Netflix’s Grand Army: A Grand Failure of Sexual Assault Representation
How do you ensure your Gen Z melodrama receives the coveted description of being “realistic”?
One Cup of Sexual Misconduct. Two Teaspoons of Woke Psychobabble. Add social-media-runs-and-ruins-our-lives to taste. Enjoy?
And if you want your aesthetic to achieve party-theme status…
make sure to deck out all high school attendees in Coachella-level glam. Maybe throw in a political event that causes everyone extreme stress. Whatever you do, just make sure their lives are just really, really hard.
On October 16 Netflix released the series Grand Army, which chronicles the lives of teens at a public high school in Brooklyn. Within a week, it jumped to the Top 5 most-streamed shows on the platform, critics heralding the gritty drama as a more true to life Euphoria. The show focuses on the lives of five students, with the central plot revolving around the free-the-nipple campaigning, dance team starring, overall hot-girl, Joey del Marco (Odessa A’Zion).
In the third episode, Joey is raped by two of her best guy friends. However, they don’t see the incident as such. The rest of her storyline portrays the breakdown of her mental health, her destroyed friendships, and the systemic failure of a legal system that basically hands out get well soon cards for “he-said-she-said” rape cases.
For the first three episodes, the two guys have almost as much screen-time as A’Zion. But after the rape occurs, we basically never see them again until Joey confronts them in the last episode. One could argue that their absence prioritizes the important narrative. To give these rapists any more screen time could be interpreted as glamorizing men capable of such an abhorrent act.
That’s where Grand Army gets it wrong. To refuse the viewer any insight into the young men’s perspectives does a disservice to the portrayal of sexual assault.
Navigating sexual relationships has always been complicated for adolescents, as the uncertainty of the unfamiliar is with any new experience. To make matters more difficult, these days the first interaction we have with sex will most likely be through porn. To broach the topic of sexual norms we have to first understand what porn induces us to think.
While porn can be a healthy source of exploration and liberation, there is no denying the abusive tropes that a large portion of it promotes. Critics of porn aren’t arguing that without porn rape would disappear; they ask us to reflect on the basic themes porn promotes. Dr. Robert Jensen at the University of Texas boils it down to three threads, “(1) All women at all times want sex from all men; (2) women enjoy all the sexual acts that men perform or demand, and; (3) any woman who does not at first realize this can be easily turned with a little force, though force is rarely necessary because most of the women in pornography are the imagined ‘nymphomaniacs’ about whom many men fantasize.”
There’s no shortage of it, either. I googled “toxic masculinity and porn” in an attempt to find a psychological study examining any possible correlations between the two. I soon found myself scrolling through the 810 videos (all with hundreds of thousands of views) on PornHub that fall under the category of “toxic masculinity porn.” PornHub kindly suggested I check out some other related categories, each with thousands of videos of their own: male domination, abusive boyfriend, feminist, and degraded-humiliated.
Not only has this billion-dollar industry perpetuated rape culture to a point of no return, but our visions of sex will now forever be seen through the lens of either what porn teaches us to do, or how to please our partner through what we believe porn has taught them to want. Almost every one of my female friends I asked said they watched porn before attempting any kind of sexual act for the first time. Trying to identify the source of how seemingly safe sexual encounters can quickly become threatening situations hinged on male dominance isn’t difficult. Any one of those 810 videos could spell it out better than I ever could.
“PornHub kindly suggested I check out some other related categories, each with thousands of videos of their own: male domination, abusive boyfriend, feminist, and degraded-humiliated.”
Sexual assault rarely happens in the black and white a-stranger-attacked-me-in-a-dark-alley way. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18. In 8 out of 10 rape cases, the survivor already knew the person who assaulted them.
The sad truth is that the kind of blurred-lines rape Grand Army attempts to tackle isn’t uncommon and doesn’t happen in a moral vacuum. It’s messy and confusing, and it’s not unrealistic that the person in the wrong can rationalize the circumstances to a point of justification. It’s important to see why and how they can do that.
Grand Army is partly based on its creator Katie Capiello’s two plays SLUT and Now That We’re Men. The former follows the Joey storyline in more depth, while the latter was written from real conversations with teenage guys to display how concepts of sex, porn, and consent are informing this generation’s idea of what it means to be a man. Now That We’re Men provides nuances to the subject of sex and masculinity in ways that few works do. In one monologue, a sweet character says he knows how to talk to girls about books, movies, feminism, all that shit, but when it comes time to be a fucking man he doesn’t know what to do. This poor guy, you think, if only the rest of them were like him. Then, in one of the last scenes of the play, he tells his friend about how that girl was so blacked out she wasn’t even conscious when he fucked her.
