‘Hannibal’ showrunner discusses rape on TV, sort of defends ‘Game of Thrones’

Trigger warning for this story

This ^^ is Bryan Fuller, the showrunner, writer and executive producer for Hannibal, the critically acclaimed (but not crazy-popular) NBC show based on the books of Thomas Harris (Harris created Hannibal Lector, Will Graham, etc). Fuller is said to be a good guy doing good work on a well-done network show (all of which are rarities these days). As it turns out, Fuller also has some pretty strong opinions about portrayals of rape and sexual assault in the medium of television. Fuller sat down with Entertainment Weekly to give a preview of Hannibal’s Season 3, and he ended up discussing why his show wouldn’t be portraying a certain fictional character’s most depraved acts (the rape of nearly dead or completely dead women). Fuller also ended up discussing the rape of Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. You can read the full EW piece here, and here are the relevant comments (some SPOILERS for Game of Thrones).

Why he’s bothered by the portrayal of rape on other TV shows: “There are frequent examples of exploiting rape as low-hanging fruit to have a canvas of upset for the audience. The reason the rape well is so frequently used is because it’s a horrible thing that is real and that it happens. But because it’s so overexploited, it becomes callous. That’s something I can’t derive entertainment from as an audience member – and I’m the first person in the audience for Hannibal. My role, as a showrunner, is to want to watch the show we’re creating. And if something feels exploitative or unnecessary, I’ll try to avoid it.

Throws some shade on crime procedurals: “A character gets raped” is a very easy story to pitch for a drama. And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation— it’s an incredibly personal and intimate betrayal of something that should be so positive and healthy. And it’s frequently so thinly explored because you don’t have the real estate in 42 minutes to dig deep into what it is to be a victim of rape. It appears over and over again in crime procedurals without upping the ante and without exploring everything that happens. All of the structural elements of how we tell stories on crime procedurals narrow the bandwidth for the efficacy of exploring what it is to go through that experience. And I’m saying this as somebody who can derive immense entertainment from cannibalism – there’s an irony to cannibalism that I find horrific and amusing. I can totally get behind cannibalism and have fun with it. But rape? Not so much.

The rape of Sansa Stark: “I thought it was handled tastefully, all things considered. You could have done that scene on broadcast. With Thrones, you’re telling a story based on a time where those sort of violations were common. And women did not have the stance in that world to effectively resist. And with Sansa Stark, and that particular attack, we know Ramsay Bolton as someone who is a horrible violator of all things human—what he did to Theon Greyjoy is part and parcel of his cruelty. So it felt organic to the world—not only what happened to Sansa, but Gilly. It feels like we’re in the Wild Wild West, and that’s part of how they’re choosing to explore the story. I see why they’ve made the choices they have in the stories they’ve told, so I can’t criticize them for using that tool.

Will Sansa overcome something? “In the case of Sansa Stark, it feels like they are building toward something for this woman to overcome, and some horrible lessons that she has to learn about the patriarchy that surrounds her—such as Littlefinger knowing what could happen to her and knowing it might force her into taking more drastic vengeance [against the Boltons] that could benefit him. If I was the showrunner of Game of Thrones would I make those choices? I have no idea. But in terms of me coming into a crime procedural story on Hannibal and seeing the things I don’t like about other crime procedurals, it’s easier for me to say I don’t want that aspect in the one I’m doing.

[From EW]

The points he makes about crime procedurals exploiting rape storylines are very interesting – I felt something similar when I decided to stop watching Law & Order: SVU. I watched that show for years and I genuinely enjoyed the stories for a while, but after a time, I started to go numb as a viewer. There was too little focus on telling the victim’s stories and yes, many of the “ripped from the headlines” stories felt extra exploitative. (Plus, I tapped out when they brought in Christine Lahti as The Drunk ADA for a character arc, then Sharon Stone who was AWFUL.)

As for Game of Thrones… as I’ve said, I have a wait-and-see approach with Sansa’s storyline. What’s happened to her thus far feels authentic within the GoT world, although CB reminded me that Jamie Lannister raping Cersei by the body of their dead son just felt… wrong. Inauthentic to the story, wrong for those two characters and unnecessarily exploitative generally speaking.


sansa GOT

Photos courtesy of Getty, NBC/Hannibal, HBO/Game of Thrones and WENN.

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12 Responses to “‘Hannibal’ showrunner discusses rape on TV, sort of defends ‘Game of Thrones’”

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  1. GPSB says:

    FYI, Christine Lahti was the Drunk ADA who was later murdered.

  2. Dorothy#1 says:

    I don’t watch any crime shows. They are too depressing life is depressing enough. When i watch tv i want to be entertained.
    That being said i do watch GoT and while i was horrified for Sansa i thought they did the rape really well. There was not the gratutious nudity ive come to expect on that show. We were shown the rapes horror by the emotional Theon. It was a charged scene and I cried.

  3. Lori says:

    I can’t disagree with anything he said.

  4. Cherry says:

    I LOVE Hannibal. Can’t wait for the third season to start.

  5. Sixer says:

    I think he seems to be giving it some properly grown-up thought, is prepared to make his argument and also to hear the arguments of others, and has a thought-through ethical groundwork on which he bases his artistic output, including for controversial topics.

    That means he’s ok in my book, even if he were ever to wind up making decisions I don’t like/disagree with. If everyone in TV applied the same type of joined up thinking, instead of chasing the shock dollar and the like, we’d have a better environment for creators and consumers alike.

  6. the blonde one says:

    I was actually quite worried when I heard that a show was being made based on the series with Hannibal that it would be a sort of stepping off point to meet the lowest common denominator of ‘horror’ ie: made for tv torture porn heavy on the rape which is very different than the tone of the books. When they opted to not go that way the sense of relief I felt was palpable. Yes, I understand everything is pretty gruesome on the show but visually, they try (and succeed) in making it beautiful, artful etc. I wouldn’t be able to watch it in the same way if I were constantly thinking ‘o, here’s the obligatory rape scene filmed in mock horror but really kind of borderline sexy to fulfill the male gaze portion of the audience’.

  7. Tig says:

    Never watching either show, but found his interview responses responsible and well-expressed. Wish this same level of analysis was evident at TLC leadership.

  8. Maya says:

    Since we are discussing rape – please put a thread up about the fact that the hero in Outlander got brutally raped by the male villain.

    Male rape victims are rarely given the support they need.

  9. Kerfuffles says:

    OMG–Lahti and Stone were AWFUL on SVU. The writing for those storylines was farsical. I think Lahti was mostly a victim of bad writing, but Stone’s acting in her episodes was hilariously bad. I think L&O SVU has gotten better since the nadir of those episodes. I’m curious if the show just had a really bad EP during the Lahti/Stone debacle. TURRIBLE.

    • GPSB says:

      Agreed. I love Lahti and wish the writers had done more than set her up as a villain against can-do-no-wrong Oliviot. That show could have a used a strong charater to stand up to their nonsense, and instead we were supposed to root against her. Oh and the scene with the in-court Breathalyzer was hilariously awful.

      Sharon Stone’s episodes, though, were simply unwatchable.