HBO Slammed For Sexual Violence Against Women in Its Shows

Critics take HBO to task for its excessive and persistent use of female rape and violence in its dramas. Asked to explain, the network seemed surprised to hear that it's an issue at all.


The critical accolades for HBO’s gripping crime drama The Night Of have been more than deserved. But the reaction has been so intensely positive that, it seems, HBO seemed unprepared for one very blatant, resonant criticism—and one that’s been lobbied against many of the network’s shows for years.

Why does HBO keep relying on sexual violence against women as major plot points for its shows, occasionally even fetishizing it?

The Night Of centers around a man, Nasir (played by Riz Ahmed), accused of the gruesome murder of New York City woman. The two had shared a night of sex and drugs. The next morning, Naz wakes up in her kitchen, goes to say goodbye, and finds her body there naked and bloodied with 22 knife wounds.

It’s an image that replays dozens of time over the course of the series.

At Sunday’s night’s HBO session at the Television Critics Association, critics brought up that The Night Of isn’t the network’s only big new series that uses sexual violence against women as a major plot point, with an image of a women’s violated body as a narrative refrain.

Just prior to Sunday’s session, critics received their first screeners of Westworld, the buzzy new western-thriller about a Wild West theme park where guests can pretend to be gunslingers alongside androids programmed to be authentic townies that premieres in October. Evan Rachel Wood plays one such android, whose bloodied, naked body is the first image of the entire series.

Two doesn’t make a trend. But counting Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, and more in HBO’s past dramas to say that there is a trend of gratuitous and pervasive and female rape and violence that isn’t balanced by male characters on these shows would be an understatement.

And so, as HBO’s new president of programming Casey Bloys took the hot seat to talk to the critics, the critics wanted to know: What the hell?

His response? A sweaty squirm, and the physical realization of that shrugging emoji.

In fact, Bloys’s response—at first a version of writing it off and then an argument that it’s part of just a general propensity for violence in HBO shows—was so dissatisfactory that it received not just one, but two follow-ups from critics clearly fed up with the trope and demanding an intelligent answer.

Linda Holmes from NPR kicked off the questioning, asking if the network is relying on sexualized violence against women as a way to create stakes and drive the narrative. Instinctively bringing up Game of Thrones, Bloys says the violence “is not just specific to women. It’s men and women. It’s kind of indiscriminate.”

When she followed up, Bloys reiterated that he didn’t think the violence is specific to women. “Plenty of men are killed as well,” he said, setting off a #TCA16 firestorm on Twitter.

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Writer Melanie McFarland then asked if that means that we’ll be seeing more of the same kind of violence, specifically rape, with male characters, Bloys joked, “We’re going to kill everybody!”

Eric Deggans at NPR took the final stab at the question, explicating the difference between violence against women and generalized violence, that there is a difference between what happens to Game of Thrones—a dismemberment, per se—and rape against women, which is a particular kind of violence that is about oppressing women.

“The violence is pretty extreme on all fronts,” he said, a fair PR-ing of a tough question but missing the point: that there’s a boiling point rising in the frustration over what has, with its gender imbalance and frequency, become a misogynistic trope on TV. And, if there isn’t, that perhaps its uniquely on television could be contributing to a desensitizing over it.

But Bloys did concede, “I take your point—so far there aren’t any male rapes.” He went on: “But the violence is spread equally.” Which, again, this particular kind of violence is not. When Deggans pressed back, Bloys insinuated that, in Westworld, particularly, the violence is slightly different because it’s against an android-like human and not an actual human—oy—but did end with a mea culpa.

“To your larger point of is it something we think about, yeah,” he said. “I think the criticism is valid, you know. So I think it’s something that people take into account.”

In defense of Bloys, who found himself subject to the firing squad, he was clearly not prepared or expecting the questions. You could watch him realize as he was speaking that he very much did not have a good answer for it. Still, as The Hollywood Reporter’s Daniel Fienberg noted, “The correct response to questions about violence against women you haven’t considered is NOT jokes.”

The way that we cover it in the news, treat victims and survivors as a society, and, yes, portray it with alarming frequency on television, there is, to use Vanity Fair's Joanna Robinson’s characterization, “an epidemic of dehumanizing victims of sexual violence.”

On Westworld, Evan Rachel Wood plays a robot. Excusing the disturbing storyline because of its sci-fi remove from so-called real life—it's not the same, she's a robot—is an irresponsible way to address the epidemic. For what it’s worth, by the way, it’s as horrifying to witness and explore the ramification of rape on a human-like android played by Evan Rachel Wood as it would if the actress was playing an actual human.

It is worth noting, as Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff did on Twitter, that Westworld and The Night Of were conceived of and produced years apart. It’s the fact that they are premiering so close together that heightens the comparisons and could make it perceived that a cognizant decision.

Nonetheless, it's a systemic issue with not just HBO programming, but prestige cable programming in general—hell, broadcast drama is as bad if not worse, but TV standards keeps the imagery from being as graphic. And you would think that a network would have a sense of a growing climate of frustration surrounding it and have a better answer prepared.

It’s fitting, then, that when a few hours later, the cast and creative team of Westworld walked on stage to face the critics, producer Lisa Joy did have a better answer prepared.

Asked point blank to address the controversy that had been brewing for all of about 180 minutes, Joy addressed it in a thoughtful, meticulous manner.

Because of the debate and controversy the conversation from the session with Bloys stirred, we thought it fair to print her response in full:

“That’s a great question. It was definitely something that was heavily discussed and heavily considered as we worked on those scenes. Westworld is an examination of human nature. The best parts of human nature—you know, we explore paternal love, romantic love, and finding one’s self. But also the basest part of human nature. And that includes violence. That includes sexual violence. Violence and sexual violence have sadly been a fact of human history since the beginning of human history. There’s something about us, thankfully not the majority of us, but there are people who engage in violence. It continues to this day. So when we were tackling a project about a park in which the premise is you can come there and do whatever you want, whatever desire you have, with impunity, without consequence, it seemed like it was an issue that we had to address. Now, when addressing it, there’s a lot of thinking that goes into it. Sexual violence, not only for me but for everybody on our team is an issue we take very, very seriously. It’s extraordinarily disturbing and horrifying. In this portrayal we really endeavored for it to not be about the fetishization of those acts. It is about exploring the crime and establishing the crime. And the torment of the characters within the story. And exploring the stories hopefully with dignity and depth.”

Is that a perfect answer? Not by any means. As Holmes, who kicked off the whole discussion noted on Twitter, it’s a relatively pat answer used to give some sort of noble justification that absolves the creators from being complicit in a icky problem or trend. “Nobody says, ‘We use rape in an insensitive way,’” Holmes tweeted.

Plus, it’s problematic to take an issue like this and simply go show by show and ask for justification. As the reaction in the room suggests, this isn’t a case-by-case issue. It’s an industry-wide problem. The question now is: Can it be solved?