One criticism I’ve heard on message boards occasionally is how often soaps feature rape stories. As one commenter put it, “Almost every major female character in Salem has been raped — that’s disgusting.”
Well, when you put it like that …
But, actually, I do disagree. It’s true that most of the ladies in Salem have been raped. Taking the group at Jennifer’s stoned book club meeting as a representative sample, we have:
Kayla – yes
Julie – yes
Adrienne – yes
Jennifer – yes (as we’ll talk about in a moment)
Nicole – not onscreen, but her backstory includes being forced into the porn industry by her abusive father
Looks bad, doesn’t it? But, if you think about it, each of these ladies was raped exactly once onscreen, on a show whose bread and butter is coming up with year after year of high drama and over-the-top plots. For reasons that go beyond the scope of this blog post, rape is considered a uniquely disturbing crime, a life-altering event for its victim and its perpetrator. (To illustrate this point, think of saying “Can you believe that all the leading men in Salem have been beat up at least once?” It doesn’t make sense.) However, soaps are also, at least potentially, one of the best places to take on rape as a subject. With high drama, sure, but not merely for sensationalism, and showing long term emotional effects and a female point of view.
All that said, though, I’m not generally a fan of the rape story. I also don’t think the show should try to do them these days, because it doesn’t have the attention span for it. I thought Stephanie’s rape by Ford Decker wasn’t too bad, as a story. But EJ’s rape of Sami? … need I say more?
So, now (in 1990), it’s Jennifer’s turn. For those who don’t know, Jennifer is forced into marrying Lawrence as “Katarina” and is raped by him on their wedding night. I guess we all know why they gave Jen this story. It’s not because of anything that happens in Alamania. Everything there would work just as well if there were no rape, and she were just posing as Lawrence’s wife to keep everyone safe. In fact, it would work better, because Jennifer waits an absurdly long time before she gives up her pose as Katarina. She even meets all the Salemites as Katarina and insists that she’s happily married to Lawrence, until it becomes ridiculous. Here’s a hint, Days writers: if you’re going to make someone insist on staying with her rapist after the calvary arrives, you have to give her a damn good reason.
So they gave her the story because of Jack. And in principle, I’m not opposed to that. One thing I love about soaps is how emotional issues are raised and resolved through plot. How does Jack deal with his past as a rapist when the woman he loves is raped? Does it raise old ghosts and old guilt? Can Jennifer look at Jack the same way when she knows, on a much deeper, primal level, exactly how Jack made Kayla suffer? You can imagine the writers in the writing room rubbing their hands with glee, and to some degree I share that. If it’s almost too perfect, even down to the exact scenario (marital rape when the woman is in love with someone else), well, that’s soap operas.
Some of these issues do come up, and they are thorny and complex and interesting (and I will give full credit as we go along). But even some of these are raised, only to be dropped, and then raised again later … there is a choppiness to the whole presentation of this story. And some issues are sidestepped, or ignored altogether.
I have to say, the biggest thing missing from this story is Jen. I know that sounds strange. I like Melissa Reeves a lot. I do. But she and this story are not really a good match. Not because it is drama rather than comedy — she does well, really well, in dramatic scenes with Jack. Take the “I believe in you” scene as a fine example. I’ve thought about this a lot, and if she has a limitation as an actress, it’s this: she is excellent at playing what’s on the page, but if it’s not on the page, she doesn’t play it. Go back to my example from above, how Jen chooses to stay with Lawrence after the crew from Salem arrive. Why would she do this? It’s not explained. Missy could have shown us, though, in her body language, that Jen was so terrified of Lawrence after the rape, that she couldn’t take a chance on escape unless it was 100% guaranteed to work. Plus, I just think there should be a marked difference in how Jen acts around Lawrence, after the rape, and Missy doesn’t play one, unless the scene explicitly calls for it. She’s wary of him, yes, but she was wary of him before.
There are holes in the story from Jennifer’s side, and I don’t think Missy tries to fill in those holes. I don’t want to exaggerate, we do see some of Jen’s point of view. We see her dealing with the trauma of the rape. Back in Salem, she goes to some group rape counseling sessions (pretending to be “on a story,” but still). She has bad dreams and flashbacks of the rape. She eventually confides in some people. She has confrontations with Lawrence. But what we don’t see — and this is the story’s biggest flaw — is if Jen sees Jack differently now, and if she does, exactly what the difference is. It’s so screamingly obvious that this should be an issue that it becomes the elephant in the room. I’m even not talking about anything as crude as “I can’t be with you now that I know how horrible rape is.” Something more like “I know you won’t be able to deal with this and I can’t deal with you not being able to deal with it.”
There are scenes that where I can
fanwank it in read it as subtext, like this one:
This can be read simply, as Jen just having a wish fulfillment dream of marrying the man she really loves, and the horror of reality intruding. But it could also be read as her subconsciously seeing Lawrence in Jack. I think Matt Ashford’s performance in the dream helps this interpretation: he’s a tiny bit wooden — even as he says all the right things, the things a loving bridegroom would say — that lends a slightly sinister note, especially juxtaposed with Lawrence’s smoothness.
And, after they get back to Salem, Jen keeps the rape a secret from Jack. The mere fact that she doesn’t confide in him could be read, like I said above, as her not trusting him to be able to support her. In fact I was more than happy to read it in exactly this way, and there is some support for it. But then there are scenes that flatly contradict it, too, that are difficult to fanwank away. Obviously, I’ll talk about this more as we get to those scenes. Overall, though, I think the show chickened out a little. I think they loved the idea of Jack doubting himself, but they pulled their punches when it came to Jennifer doubting him.