Spoiler Alert: I’ll be discussing a major plot point from House of Cards season 2 in this piece. If you’ve seen episode 2 of season 2 or beyond (or if you just don’t care about spoilers) then you’re good…
Watching season 2 of House of Cards, I realized that I (and plenty other men) have one thing in common with the show’s main protagonist, Frank Underwood, that I really wish we didn’t… I too was told by someone I love that they had been raped and just like Frank, my initial response wasn’t that great or helpful. But I was 17 the first time it happened and thankfully, I’ve learned a lot since then about how to be a better supporter and ally.
This realization stemmed from one crucial scene in episode 2 of House of Cards‘ second season. In the scene, the newly appointed vice-president of the United States, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire (Robin Wright) are at a dinner/ceremony in which Frank will be awarding medals to a couple of Marine generals. We soon discover that one of the generals, General Dalton McGinnis, had raped Claire back when she was a college freshman. Before we get to this revelation however, we first watch the remorseless McGinnis introduce himself to VP Underwood and joke that he and Claire “dated for about 5 minutes” in college. This causes Claire to freak out a bit and retreat to a nearby bathroom to collect herself. Frank, unaware of his wife’s connection to General McGinnis and therefore the subtext of his comment, sees Claire in distress and follows her to the bathroom. When Claire finally tells Frank that McGinnis was the man who raped her all those years ago, Frank reacts in a way that was all to familiar to not only me, but I’m guessing many men who’ve been told about a loved one’s rape… He flips out, yells, stomps around in circles, expresses his desire to kill the guy and breaks things. Meanwhile, Claire is forced to try and calm her husband down while begging him not to make a scene.
If you’re familiar with the show then you know the Underwoods are pretty ruthless and power hungry. They’ve both done some pretty disturbing things in the pursuit of their goals. It makes for great TV, but I can’t say I’ve ever felt a personal connection to any of their actions. But watching Frank react to Claire’s revelation was different somehow. It was the only moment in the show thus far where I fully grasped what Frank was thinking and feeling on an emotional level. It was the only moment in which I saw a little bit of myself in him.
When my close friend told me at age 17 what she had endured, I was angry, hurt and confused. A number of unanswerable questions went through my mind like; how could this happen to someone so sweet and gentle? To someone that I cared about so much?
I forgot that she was telling me about the assault because she needed my support, not because she wanted to watch her friend fume with anger
I felt powerless and in the most stereotypically male way possible I blamed myself for not being around to “protect her.” The mistake I made was focusing on these feelings and letting my hurt and anger consume me, instead of focusing on my friend and offering the support she needed. I forgot that she was telling me about the assault because she needed my support, not because she wanted to watch her friend fume with anger and make impotent vows to “kill whoever did this.” Furthermore, I made just about every mistake that I now teach people not to do in my trainings; I asked too many questions, fished for too many details and in my attempt to wrap my brain around things I ended up engaging in a bit of victim blaming, asking questions like; “what were you doing there? Why were you doing that?” etc. Unlike Frank, I didn’t yell or break things. But unlike me he didn’t victim blame and ask unnecessarily probing questions. Either way, my reaction was just as unhelpful to my friend as Frank’s was to his wife.
I was so consumed with my own emotions that it took me a while to fully grasp what my friend needed from me. Frank, who has the benefit of being a fictional character, does manage to eventually hear his wife’s pleas, collect himself and complete the medal-pinning ceremony. But that just got him through the initial shock. I would argue that it wasn’t until much later that Frank fully grasps what Claire needed from him. That happens when the ceremony is long done and the Underwoods are back at home. Laying in bed, unable to look at her husband, Clair gives a pretty powerful monologue that not only explains her experience that night and the resulting emotional trauma, but also manages to lay out what she needs from her husband going forward (trigger warning, there are some graphic details):
You think I don’t want to smash things? I know what that anger is more than you can imagine… When he was on top of me … When he was on top of me, I pressed my hand. With everything I could I pressed it into his face. I pressed it so hard I broke his nose. That didn’t stop him. He shoved the sheets in my mouth. I could barely breathe. Every time I think of her pinned down like that, I strangle her, Francis. So she doesn’t strangle me. I have to. We have to. The alternative is – it’s unlivable.
To be clear, Claire’s words are specific to the needs of her character. They certainly don’t reflect the response of every rape survivor. Because we’re talking about a piece of fiction here, what’s important for this discussion isn’t what she says exactly, but rather the fact that she’s telling her husband what she needs from him. And as we see in later episodes, he listened.
If I could do it all over again I would check my emotions and figure out a more healthy and appropriate way to express them. I would focus on my friend’s emotions and needs in that moment and maybe even ask her what she needs from me (and I like to imagine Frank, who clearly loves his wife would do the same). I can’t take back my poor reaction all those years ago, but with maturity and training, I was able to prepare myself to react better to future disclosures. I learned more appropriate and helpful ways to respond, which is good because I’ve heard plenty more disclosures since.
If I could to do it all over again I would focus on my friend’s emotions and needs
Look, we’re all human and we have feelings, there’s no getting around that. But sometimes we have to manage our emotions in order to support someone else in need. I’m not saying that I (or fictional character Frank) didn’t have the right to get mad, we just should have been more thoughtful with the timing and method of expressing that anger. In these difficult moments, the last thing an assault survivor needs is more violence or threats of more violence and the inability to manage what’s going on around them (yet again). I’m also well aware that inappropriate responses aren’t an exclusively male issue. But because men are generally taught to respond to every difficult emotional situation with anger and violence, learning how to respond in these situations is a big concern for us.
So what can you do to be a good supporter and ally if a friend (of any gender) discloses a rape to you? Here’s a few steps that should prove useful (with thanks to my colleague Kelley Adams who wrote the document this list is based on):
- Listen (give your full attention).
- Validate and Believe (let them know that however they may be feeling is okay).
- Be Sensitive (regardless of how long ago the assault happened, communicate that you recognize the seriousness of the event and the impact it may have had).
- Don’t dig for details (it is not appropriate to ask the survivor what they were doing or what they did to “cause” the assault).
- Don’t be afraid to ask how you can be helpful or what the person needs.
- Empower (share any local resources your aware of. If you don’t know any, RAINN is a national organization that can be a good place to start: www.rainn.org or 1-800-656-HOPE).