TV & Movies

We Have Serious Concerns About Zoe's This Is Us Storyline

Sexual violence as plot point can be super problematic

This Is Us, Zoe, Kevin Pearson, Justin Hartley, Melanie Liburd

(Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC)

We need to discuss what happened on *that* episode of This Is Us. No, we’re not talking about Kevin’s discovery about his necklace or Mandy Moore’s vocals. We’re talking about a detail that was slipped into the end of episode seven, but has raised some serious concerns for future This Is Us episodes, and particularly, the character of Zoe.

The episode titled “Sometimes” (Season 3, Episode 7) showed the similarities between Rebecca and Jack’s relationship and Zoe and Kevin’s, particularly around secrecy and their pasts. Jack refuses to tell Rebecca about his time in Vietnam, which Rebecca accepts, even though it clearly impacts Jack and their family. Wanting to avoid repeating the kind of secrecy his parents had with each other, Kevin insists Zoe open up about her past. That’s when Zoe shares that the reason she doesn’t talk about her childhood or keep in contact with her father is because he sexually abused her as a child.

This bit of backstory was only discussed at the end of the episode, so we don’t know yet how This Is Us will handle this storyline. But based on the history of how sexual assault is portrayed in TV and in movies, we’re apprehensive. To better understand this issue, FLARE spoke to Mandi Gray, a PhD student at York University and a filmmaker behind the documentary Slut or Nut: Diary of a Rape Trial, which depicts her experience trying to find justice through Ontario’s courts. As an activist, Gray has worked with directors and screenwriters who’ve asked for advice on how to depict sexual assault.

“A lot of writers have done an unfortunate job with that thus far,” she says, adding that the male-dominated industry TV and film industry often relies on tropes when depicting sexual violence. Now that This Is Us has introduced this issue as an upcoming plot point, Gray gave us some insight into ways Zoe’s story could fall into the same stereotypes, and how this type of storyline could be done right.

Violence against women to motivate a male character

In the 2009 film Law Abiding Citizen, a man’s wife is violently raped and murdered on screen. His daughter is also killed. The unnecessary horrors perpetrated against two female characters so quickly at the start of the movie is all to set up the movie’s premise—that an angry man can take revenge. This year’s Deadpool 2 had the quick offing of Wade Wilson’s girlfriend Vanessa, before the opening credits even rolled. In both of these examples, we do not see how violence impacts women. Instead, that violence is only discussed in the context of how it affects a man, and how it will move the story forward.

In fact, violence against women on TV is so common that nearly 20 years ago, comic book writer Gail Simone termed it “fridging.” Gail coined the term to bring attention to a common comic book plot where women are raped or murdered to provide a storyline for the male character.  It comes from a plot from Green Lantern #54, where the hero comes home to find his girlfriend stuffed into a refrigerator, simply to move the story along.

Leah Meyerhoff, a director, producer and screenwriter from Los Angeles says it’s frustrating to see simplistic representations of violence against women used to further a male character’s storyline.

“Women need to be the protagonists of their own stories, with complex emotional lives and complicated backstories,” says Meyerhoff, who founded Film Fatales, a collective of female writers and directors. “Audiences are tired of women and people of colour suffer on screen solely for the sake of furthering a white male character’s heroic journey.”

Meyerhoff said via email that she’s more interested in a heroine’s journey, along with a more honest exploration of sexual violence from a female point of view. “One obvious solution is for studios to hire more women to tell these stories,” she says. (Note: An anonymous female screenwriter told Variety in 2016 that sexual assault is a “go-to” for male showrunners—61% of showrunners for new shows in 2017 to 2018 were men—and it’s seen as a way to easily “flesh-out” a female character.)

On This Is Us, we’ve seen many characters have their stories pushed to the side, or used for the development of a Pearson family member. Beth was fired from her long-time company, so Randall hired her to help his political campaign, rather than helping her find what she needs. Kevin’s on-and-off girlfriend Sophie was used to simply show how Kevin’s teenage years influenced his adulthood. Kevin’s struggles with addiction drove her away, but we never saw how she felt or her own perspective. We also know that Kevin cheated on Sophie before, but we know no details or how that affected her. With these storylines in mind and considering that Zoe is a secondary character, there seems to be considerable risk that her trauma will be used to somehow motivate Kevin.

Telling Zoe’s story from her own perspective—and why that’s important

What Hollywood often gets wrong when adding a sexual violence plot line is they fail to show it from the survivor’s perspective. A glaring example of this was a Game of Thrones episode that aired in May 2015, which showed Sansa Stark’s brutal rape by her new husband. Criticism emerged because the show never handled the assault from her perspective, and the reaction was focused on other male characters.  By failing to do this, Game of Thrones misses an opportunity to show the real and compelling consequences of sexual violence.

That kind of depiction could add needed nuance to the exploration of trauma on television, and help audiences understand the lasting impact of this type of abuse. For instance, the first season of Marvel’s Jessica Jones received high praise from critics for their creation of a title character who is nuanced and complex, for reasons beyond her assault. Jessica Jones also asks questions about what real justice looks like to survivors. Even after the death of her abuser, Jones notes that this won’t magically change the impact of what he did to her.

Jessica notes that everything that happened to her doesn’t just disappear because her abuser is dead.

Gray also says The Tale, a 2018 film that tells the story of a woman who is sexually abused as a child, handles the narrative correctly because it shows the realities of that kind of abuse and how it can impact someone as an adult.

“If it’s done carefully, it can be a very powerful educational tool for folks who have experienced childhood sexual abuse,” she says. “It’s just a matter of how it’s done, and how it’s presented in a way that isn’t just a storyline that’s going to fall by the wayside. That would be my biggest concern.”

But since Zoe won’t get her own backstory episode (though Beth is set to have one in episode 313), will This Is Us have time to tell Zoe’s story?

For This Is Us to truly get Zoe’s plot line right, they need to devote time to expanding her character. We need to see how she feels from her own perspective, not from Kevin’s. TV and movies influences many people’s understanding of sexual assault, notes Gray, so it’s important it’s done correctly. “[Media] can show how people make sense of their own experiences. It really is a powerful tool.”


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