Watching this transition is shocking. It’s confusing how the same character could be capable of both scenes; it makes you angry for trusting them. This confusion is Capiello’s genius. Her ability to humanize assailants of sexual assault isn’t a form of rape apologism, it’s simply an accurate reflection of the way that young people often experience sex today.
So I was disappointed when Capiello’s history of complexity wasn’t transferred to the screen. To flesh out the characters of Joey’s rapists wouldn’t have been glorifying. Instead, it would have completed the job of the show – to start a dialogue about the nature of assault. By only portraying Joey’s breakdown, we as the audience understand the torturous effects of sexual violence, but we’re left in the dark about how to approach resolution. Rape survivors’ experiences are significant enough to stand on their own, but for these portrayals to avoid being “trauma-porn” they also need to address the larger patriarchal culture that is responsible for these incidents.
In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the concept of restorative justice was heavily discussed. The Center for Justice and Reconciliation, a program of Prison Fellowship International, defines the concept as a reparative process that joins victims, offenders, and community members to emphasize accountability and making amends. The practice is meant to provide a process that yields real results, and consequently, authentic change.
Societally we reject the idea that sexual assault is a rehabilitative offense. We rejoice in the entertainment of Tony Soprano’s constant murders, but can you fathom for a second what a show centered around an anti-hero serial rapist would look like? You can’t because sexual assault isn’t a palatable crime worthy of appealing complexity. I’m not dying for Vince Gilligan’s next show to center around a Silicon Valley supervillain who Harvey-Weinsteins all of his female subordinates, but we need to recognize that by erasing half of the story of sexual misconduct, we sidestep opportunities for progress.
The combination of the absolutist treatment of sexual assault and a deeply flawed criminal justice system breeds disaster. It’s why defenders of Brock Turner instinctively say “But should this really ruin his whole life?” On one hand, yes, that night should control every moment of the rest of Turner’s existence. The aftershocks of sexual assault do so for survivors and they had no choice in the matter. However, societally, we simultaneously coddle the privileged white boy and refuse to acknowledge the faucets of toxic masculinity that perpetuate this behavior (this soft legal treatment is not reserved for BIPOC). We’re afraid to say that our perception of the ideal man breeds a culture where guys have a hard time too, as if feminism is going to hear us and run away.
We are living in such a delicate climate of pop culture. Content creators have been tasked with portraying complex issues that accurately reflect the heavy lives of young people today. To add to that task, they need to do it in a representative way and make sure to not show or say anything that might get them canceled. In the safe space of Capiellio’s New York theater, she has the luxury of exploring the gray areas of rape culture. Whereas with a big-budget show on Netflix, she walks straight into the firing range of Twitter ethics. In a world where the absolutist voices of the internet can destroy your show’s reputation in fewer than 140 characters, how can anyone start these difficult conversations?
In 2018, Molly Ringwald wrote a piece for The New Yorker reflecting on how her coming-of-age movies don’t stand the test of time in a post-#MeToo era. She specifically criticizes the scene in The Breakfast Club where the character John Bender goes under the library table, looks at her underwear beneath her skirt, and it’s implied to the viewer that he touches her. Ringwald discussed how Bender repeatedly sexually harasses her character throughout the film, yet our romanticized view of him is satisfied when he and Ringwald end up together.
This topic came up around my dinner table recently after my fourteen-year-old sister watched this 80s classic for the first time. I asked her if she thought the Bender storyline was wrong, to which she responded, “Well what does wrong mean? I guess it’s messed up he did that to her, but most guys would still get the girl in the end anyway…so it’s just true.”
Molly Ringwald has a point, as do the many voices that argue romanticizing rape-attempters like Chuck Bass is concerning. But just because we shouldn’t root for these characters doesn’t mean we don’t. Navigating the politics of post-#MeToo content is difficult and we should critique these narratives with our increasing wisdom. However, to retrospectively cancel these characters, films, and shows is ineffectual. To pretend that we are living in a world where men still don’t reap the benefits of creepy behavior is naive.
Creators are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, they end up saying nothing at all. We’ve come to a point where we regard film, television, and art in general, as a prescription for life rather than a mirror of reality. Yes, media exists on a spectrum between instruction and reflection. There’s no doubt that, especially when we spend as much, if not more, time in the virtual world than the real one, it holds a certain responsibility in normalizing what we see on screen. However, by limiting content to what we think the world should look like, we eliminate necessary exposure to why occurrences like normalized sexual assault happen. In fear of getting canceled, we cancel the dialogue that gives us any chance to reconstruct what is broken.
I hope if Grand Army is renewed for a second season Capiello takes the risk she is both capable of and owes her audience. Maybe the Twitter ethics committee will come after her, let them. Imagine if we all stopped being so worried about being the most politically correct person in the room. Maybe, just maybe, we all might learn something.