deliberately ignoring questionable scenes or being jolted out of their watching after an assault is played off as normal. For instance, Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy (2013) has a short scene where the protagonist tries to have sex with his girlfriend while she is sleeping. She wakes up and immediately asks him to stop, but it takes multiple attempts and physical force to get him to relent. And yet, since he is the protagonist, the audience is still expected to sympathize with him. The scene exemplifies how sexual violence has become the go-to character flaw for male protagonists and how assault is treated as a relatable mistake, rather than a crime. These media-driven clichés only fuel the narrative that men are designed to assault; rather than have the protagonist deal with existential crises or moral dilemmas, it’s become the norm for male protagonists to have vague “regrets” about forcing themselves on women who are then relegated to plot devices—punchlines for jokes that never land.  

Enemy is by no means an isolated incident; rape culture is prominent in films that appeal to vastly different audiences, were made in different decades, and have different themes and plot devices. Yet they all rely on subtle (or not-so-subtle) sexual assault to characterize at least one of their male characters and his relationship with those around him. This proliferation and popularization are what makes it so important to call out these films’ portrayals of assault, as popular movies shape our conception of what is desirable, acceptable, and socially forgivable. These portrayals can in part be traced back to their creators; it is no surprise that all of the directors of the films I previously listed are male. Men have historically dominated the behind-the-camera world of film and shaped the movies we have come to love. This means that the male gaze inevitably alters the way sensitive issues are viewed by audiences, which can be especially harmful if these issues are disproportionately faced by those without control of the narrative. Statistically speaking, women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than men; according to RAINN one in six women have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape, compared to one in 33 men. While both these numbers are already too high, the statistical evidence highlights how the men directing these scenes of casual sexual assault are less likely to have been assaulted themselves. And as a result, rape culture is taken far less seriously than it should be. 

In recent years, as more female celebrities have spoken out about misogyny and sexual assault, much of Hollywood’s explicit rape culture has been pushed under the rug in an attempt to retain box office sales. However, it is far from gone. Instead of Hollywood blockbusters featuring rapey characters, the focus has now turned to painting women as weaponizing rape, reinforcing the stereotype that women see rape as an accusation they can throw around to gain power rather than an ever-present threat. Female characters, often just mouthpieces for their male screenwriters and directors, will downplay sexual assault, normalizing its destructive downplay in real life. A prominent example of this occurs in the movie Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes. It contains a flashback scene where Mildred argues with her late daughter, who spitefully says she hopes to get raped on the way to her friend’s house; Mildred childishly responds that the feeling is mutual. The scene is fairly early on in the film, but viewers already know that this flashback is the last conversation the two had before her daughter’s actual rape and murder.  

The consequence of this scene is that rape is both seen as the fault of women and a threat not taken seriously by them. By making the characters quite literally “ask for it,” McDonagh creates what is meant to be a moment of dramatic irony, urging us to find more faults in Mildred than the rapist who actually killed her daughter. No one deserves to be raped and it’s important that this message is emphasized in the media. Furthermore, this scene implies that women weaponize the idea of rape, giving credence to people who assume most rape victims are lying. When Mildred and her daughter yell at each other that they wish she’d get raped, they are trivializing the idea of rape as an insult that can be used in a petty fight. However, no one who actually fears getting raped would wish it upon someone. Even in our worst fights, my mother would never tell me she hoped I’d get raped and I would never wish it upon myself to make her feel bad—the very thought is disgusting because we have both felt the all-consuming fear of sexual assault and know it is not to be trivialized. 

The prevalence of rape culture in mainstream media does not exist in a vacuum, as shown by my very own TikTok encounter. It is no wonder young people start to repeat these ideas in their own social media posts. In fact, the sudden shift to a new “woke” Hollywood brought on by the #MeToo movement may have contributed to this reactionary response. While mainstream media may explicitly condemn the most obvious hateful behaviors, there is not much regulation of whether these behaviors are still happening outside of Hollywood’s pearly gates. The surface-level activism of Hollywood allows those in power to absolve themselves of responsibility by claiming that they don’t allow such behavior in their communities while refusing to acknowledge the influence they have over young people who can share content on less-monitored platforms.  

Social media arguably has more of an impact than the traditional mediums of film, radio, and TV because of its quick sharing of neatly summarized information. Issues like rape culture are exacerbated because any misinformation posted is comprised of only a few incendiary sentences designed to get views, not engage in dialogue, making it easy to go viral off of being politically incorrect. The teenagers posting “hot takes” are only playing into the very point of platforms such as TikTok, which feed off of comment wars and oversharing, encouraging people to post more and more outrageous content in the hopes that they can go viral, if even for a moment.  

It makes me angry, sad, and exhausted to think at how much unlearning and learning needs to be done before the trivialization and mockery of rape can fully be eradicated. As much as I want to lash out at those who make jokes like my family friend’s, I know that they are a product of the media they surround themselves with and must recognize this before they can truly change their actions and escape the positive feedback loop of misrepresentation of sexual assault. It’s important to consume content dealing with sensitive issues such as rape from people who are affected by it. I know this seems obvious, but it’s also not what a lot of young people on TikTok want to hear, because this takes effort and attention rather than the casual viewing of funny content they’ve come to expect. Preaching, whether to the choir or to people who completely disagree, was never really my intention, but it seems inevitable that I have to say that you can be funny without resorting to rape jokes and be able to consume media critically without dedicating all of your time to film analysis. I’m not asking people to stop making jokes on TikTok; I’m asking them to think just a little bit more about the impact of what they create, especially because of its potential to be shared far beyond their friend group. It’s painful to see my family friend, who I believe to be a good person, fall into the hands of rape culture, and it’s painful to realize that a heavy-handed attempt to adjust his misconceptions will only drive him further away—no one wants to be told they’re being problematic. It will take a widespread cultural change, starting with content creators themselves, to shift the viewpoint on rape. But we are all capable of growth—at least, I have to think so. If not, this cycle will continue forever.