Sexual assault has always had a complicated history on television. It's been treated in ways that are respectful or powerful; and often one-sided, or gratuitous. When it comes to the sexual assault of men? Depictions are, to put it mildly, rare.
When TV shows do take on sexual assault of men, the portrayal is frequently awkward or problematic. That could be because our culture still hasn't figured out how to talk about male rape; the FBI just expanded its definition of rape to include men in 2013. Whatever the reason, TV shows have, up until very recently, treated male rape with a tinge of adolescent humor, reducing it to the province of the mythological "Booty Bandit" boogeyman who sounds more cartoonish than the violent predator he is. The Boondocks' lampooning of a real-life prison rapist featured on Lockup is a prime example.
The rape of a man was also a joke in a now-infamous episode of The Mindy Project. Guest star James Franco's character Dr. Leotard is so blackout drunk that he's passed out in his hallway; but nonetheless taken inside his apartment by Christina (Chloe Sevigny) for a casual romp. Sex with someone while they're blackout drunk is the very definition of non-consensual sex; and while The Mindy Project was rightfully dragged for the story, blowback from that 2013 episode didn't portend great change. Two years later, American Horror Story: Hotel showed a man being raped by a monster with a pointed drill for a phallus — a scene placed in the story merely for shock value, never to be addressed again.
A recent episode of Snowfall, though, mostly gives the crime the gravitas it deserves. It happens when Karvel (Sheaun McKinney), a goon hired by the series' hero Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) to steal back his money from Lenny (Craig Tate), elevates his violent interrogation to a horrific level. Tied to a chair, Lenny takes punches. Karvel ransacks Lenny's house. Karvel hits Lenny with a bat. Nothing. Lenny still won't say where the money is, so Karvel drags him into a bedroom and rapes him. For a while, Franklin and his buddy Leon (Isiah John) are unaware what's happening outside the room, until Leon pieces it together and tells Franklin, "He ain't killing him, he [sic] giving it to him." Both boys are terrified, and in that moment join a small minority of characters who've endured or witnessed a man be sexually assaulted.
John Singleton, who co-created the series, told TV Guide in an interview that the scene was his idea.
"In the writer's room," he said, "we were talking about interrogation procedures. We talked about what would be the most shocking thing to see. What would he do totally humiliate him? I came up with that. [Karvel] is trying to get the money out of this guy and that's what he does."
Despite the big grin on his face after he finishes his attack, Karvel is shot in a way that makes him look like a monster. (Singleton said director Daniel Attias deserved kudos for his treatment of the scene. "He's like a master director.") Lenny meanwhile, makes eye contact with Franklin; still handcuffed, bent over the bed, naked from the waist down and bleeding, he then stares into space in a way that makes his heartbreak visceral. Petrified with fear, Franklin and Leon are unable to speak or move at the sight of him. They're anguished too. They know that even though Lenny is scum, nothing about what happened to him is funny — and he certainly didn't deserve it. In that context, Snowfall got it right.
Yes, the idea that Snowfall uses a man's rape as the height of humiliation is unsettling. That it is supposedly the pinnacle of degradation and a cause for shame means unpacking deeply held attitudes about sexuality and definitions of manhood. And unfortunately, this is not as nearly as insightful a take as shows that've gotten it right. American Crime, for example, used the rape of a teenage boy by a more affluent male teenager as the jumping off point for its excellent Season 2. There, the now-defunct series made clear the emotional toll, stigma and outright dismissal male rape survivors encounter. Similarly, Outlander's depiction of the rape of Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) at the hands of Capt. Jonathan "Black Jack" Randall (Tobias Menzies) showed the sustained impact of the trauma. Much like the rape scene on Snowfall, Outlander's graphic and disturbing scene showed an aggressor hellbent on destroying a person. It is through Outlander's prolonged exploration of Jamie's suffering, and continued return to the plotline that makes it one of the most nuanced looks at male rape yet.
It remains to be seen how Snowfall will address the after effects of Lenny's sexual assault, if at all. Snowfall is set in a place and time where horrific violence just begets more horrific violence; victims don't delve into a layered investigation of feelings. We do know Lenny is absolutely seeking revenge in subsequent episodes, giving credence to the idea that his story doesn't end with his attack.
That's how it should be. No rape should be a one and done incident that fails to show how characters deal with the impact. Showing a rape without showing the consequences trivializes the horror of it; and furthers the stigma and silence that've haunted survivors long after the physical act is over... Not just on TV, but in the real world, too.
Snowfall airs Wednesdays at 10/9c on FX.