Pop culture matters: Television and consent

As a cultural critic, I constantly encounter attitudes along the lines of ‘don’t you have better things to do with your time’ and ‘who really cares about television’ and ‘pop culture doesn’t matter.’ Bitch Magazine, an entire publication dedicated to discussing pop culture through a primarily feminist lens, aside, my response is that yes, pop culture matters. A lot. Yes, it shapes the way we think. Yes, it shapes the way we talk about social issues, the way we engage with a variety of subjects, the way we relate to each other. Pop culture plays an important role in society, whether we’re looking at our own, or viewing that of other cultures and learning more about how they function.

These facts are routinely brought home by sociological studies on pop culture and how it interacts with the ‘real world,’ and one in 2015 was particularly interesting. The paper, ‘Law & Order, CSI, and NCIS: The Association Between Exposure to Crime Drama Franchises, Rape Myth Acceptance, and Sexual Consent Negotiation Among College Students,’ took a look at how college-aged fans of the three shows viewed issues surrounding sexuality, consent, rape culture, and myths surrounding rape victims, drawing upon 313 subjects, which is by no means comprehensive or a huge sample size, but enough to start a conversation that could lead to expanding research.

Criminal dramas were not chosen by accident. We already know about the ‘CSI effect,’ in which juries both expect more forensic evidence and rely on it more heavily when discussing cases, as a direct consequence of viewing forensic dramas that centre on issues like evidence collection and analysis. This has really changed jurisprudence in the US, illustrating, yet again, that pop culture can have a profound influence on society — with the release of CSI, conviction rates and jury attitudes changed. Television jumped into the outside world, bringing the experience of the screen to the court room. Similarly, the slew of hyper-real medical dramas has brought about a growing number of TV Doctors, which can be both good and bad — better medical literacy and patient self-advocacy in some settings, erroneous ideas about medicine in others.

People who watch crime dramas are repeatedly exposed to rape and sexual assault, as these prove to be common themes in such settings — they’re something that come up again and again for law enforcement officers, especially those working in urban areas. College students are further attuned to the issue due to growing national conversations about rape culture, campus rape, and shifting attitudes about personal responsibility and bootstrapping. Thus, they’re an extremely impressionable audience when they’re engaging with programming like this. The researchers wanted to know if their attitudes about rape varied depending on which show they watched — if they didn’t, it would suggest that viewing crime dramas doesn’t have an effect on social attitudes about rape, but if they did, it would show that pop culture in fact reinforces or deconstructs those attitudes.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, at least to some, the researchers discovered that their subjects had varied attitudes about sexual assault depending on which programme they watched. Obviously people are fans of programming for different reasons and some of these may well factor into preexisting attitudes — e.g. some fans may be more conservative and thus are drawn to NCIS — but these issues aside, it’s clear that the dramas evaluated had an influence on their viewers.

Law & Order viewers tended to resist rape myths more than their peers, and said they would be more assertive about resisting “unwanted sexual activity.” CSI fans, on the other hand, indicated different views about consent, saying both that they wouldn’t necessarily respect partners and that they wouldn’t advocate for themselves. Those viewing NCIS said they were less likely to self-advocate when it came to negotiating consent.

A single study does not magically confirm anything. We need more studies to explore these results, we need bigger sample sizes, we need a larger range of shows, we need to control for more factors. But it points towards an interesting trend, researcher Emily Marett says: ‘We knew from previous research that these three crime drama franchises portray sexual assault in fundamentally different ways.’ Specifically, she adds that Law & Order has a clear intentionality when it comes to depicting sexual assault, with a mission of pushing back on harmful myths and social attitudes. The show takes its responsibility seriously, and while it might not be aiming for 100 percent accuracy or preachiness, it’s also aware that there’s a complicated conversation around rape and it plays a role in that conversation.

People come away from an episode of television with a rape scene and they talk about it, for good or ill. Some of those people may be criticising it and discussing ways it could have been better handled. Others may be absorbing bad lessons — she was a sex worker out on the corner at night, so she deserved what happened to her. He was sloppy drunk and said he wanted it, so he can’t go back and change his mind in the morning. When creators set out with a certain amount of intentionality with the way they frame rape, it makes a difference, whether they’re disrupting or challenging narratives in quiet ways or actually directly taking them on — for example, having a defense attorney who attacks a victim only to be rebuked by a judge.

These things matter. This is why I talk about pop culture, because it plays a role in how we engage with a huge number of social issues and phenomena. The world we live in is shaped by pop culture and we structure many of our policies, attitudes, beliefs, and social institutions around it — it’s why juries think they understand DNA and why rape victims get shut down when they try to speak up.

Image: Law & Order: SVU, Daniel Fleming, Flickr