Daytime TV and made-for-TV movies such as those on Lifetime, in their low-budget, melodramatic glory, was far more likely to offer a woman-centric narrative of rape. Where mainstream TV ran away from topics like domestic violence, prostitution, abortion, and of course rape, soap operas and Lifetime films almost reveled in it; presumably there was some cathartic release in watching crimes suffered mostly by women in the real world play out in exaggerated glory on television. Lifetime’s films, then and now, were characterized by lurid titles and grim scenarios: “The Burning Bed” (1984), “She Fought Alone” (1995), “She Cried No” (1996), “She Woke Up Pregnant” (1996). On the abuse and rape survivor advocacy site The Road To Anaphe, the site’s creator includes an exhaustive list of Lifetime films, adding: “Lifetime Television may be a ‘women’s network,’ but it is one that shows a lot of good, informative movies on the subjects of child abuse, domestic violence, and missing children.” You could count on violence and exploitation in these films. The crucial difference is that you could also typically count on the point of view of the victim being central to the story.
Soap operas, unlike TV movies or even primetime TV shows, are not just serialized but heavily serialized. The short production time for soap episodes means that the shows can respond on the fly to audience interests, making the medium a fascinating one for measuring audience sentiment. And, uncomfortably, when rape shows up on soap operas, often those stories end up redeeming the rapist—indeed, in response to popular affection for those characters.
The best example of that might be the iconic Luke (Anthony Geary) and Laura (Genie Francis) on “General Hospital,” who have been one of that show’s foundational relationships. But their first sexual encounter, in 1979, was rape, when Luke drunkenly forced himself on Laura. She eventually fell in love with him and they were together for 37 years. Their wedding episode in 1981 remains to this day the highest rated soap opera episode in history. It was only in 1998, when their son learned of the rape, that the show really confronted the myth of “forced seduction” they had established nearly 20 years earlier, and reframed it as the assault it really was.
“One Live To Live,” in 1993-1994, focused much of its storytelling on the gang rape and subsequent aftermath of a college student named Marty Saybrooke (Susan Haskell). The football jock who instigated the rape—a tall, handsome guy named Todd Manning (Roger Howarth)—was originally intended to be a serial rapist. The brutal honesty of the scene inspired both audience and critical praise; the series won Daytime Emmys for the plot arc, which unapologetically framed Todd as a sadistic villain.
But then the story took a turn: Audiences loved Todd. Their enthusiasm spurred the writers to instead build a redemption arc for the character, even as Marty struggled to rebuild her life. Todd lingered as a flawed character on the margins as the writers of the show tried to reconcile their desire to maintain that the rape was reprehensible with audience enthusiasm for the character. The situation was settled (sort of) in 1998, when actor Howarth decided to walk away from the show. Unfortunately, I can only find this quote from Soap Opera Digest in Wikipedia, but it’s so compelling, I’m reproducing it:
If the rape had been an unrealistic, soapy thing, then it wouldn’t matter. But because it was so in-depth and so brutal, to show Todd and Marty having drinks together in Rodi’s — to show Marty feeling safe and comfortable with Todd — is bizarre… People have come up to me and said, ‘My 7-year-old loves you.’ What do I say to that? I’m not going to tell them, ‘Don’t let your 7-year-old watch TV.’ But I have to say, it’s disturbing.
Howarth’s departure from the show effectively scuttled any possibility of redeeming the character (though he did return for guest-stints on the show). Of course, this being soap operas, Todd was recast with Trevor St. John, who believed himself to be Todd but then turned out to be Todd’s twin brother, and in the meantime, Marty returned to the show with amnesia, and they had sex, which ended up getting dubbed “re-rape.” But it’s a plotline notable for never losing sight of the fact that what Todd did to Marty was unforgivable, in a landscape where, to quote the writer and unofficial soap expert Joe Reid, “The laundry list of incredibly popular soap characters who started off as rapists — or even just terrorizers of women — is uncomfortably long.”
Interestingly, by 2003, when the rape of Bianca Montgomery on “All My Children” dominated national conversation, the audience’s desire to see the rapists forgiven seems to have fallen off. Bianca herself, as the first openly lesbian lead on a daytime drama, became the subject of redemption; where some audiences had hated her for coming out of the closet, her rape—a “punishment” or “corrective” for her sexuality—and her subsequent struggle to keep her baby became objects of such audience fervor that the New York Times covered it in 2004.