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Sunday Reflections: On Watching TV as a Woman

Please note, this post will discuss sexual assault and violence. It will also share spoilers for The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix and The Maze Runner movie

** TRIGGER WARNINGS: SEXUAL ASSAULT**

This past few weeks, the girls and I were watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. For those of you who may not know about this series, it’s based on a book and it is set in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s about a young orphan girl who turns out to be a chess prodigy. It’s a remarkably good series in a lot of ways. I recommend it. But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Early in the series, the main character, Beth Harmon, is sent to live in an orphanage. At one point she is asked to go to a basement to clean the erasers – which those of us old enough to remember will recall means hitting them together to expel the chalk dust. In the basement there sits a man playing a game of chess.

I almost stopped watching the series in this moment because my anxiety went off the chart because I knew, this man was going to sexually assault this little girl. And in a lot of movies or tv shows, and sadly in a lot of real life, that is 100% what would have happened. Thankfully, that is not what happens here. In fact after several visits to the basement, in which this man never assaults her, he finally relents and teaches her to play chess. He soon realizes that she is gifted and he becomes her champion.

I’ve thought a lot in the last few weeks about the anxiety I felt while watching this show. It is not the first time I have felt it.

When I watched the movie The Maze Runner, based on the books by James Dashner (and I had not read the books before watching the movie), I had a similar experience. The Mr. and I went to watch this movie and I remember distinctly the moment the lone female character is introduced to an environment where there are nothing but boys and immediately wanting to leave. I looked at my husband and said, “we have to go, they’re going to rape her.” I was wrong, but we talked a lot after this movie about what it is like as a woman to watch a movie like this. Even my husband, an arguably great man, admitted that he sadly felt that wasn’t realistic because in that scenario with those numbers, someone would have eventually assaulted her.

I’ve thought a lot about what it means to be a woman engaging with various forms of media, because it’s complicated.

Sexual assault, sexual harassment and rape are often used too casually for a lot of media. It sometimes feels like a lot of mystery and crime shows center this type of crime. And a lot of books, tv and movies use this as a female back story. As if the only way you can give a girl a backstory is to have her have been traumatized sexually. And I’ll be honest, I often resent it.

The flip side is that the reality is that far too many of us have indeed been somehow been traumatized sexually. Depending on what statistics you use, that number can be as high as every 1 in 4 of us. That’s 25% of the female population. And that doesn’t take into account things like being non-traditionally gendered, non binary, or transgender. It also doesn’t take into account things like casual catcalling, sexual harassment at work, etc. When we really start talking to our friends I find that I am hard pressed to find a female friend who hasn’t experienced some type of unwanted sexual attention, harassment or violence.

It’s true, as I have shared here, that I am a survivor of sexual assault. So I am sure that this influences the way that I perceive these situations when I sit down to watch television or a movie. But it’s also true that there are a whole lot of us out there who have experienced the same. When someone recently asked me about The Queen’s Gambit one of the things that I mentioned was how many times I thought the main character was going to be assaulted and then she wasn’t, and several other women in the replies said that they had felt the same and were pleasantly surprised.

So that’s where we are at in 2020. You have entire generations of women who experience this type of anxiety while watching a television show and being pleasantly surprised because for once, the young girl who is the main character wasn’t sexually assaulted. That’s what generations of unchecked and unpunished sexual assault have done to us. And quite frankly, I feel like it’s a pretty sad commentary about the state of our world and our media.

Comments

  1. Olivia Tompkins says:

    I absolutely am with you on The Queen’s Gambit moment. I didn’t pause to reflect on how that reaction is part of a larger conversation though, until this post. It is something I do think about when recommending books to my younger readers; as more and more girls and women share their stores, YA lit is reflecting that reality and I find it hard to suggest books that I know deal with that. But at the same time – they’re going to get that experience from any number of tv shows or movies, and I need to trust them to know what they can handle. I try not to coddle my younger kids but at the same time, I don’t want them to grow up terrified of any new media.

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      I am glad that younger books are dealing with this topic, because it was very absent for a lot of my career and I think it is definitely something that some survivors will want and need to help them process their experience and know they are not alone. But I also get wanting to have ways to help the ones who need to to avoid the topic, which is why I think a lot of people push for content warnings. I’m glad to hear though how much you care for your kids, they definitely need adults like you in their life.

  2. Katie Luder says:

    I had the same thoughts watching Queens Gambit! I did see somewhere that the book it was based on did have a plot line with a sexual assult, but I have been to scared/hesitant to look it up to confirm. If that is the case, I am even more impressed by the show’s decision to not take it that way, because it would be easy to do so.

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says:

      Katie, I haven’t read the book so I appreciate you sharing that information. Thank you so much for coming and reading this post and leaving a comment to let me know that I wasn’t alone!

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