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Rape Culture “On Stage” or “As Subject”

This piece continues a partnership between HowlRound and the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW). In 2012, LPTW launched its journal WITOnline, and in 2015, it will become a searchable resource for the field, building a women's history of theatre through in-depth profiles, interviews, and articles. Find all WITOnline-HowlRound content here.


I recently wrote R Culture, a satire about our/rape culture, which premiered at IRT Theater in November. The play contextualizes various elements within American culture to illustrate how they contribute to the USA being a country where rape is prevalent. The particularities include street harassment, victim blaming, “slut shaming,” sex-ed, bridezillas, football, collegiate mishandling of sexual assault cases, hyper-sexualization in advertising, and the socializing of heteronormative men and women among other things.

There were two things that surprised me most about writing R Culture. The first was during workshops of the play, I had actresses express their concern over the material. They felt like there were things I just couldn’t say, because men would get upset even if they weren’t rapists themselves. Their intense concerns over the truth I was presenting led me to examine the apologist tendencies within the feminist movement. This push-pull dynamic is such a large part of dealing with rape culture that I included it in the text.

Another thing that shocked me as a playwright was dealing with the accusatory responses from the audience and some media. There were times when I was painted as being disrespectful of survivors, insensitive, offensive, and even exploitative of my cast, which I felt was vastly far from the choices I made when dealing with this material.

Plays with rape and ‘rape culture’ as subjects are vital right now. We need to create space for these conversations and we need to press to unearth deeper truths. How do we as theatremakers create work within our current climate with an awareness of our audiences and one another?

I was put in the position of considering what to show on stage and what to leave offstage when it came to sexual violence. It was important to avoid contributing to “rape culture” in the process of writing about rape, one of the greatest evils known to humanity. “Rape culture,” as defined by Emilie Buchwald’s Transforming a Rape Culture, is:

a complex set of beliefs that encourage male sexual aggression and supports violence against women… a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent… In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable… However… much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.


Photo by Jody Christopherson.

This question of how to deal with rape on stage without creating more “rape culture” is paramount as we, as artists, attempt to express our experiences, create space for conversations, and build opportunities for change.

How we distinguish “rape culture” from “culture” is like being able to tell the difference between pornography and art: you know it when you see it. When a play is about rape we understand that the plot hinges on it and someone is directly affected by it. Using onstage rape for simple emotional impact is grossly similar to the lifelike, scantily clad, tortured, crying, abused female bodies in video game backgrounds that have little to do with the actual story being told. When this occurs in video games or theatre, it reads as tacit approval, if not glamorization and glorification, of sexualized violence, which creates an audience of rape and sexual violence voyeurs. When a play uses rape for emotional impact to make a point about something else without dealing with it as subject, then it becomes “rape culture.”


Examples of “rape culture” on stage include plays that lack a sense of irony or self-awareness while employing “slut-shaming” or effeminizing men for humor, use of stereotyped characters, exploitation of women’s naked and objectified bodies as props or set, and the use of rape to create a mood or make a character seem like a villain without dealing with the effects of rape.

Our work does not stand in a cultural vacuum but is a part of it. The rise of the feminist community online via social media and bloggers (sometimes called the femisphere/femosphere) is creating a space for women to find one another, testify, and bear witness to their experiences, which may not be expressed with a single voice in the real world where safety is a huge issue. In the past year we’ve seen Carry That Weight spread across the country to be become a national movement of protest against rape on campuses. We’ve also seen the snowball of rape accusations finally surface against famed comedian Bill Cosby, which have been systematically silenced for decades by an all too complicit media.

There were also huge feminist Twitter events that changed our cultural perspective from and about women:

  1. #GammerGate about sexism in video games.
  2.  #YesAllWomen, where women testified in response to misogynist killer Elliot Rodger’s shooting rampage and video that yes, all women have been subjected to sexism even if #NotAllMen have perpetrated it.
  3. #HobbyLobby, where women railed against the SCOUTUS decision that allowed corporations into women’s healthcare.
  4. #thesummit, about the lack of female playwrights on stages along with…
  5. #parityraid sponsored The Kilroys and their list that was launched as a response to the summit’s claim that there were not enough good plays by women in #thepipeline.
  6. #WhyIStayed, where countless women gave voice to their private reasons for staying in abusive relationships while maintaining enough anonymity to withstand the fear and shame of exposing themselves.

Plays with rape and “rape culture” as subjects are vital right now. We need to create space for these conversations and we need to press to unearth deeper truths. How do we as theatremakers create work within our current climate with an awareness of our audiences and one another? There are many artists whose works push the edges of our comfort zone not by trading in on “rape culture,” but by calling it out in startling ways. What can we do to engage with one another on this? When we create in the room, we can ask our collaborators how they feel about what they are portraying and what it costs them to act out a physical or emotional moment. We can thoughtfully consider their responses when we conduct rehearsals, create our shows, and honor their process.

Another way is to invite a range of artists to our shows and conversations to discuss the work they see and the work they’re creating as it resonates with the topics of rape and rape culture. Among several planned post-show conversations during the run of my play R Culture, I was honored to have writer and director Neil LaBute join me for a one-on-one playwright conversation. His plays delve into some of the most challenging subject matter, including sexual violence. LaBute’s characters are remarkably complex. We discussed how to deal with audience responses, the moral implications of profiting from a show that deals with sexual violence, and whether art should ever apologize for itself.


Cecilia Copeland and Neil LaBute. Photo by Penny M. Landau.

Having LaBute as a guest panelist and sharing my play R Culture with him as a fellow artist created a different experience for the audience—and also for me as a writer. He and I shared the various effects of being typed as the opposite of our intent, which led me to a greater confidence knowing that complete consensus about a complex work should never be the goal. LaBute, being an accomplished artist with the vocabulary and experience necessary, questioned specifically how I created the structure of the piece. My responses to his questions about technical methodology and approach then deepened the understanding for the audience about how the purposefulness of craft and artistic choices create meaning. Being an emerging writer it was encouraging for me to hear that the struggles I face can be surmounted; that I am not alone in dealing with certain challenges that come hand in hand with such dark and important material. During the run of the play, I had several other panel discussions with community organizations and artists who are doing work that challenges the status quo about sexual violence. Reaching out to one another, having open forums, Twitter discussions, blogging, and being willing to question our own process and privilege are things that will change “rape culture” from simply being on our stages to being the much needed subject of our work.

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Thoughts from the curators

An examination of theatremaking as a collaboration between HowlRound and the League of Professional Theatre Women.

League of Professional Women in Theatre 


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thank you - which is a totally inappropriate response I struggle with in the affirming of your work. This/these conversations and issues are so close to my world of accessing young women (especially young women of color) in a liberal arts community who wish to have their particular stories validated. I look forward to reading/hearing more of your work. Continue to reveal and unearth truths.

I am impressed with your comments, your research and your commitment to this subject on every level. From the clarity of your purpose to your processing of challenges and reaction/information from those who are participating. This dynamic process speaks to theater at the highest level. Bravo.

Bravo. Glad to see you resisting all the various ways people try to silence those of us who want to make a difference. Your work is very important.

Very interesting. Thank you for writing this. It helped me understand what it takes to write on a subject as heavily laden as 'rape culture.' Great work!!!