Our world is an ugly place, and rape is a terrible part of our gruesome world. Perhaps, someday, people will move beyond this particular page in humanity’s book of horrors. Until then, fiction facilitates a place for collective reflection on this social ill, even if people disagree on the value of said exercise. As I do see value in talking about fictional depictions of rape, let’s talk about The Shield.
Early in the series’ third season, Benito Martinez’s character, Captain David Aceveda, was raped. Aceveda was jumped at a crime scene, lost control of his gun, and was told to suck his rapists’ cock or else he’d catch a bullet to the head. Since the scene was not depicted in a way that cared about making the audience feel comfortable, I chose my language in the previous sentence quite intentionally.
I was in my mid-twenties when I saw this particular episode. It would be an understatement to say the scene shocked the hell out of me. What I didn’t fully appreciate – at the time there wasn’t the same sort of ongoing discussion around rape in popular culture that exists today – is how brilliantly the series managed the fallout of Aceveda’s rape.
Though a person could argue that The Shield used rape to show the “grit” of life in south central Los Angeles, this assault was no mere one-off for the sake of set dressing. The lasting effects of the rape inform Aceveda’s actions and relationships for at least two seasons. In fact, it would be easy to make a case for this single act as Aceveda’s defining moment in the series. So even though the writing and camera work embraced the brutality of the act, both were mindful to show how deeply the series hurt one of its leading characters.
After failing to manage his post-rape life on his own, Aceveda’s pleas for help are met with victim blaming. He confides in two people about his rape, his (male) cousin and his wife. Both of them have the same reaction, “How could you let this happen?” In their eyes, Aceveda didn’t do enough to prevent the rape from happening. Despite having a gun to his head, he should have somehow found the wherewithal to resist…a bullet. Both interchanges come to a head with Aceveda’s near tearful admission that he “let” it happen because he wanted to live.
I have never been raped. The balance of probabilities suggest I will never be raped. I do, however, know fear. I also suspect most other people who haven’t been raped still know something about being afraid. The razor sharp narrative follow-up to Aceveda’s rape capitalizes on the commonality of fear. It uses this most primal emotion as its inroad to understanding how a rape stays with a person. The salient issue in reflecting on Aceveda’s situation is less about the moment of being raped, and more about living with the fear after the fact. Say nothing for the memories of how fear made Aceveda choose between death or personal violation.
This character arc is also a clear condemnation of society’s insistence on pinning blame for a rape on the victim. Even though David Aceveda walks the line between scheming shit-weasel and stock asshole, as a character, human decency demands the audience feel some level of sympathy for him in the wake of his assault. When other characters rebuke Aceveda for his weakness, The Shield demonstrates the monstrous banality of victim shaming. The audience demands justice and compassion for Aceveda, despite his faults. Collectively, we sharpen our fangs for those who would tell him that his desire to do anything to survive made him a lesser quality of person.
David Aceveda’s rape, “gritty” as it may have been, was very much in dialogue with the series. In turn, the series was in dialogue with stereotypes of masculinity, male power, and the inability of men to be anything less than ALPHA PLUS PLUS in police work – maybe even in society at large. Rape narratives with the nuance and complexity of this example are few and far between. However, those that do exist demonstrate how this type of upsetting story can, ultimately, become something to make an audience more understanding of the seemingly perpetual influence rape has over a victim’s life.