ABC and the Story Arc of Coercive Sex

Amanda, David, and baby Trevor

ABC has nearly always been in the lead with its soap operas’ daring use of current events. Though it was CBS that actually seems to allow folks of color to be on their soap operas, ABC dealt with the first sexual assault (General Hospital, One Life to Live) on a soap opera, HIV/AIDs (General Hospital), and incest and abuse (One Life to Live).

Recently in a story line about paternity on ABC’s All My Children, David Howard has trapped Amanda into producing him another heir, once he discovers that Amanda and Jake kept his first baby from him. David Howard threatens Amanda and Jake (who are married) with a custody battle for Amanda’s baby, Trevor. David demands that Amanda and Trevor live with him and that Amanda produce a baby with him. Naturally, Amanda agrees, and Jake goes along with it.

Amanda leaves her home with Jake and moves in with her baby Trevor into David’s home. Once a month she does in vitro treatments so that she can get pregnant. Month after month the treatments are unsuccessful. Then on the way to their in vitro clinic appointment, located conveniently in the middle of nowhere and anywhere but here, David runs out of gas. Amanda panics, David suggests they make the baby the old-fashioned way. At first Amanda scoffs, but finally she gives in.

Wracked by guilt, Amanda begins to show stressors: she can’t stand to be around David, doesn’t want him to touch her, is skittish and fearful. Based on his wife’s behavior, Jake assumes that David raped his wife, and attacks him. Amanda denies that David sexually assaulted her, repeatedly and vehemently, and eventually confesses to Jake that she had consensual sex with David – afraid that if she didn’t she’d have to wait another month to try in vitro.

ABC’s problematic and sexist approach and resolutions to sexual assault have been well established. On ABC’s General Hospital, Luke rapes Laura, only to have the story arc have her forgive him, fall in love with him, and marry him – though for the rest of her life she wrestles with disturbing bouts with mental illness and depression. The two were fan favorites.

On One Life to Live, Marty Saybrook was brutally sexually assaulted by several fraternity brothers, led by Todd Manning. When Saybrook’s character returns to the show, her son falls in love with Todd’s daughter (whom he gets pregnant and they have a baby, Hope, making Marty and Todd grandparents of the same child). Todd and Marty are reunited, when in an accident Marty looses her memory – Todd moves in and convinces Marty they were in love and moves forward plans for them to run away together. Just in time, Marty recovers her memory.

Now with the Amanda, David, Jake story arc, All My Children has yet again introduced the figure of sexual assault; this time the area seems so shady, the writing so ambivalent, that it is even more dangerous and frightening to witness. While Amanda insists she had consensual sex with David, what she doesn’t know, is that David intentionally ran out of gas, that he has been consistently trying to undermine her marriage, and his ultimate goal is to destroy said marriage.

It was not an accident that they were stranded. Moreover, it is David who first recommends that they try to “make the baby the old-fashioned way.” What’s more, it is David’s coercive and demand for the demeaning family arrangement, which he secures through threats, that has Amanda under his control.

So while it may be that David did not sexually assault Amanda in the way that media encourages us to see and understand sexually assault, I think it is undoubtedly the case that Amanda having sex with David was coerced. David is, after all, described and billed by the show as “a master manipulator.” It seems to follow that he manipulated Amanda into a situation where she would agree, when coerced and feeling trapped, into having sex.

In “Everyday Life, ” Michelle Mattlemart points out that soap operas often follow a pattern that affirms normativity. She says

the good and virtuous  are rewarded. Love sanctioned by the legitimate union of marriage is better than passion, which is always punished by fate. The female characters ennoble values of purity and virginity for girls, and often become heroic matyrs to men who in fact get away with abusing their masculine authority and class power; but, after putting her through great suffering and temptation, they confirm the happiness of the girl from a modest background by offering her a ring and married life.

Amanda is a “recovering” bad girl, who only recently has been renovated into a mother, a wife, and a womyn “worthy” of a central role in the diegetic world of Pine Valley. Her transformation from into a mother and wife, allowing Amanda’s greatest endeavor to be what Tania Modleski calls womyn’s “highest goal [in soap operas] is to see their families united and happy, while consoling them for their inability to bring about familial harmony.

In ‘The Search for Tomorrow in Today’s Soap Opera’s,” Modleski also explains that “anxiety about conception is transferred to the male…the male suffers the typically feminine anxiety over the threatened absence of his children.” It is David’s fear of paternity, anxiety, and abuse of his power and class status that leads to his coercion of Amanda. I wonder how ABC can possibly resolve this in a way that is not completely disturbing and inappropriate.

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