The serial nature of television in particular means many shows suffer from a kind of assault amnesia when it’s no longer convenient for a character who once raped or attempted rape to be seen as a villain. On Gossip Girl, a show that permeated the culture for late-’00s teens like few others, predatory behavior functions as a black mark on a character’s past that’s simply erased when the series wants to change his arc. The trust-fund playboy Chuck Bass rings in the show by trying to force himself on two girls in the very first episode—Serena, and Jenny, a freshman girl. Within episodes, the incidents seem to have faded from the show’s memory. Chuck morphs from an antagonist into a romantic lead.
Well, sort of. Chuck’s behavior over the course of his fan-favorite romance with Blair Waldorf often tipped over from sexy into coercive, or downright emotionally abusive. In Season 1, after the show’s titular blog reveals that Blair slept with both Chuck and another boy, she turns to Chuck for comfort. He responds thusly:
You held a certain fascination when you were beautiful, delicate, and untouched. But now you’re like one of the Arabians my father used to own: rode hard and put away wet. I don’t want you anymore and I can’t see why anyone else would.
That moment isn’t played for romance, but neither is it much of an impediment to the unfolding of their love story. By the end of the season, Chuck is wooing Blair by alluding to her in a toast at his father’s wedding. “In the face of true love you don’t just give up, even if the object of your affection is begging you to,” he says, staring at her. The series ends with Chuck and Blair’s wedding.
Though rape is frequently used as a device to add drama, shows often don’t deal with the fallout for a relationship realistically, or at all. On Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another fan-favorite character, the vampire Spike, tries to rape Buffy in an attempt to force her to admit she loves him. “I’m going to make you feel it,” he says. As the series continues, Spike’s character remains beloved: He earns a soul (literally—as a vampire he didn’t have one before) and resumes an emotionally intimate, if not clearly sexual, relationship with Buffy.
Even more pervasive than the redeemed rapist is the romantic hero whose efforts at seduction look more like harassment. In the Twilight series, the brooding vampire Edward Cullen not only breaks into his love interest Bella’s house in the first book to watch her sleep, but later on, in the third book, he also disassembles her car engine to keep her from leaving her house. But readers are supposed to see it as a protective gesture: He did it because he loves her, because he wants her to be safe.
Sometimes badgering is packaged as confident flirtation. The love story of Meredith Grey and Derek—Doctor “McDreamy” himself—on the medical drama Grey’s Anatomy begins with workplace harassment. “I’ve been wondering to myself,” Meredith says in an early episode, “why are you so hell-bent on getting me to go out with you? You know you’re my boss. You know it’s against the rules. You know I keep saying no.” McDreamy responds, “Well, it’s fun isn’t it?” (The two go on to marry and have a family together.)