We Heart: Hannibal’s Stance on Sexual Assault

Hannibal is often lauded as one of the simultaneously most beautiful and grisly shows on television, but it deserves yet another accolade: Its showrunner Bryan Fuller refuses to depict sexual assault.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Hannibal Lecter mythos, here’s a primer: Lecter is an esteemed psychiatrist and cannibalistic serial killer whose exploits are chronicled in four Thomas Harris novels and five films. The most famous of these films is doubtlessly Silence of the Lambs, which won Anthony Hopkins an Academy Award for his unsettling portrayal of the sophisticated psychopath. (Lecter’s motto? “Eat the rude.”) Hannibal, which has aired on NBC for the past three years, follows Lecter’s life and work with the FBI before he is imprisoned for his many, many murders.

But despite the fact that Hannibal takes place in a reality where murders are at once gruesome mutilations and gorgeous artworks, the show has never delved into a story about rape.

“I don’t want to do rape stories on the show because I don’t find them entertaining. I think that they’re exploitative,” Fuller told BuddyTV in 2014. “I just feel very strongly as a feminist and somebody who likes women. I just can’t derive any sort of entertainment pleasure from it.”

Last Saturday’s episode, “The Great Red Dragon,” reveals just how deeply this attitude is embedded in the show’s DNA. In the novel Red Dragon, a serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy rapes his women victims’ near-dead (and dead) bodies. While Hannibal implies that this violation occurs, the show doesn’t linger on the details—in fact, only eager-eyed viewers likely notice that a sexual assault happened at all. Instead, Hannibal treats the women’s bodies with respect and grace. It emphasizes who the women were in life, how they mattered to the people who loved them. It doesn’t reduce them to their genitals.

In a May interview with Entertainment Weekly, Fuller said, “In crafting the story arc of the ‘Red Dragon’ [episode], it became a challenge on how to keep true to the novel but deemphasize the exploitative qualities of [women] being raped… You will have to read between the lines.”

“‘A character gets raped’ is a very easy story to pitch for a drama,” he added. “And it comes with a stable of tropes that are infrequently elevated dramatically, or emotionally. I find that it’s not necessarily thought through in the more common crime procedurals. You’re reduced to using shorthand, and I don’t think there can be a shorthand for that violation—it’s an incredibly personal and intimate betrayal of something that should be so positive and healthy.”

Of course, rape can be a powerful and vivid storytelling device. It is an epidemic in real life; that fact deserves to be acknowledged and explored. However, in a TV landscape where rape is nearly universally used as a springboard for a male character’s development or as a way to stress how brutal the world is—while glossing over rape’s impact on survivors—Fuller’s refusal to enter the fray is refreshing. Neither sexual assault nor its survivors are props to be thrown on-screen to make a scene more “dramatic.” When shows treat them as such, they perpetuate rape culture. Turning on the television should not be an invitation to watch a laundry list of ways to destroy women.

Photo courtesy of NBC.




Carter Sherman is a former Ms. editorial intern. She recently graduated from Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and international studies, and has previously interned at Elle and Los Angeles Magazine. Follow her on Instagram at @heyyymizcarter.