Rape Trial: Soap that Leaves Us Feeling Dirty

by | Dec 8, 1991 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 0 comments

My grandmother used to watch soap operas; she called them her “stories.” On any weekday afternoon, you could find her in her rocking chair, talking to the TV screen, saying things such as “Oooh, that rat!” and “She’s just after his money.” At the end of each program, she would guess what would happen next: which long-lost brother would show up, who was having whose baby.

My grandmother would have loved TV this week; CNN broadcasting the William Kennedy Smith rape trial, gavel-to- gavel, complete with close-ups of teardrops, and commentators who appeared in little boxes, like John Madden at a football game, saying “I don’t think that witness helped.” At night, there was “CNN Special Report: The Trial Of William Kennedy Smith,” co-hosted by Bernard Shaw, of Iraqi war fame.

You might wonder why CNN, a network supposedly devoted to 24-hour news coverage, would broadcast every sigh, yawn and paper shuffle of a single Palm Beach, Fla., courtroom, day after day — until you looked at the ratings. They were through the roof!

And here’s why: It has little to do with rape. Sadly, this is about The Kennedys, our nation’s Royal Family, “Dynasty” without makeup, John, Bobby, Jackie, Teddy, Ethel, Willie, the living, breathing soap opera characters of an American afternoon.

‘The Young and the Restless’

So this week we watched, between commercials, as the alleged victim told of meeting this “nice young man” at a bar, going with him to the Kennedy mansion, forgetting where she left her shoes and panty hose, walking the beach behind the house, and being suddenly raped. We heard testimony by her spaced-out friend, a former model, who claimed the alleged victim was
“hysterical” after the incident, but also admitted she (the friend) had sold her account for $40,000 to a tabloid TV show, then ran off to Mexico.

We watched Teddy Kennedy, now a pathetic character, take the stand and talk about that night when family members reminisced about the death of Smith’s father, and Teddy was so distraught that “I couldn’t possibly sleep” so, naturally, he grabbed son Patrick and nephew Willie and headed for Au Bar, a local watering hole, where they met the woman. We heard Teddy swear he didn’t hear screams later that night, even though his window was open and the alleged rape took place just yards from the house.

We heard everything. About underpants that were vacuumed for sand — vacuumed underpants? — and about semen on a new black dress, and about Smith telling his cousin “thank God I pulled out.” We heard this incident called both “a vicious rape’ and “an act of love.” And then we cut to a Jordache commercial, in which a woman in a tight mini-dress squirms against a wall while a handsome man rips his clothes off in front of her.

Ratings soared. Viewers were fascinated.

What does that say about us?

As mythical as Camelot

In England, this is how they treat Prince Charles and Princess Diana; every rumor, every sneeze, is captured and reported. In America, we do the same to the Kennedys; Jackie takes an editing job: BIG STORY! John Kennedy Jr. fails his bar exam: BIG STORY!

Why? The tragic deaths of the Kennedy brothers are now more than two decades past, and evidence suggests that John, who began all this frenzy, may not have been a very good president after all, and supposedly had extra-marital affairs all over the White House. People don’t care. They love the idea of him. Ted Kennedy is an alcoholic, plain and simple; his social behavior in private circles is allegedly up there with John Belushi in “Animal House,” yet it doesn’t matter; he gets re- elected and re-elected.

We like the Kennedy idea. We like the image. But there’s a danger in all this. And it’s become a disturbing question about much of today’s news: Are we watching because it’s important, or because it titillates us?

Face it. Horrifying rapes occur every day in America: women jumped, held at gunpoint. Yet those stories are buried in the back of newspapers. Ah, but when a Kennedy is involved! In Palm Beach! At the mansion! Now we’re interested. What does that say to other rape victims? Experts warn that soap operas are dangerous when you start to think they’re real; but what about when you will only see reality as a soap opera?

It would be nice if this trial led to a better understanding of rape, the horror, how to stop it. I’m afraid it won’t. I’m afraid most people are watching this the way my grandmother watched her stories; they keep score, guess about tomorrow’s episode. And when it’s over, they go to the next juicy program.

I find this almost as disturbing as the alleged crime itself. Maybe some good will come out of all this TV coverage. I doubt it. Right now, the only thing I see coming out, quite frankly, is a mini-series.


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