By Patrick Erwin
For all its onscreen and offscreen turmoil, Days of Our Lives seems to have a few stories working for it right now. One of them is Chelsea and Stephanie and the sorority girls dealing with the aftermath of the campus rapist, Ford, who raped Stephanie and Cordy and threatened Chelsea. Initially, the story didn’t seem too promising. The setup of the story was rushed (what story isn’t, nowadays?) and the rapist, Ford, came off as a one-dimensional buffoon.
But the story has really come together and gained momentum, and it’s been a bonus for Days. The show now has a coherent younger set. We’ve gotten to see a more human, well rounded Chelsea help her friends, and Stephanie, formerly a blank slate, has been given some definition. Rather than coming off as silly reality-show hotties, the sorority girls have built strong bonds with each other, as they pull together to protect each other. Max (who’s dating Stephanie) and Nick (who’s dating Chelsea) have also strengthened their bonds with their girlfriends, as the girls have begun to trust the boys with the details of Stephanie and Cordy’s rapes and the aftermath (Ford is dead and the girls, especially Chelsea, are involved in hiding the body).
But perhaps most importantly, Days has scripted a story in which rape is still rape — and where no still means no. This hasn’t always been the case over the last few years; many shows have told stories involving rape where the viewer is sent a message that is, at best, confusing (maybe it’s rape, maybe it isn’t) and at worst, is completely misogynistic (the victim wanted it).
Adding shades of gray to a story that seems so black and white is probably irresistible to any writer. And some of the early attempts to explore these areas are among the best. In particular, veteran soap writers Bridget and Jerome Dobson crafted a psychologically taut and compelling story that played out on Guiding Light in 1979.
That story involving scoundrel Roger Thorpe and his rape of wife Holly was so powerful that when both characters were back on GL in the early 1990s, the hurt and pain between them was still palpable on screen. It was clear to see that Holly had always been deeply conflicted when it came to Roger — fearful of his lack of control, but drawn to his capacity for passion and love.
In 2002, Y&R tried a similar story featuring two white-bread characters: Paul Williams and his then-estranged wife, Christine. Both had been in heroic, “white hat” leading roles on the show – the audience had, at one time or another, rooted for both characters. So it was a surprise when scenes appeared to show Paul forcing himself on Christine. It was unclear what had really happened — was it just rough sex? Had Paul really raped Christine? Y&R showed both perspectives, but never made it crystal clear what happened.
On Guiding Light: Maureen Garrett’s Holly, the late Michael Zaslow’s Roger
But perhaps the granddaddy of all the current rape-related stories is the story that defines love on daytime for many — the tale of Luke and Laura on General Hospital. Those characters may well have love that transcends time (as well as both actors being on the canvas at the same time), but that doesn’t take away from the fact that Luke forced himself on Laura at the Campus Disco in October of 1979. Gloria Monty, GH‘s then-executive producer, was a genius and the legendary tough old broad that had saved GH from cancellation the year before. Part of what boosted ratings at GH was Laura’s torment at being in love with two men – Scott Baldwin and Luke, then a low-level mobster. The rape was the culmination of a push and pull for months between Luke, a damaged soul, and Laura, who had grown to love him. It was messy yet unforgettable – to this day, every time I hear the song that played in the background (Herb Alpert’s “Rise”), I think of that scene.
Millions of viewers saw Laura fall in love with her rapist; she would marry him three years later. The show eventually began to reposition the story as a “seduction.” The controversy fueled the momentum of the story as well as the ratings. Our own dear Marlena was toiling at Afternoon TV magazine during the L&L years and says the mailbags were always full of passionate mail about this story.
Of course, these stories happened in the 1970s and 1980s, and although television was somewhat progressive at the time, our awareness about and sensitivity towards rape and its aftermath was not as advanced as it is now. And it seems like perhaps GH understood this; in 1998, the show acknowledged this event in a frontburner storyline. Both Luke and Laura were forced to deal with the event when Lucky, their beloved son, learned about the rape. It devestated Lucky and changed his entire perspective about his parents. In powerful scenes, Luke acknowledged his actions — and Laura acknowledged the pain that the attack had caused her.
But daytime has, on many levels, hurtled backward in terms of sensitivity and logic. And many of the storylines are shocking in their insensitivity and lack of logic. Last year, Days told a story in which EJ DiMera blackmailed Sami Brady into sex, forcing her to do so to gain his help in saving the life of Sami’s then-boyfriend Lucas. It would have been one thing if the story had concluded there, or launched a journey for EJ in which he became more of a villain. But the show is pursuing a love triangle between EJ, Sami, and Lucas, and has made clear that Sami actually has feelings for her former attacker.
An even more frightening story was Guiding Light‘s revelation in late 2006 that not only did Jeffrey know Olivia before their meeting in Springfield, but that he had what appeared to be nonconsensual sex with her at a party when she was a naive, easily manipulated underage girl. The story was a minus on many levels — it made Olivia look like a fool when she was chasing after her rapist. As for Jeffrey, it was the second time his character had been involved in a non-consensual act (he slept with Cassie when she believed he was Richard). The main point of the plot seemed to be an effort to join these islanded characters together and make them a family, but Jeffrey and Olivia’s relationship (which broke up the charming Buzz/Olivia coupling) is now kaput, and Ava still isn’t really clicking with either of her parents (or the audience), so Jeffrey, who was never exactly Mister Rogers to begin with, has been rendered even more unlikable. This is a problem for GL, because the pairing of Jeffrey and Reva is now taking off.
Daytime has a history of treating attacks against men as a joke. It’s happened a few times on soaps (in 2002, crazy Julia drugged Jack with Viagra and raped him on ATWT, and last year, criminal Irina forced Jax to have sex with her on GH), but rather than dealing with those incidents for what they were or how they’d affect the characters, the story arcs either made light of the attacks or swept them under the carpet. And disturbing messages emerged from those scenes, the same kind of thing we used to hear about women who reported a rape: They wanted it, or were asking for it, or just didn’t resist enough to make their lack of consent clear.
In a time when all of the shows and networks are chasing the almighty ad dollar and the young 18-to-34 demographic, writers and producers need to remember that their shows are sending out messages every day to that demographic. They may have a responsibility to entertain us, but in the midst of seeing these star-crossed couples go to the ends of the earth for each other, we also need to know that there are clear, unquestionable boundaries. And one of them is that “no” really, truly means “no”.