Unhand me, Sir: When Children’s TV Taught Girls to Expect Assault

A poster from a Perils of Pauline film, ca. 1914. The series inspired many subsequent children's TV heroines.

The day after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, I called in sick to work. It wasn’t a lie. I felt very, very ill. After sleeping late, I turned to an old favorite that had always cheered me up: my DVDs of Wonder Woman starring Lynda Carter. I was watching the episode Anschluss ’77, where a cloned Nazi has “Diana Prince” tied up in a cave, when an old and unwelcome memory surfaced.

In the fourth grade, I had a secret “sketch book” hidden at the back of my desk’s cubby. I’m sure if my teacher had discovered it, my parents would have been called in immediately. At first glance, it was a standard writing pad: pink cardboard cover with low-grade lined paper inside. But if you opened it, you would have seen an image of three women; one facing you, and one on either side of the page in profile. Each woman, dressed in elaborate gowns with hoops and bustles, sported an up-do with ringlets that framed expressionless, symmetrical faces. Long eyelashes and Cupid’s bow mouths graced perfect oval faces. The drawing style was somewhere between ancient Egyptian and Greek, but reinterpreted by a 9-year old.

Tied to tall polls by ropes in criss-crossing coils around the knees and waist, the toes of their delicate slippers were visible beneath the hems of their skirts as their feet hung in mid-air. In the background was a horizon line and big shining sun. The three poles were planted in the bottom of a canyon, and a single blue line, drawn from one side to the other, sealed them in a watery grave.  

If you were to turn the page, you would see a near duplicate drawing. Maybe the hair was a bit different. The buttons down the front of the dress smaller. Page after page, I drew this tableau. Bound and drowned. Well-dressed and coiffed. Over and over.

My teacher never found the sketch book, thank god.  

A white woman being tied to a chair by a blonde man
Diana Prince/Wonder Woman held captive. Screenshot, Douglas S. Cramer Company, 1977.

Back on my sofa, I watched a few more episodes of Wonder Woman, noticing how often she was abducted, tied up, chained up or in some manner restrained. In fact, that was always the sub-plot. Sure she had to fight Nazis and protect Popstars, but she also had to fight for physical autonomy and freedom. In high heels.

But Wonder Woman wasn’t the only one fighting that fight. I suddenly realized that nearly ALL of the female characters I saw on my Saturday morning cartoons and live action evening dramas were regularly being tied up. Full disclosure: I watched a LOT of TV as a kid. (I still do.) My grade school diaries read more like a synopsis of the TV Guide than anything else.

There was some diversity in how these characters dealt with their “situation”: Underdog’s Sweet Polly Purebred and Dudley Dooright’s girlfriend Nell were yellers. They’d wail and flail, which was appropriate as they were being used for bait to lure their boyfriends into a trap laid by Simon Bar Sinister or Snidely Whiplash.  

In contrast, Penelope Pitstop and Daphne from the Scooby Gang were mostly silent and ladylike in their situations. Legs bent and ankles neatly crossed, they never seemed particularly worried about what could happen to them.

Four images from children's TV cartoons of women being tied to railroad tracks
There are so many ways to respond to being tied to railroad tracks!

Yvonne Craig as Batgirl was chained or tied and gagged on a hay bale, on a lawn, on a table saw, in Catwoman’s lair, in a dungeon, on a rocket, on a giant scale and lassoed by a cowboy. She definitely won the prize for creativity. Jamie Somers, the Bionic Woman, was chained to chairs (because her bionic arm was strong enough to break ropes, I guess). And Elektra Woman and Dyna Girl were tied up so often, they had this thing they did with their communicator bracelets (the superhero equivalent of walking with your keys poking between your fingers).

Seen in that context, maybe what I drew in my sketchbook repeatedly wasn’t so strange. You draw what you know. And for several hours every week, I was watching women and girls being abducted and restrained with the same breezy humor afforded the Banana Splits when they spilled down a slide. I didn’t have the vocabulary then to express the strange fascination and horror I felt about the casual abuse and torture of women I aspired to be like.

In the wake of the MeToo Movement, social commentators have revisited 80s comedies and decried the shockingly permissive attitudes held then about what today we call date rape. Sixteen Candles, Porky’s movies, and Revenge of the Nerds were appalling. But they were practically feminist manifestos compared to what some of us watched on TV in the 70s.

Right about the time I outgrew Saturday morning programs, I got a job at the local library. Evenings and weekends I’d shelve books and perform secretarial duties. I’d also hide in the stacks and read, then sneak home books that I would have been too embarrassed to check out. And that’s how I met Johanna Lindsey, and began auto-grooming myself to be totally cool with a little light sexual assault. I’ll explain. If you haven’t read one of her books, or aren’t familiar with her, Ms. Lindsey has been writing several books a year since the late 70s. She helped make Fabio a household name as he graced the covers of her books.

Book cover showing a very muscular shirtless man holding a very busty blonde woman. Text reads Captive Bride
A typical Johanna Lindsey cover

I read every piece of propaganda she put out from 1977’s Captive Bride to 1991’s Once a Princess. Her historical romances are conveniently set in the past, often in faraway places, so that the incredibly regressive views on women don’t shock the sensibilities. “He’s really quite evolved for a 7th century Visigoth.”

The plot of nearly every one of her books follows this path: a conquering man becomes besotted with the appearance of a woman that he can’t (nay, shan’t) have. This is often because she doesn’t really want him. But, too bad. He kidnaps her or “rescues” her and prevents her from returning home to kith and kin. Her kidnapper is often the lesser of two evils, so she stays with him until the Stockholm syndrome kicks in. Their incredible, once-in-lifetime chemistry is meant to give a patina of virtue to what is basically rape. Eventually, she stops trying to escape, which proves to her abductor/husband that she’s in love. These books remind women that you do not choose. You are chosen. It’s a travesty that the word “romantic” is in the name of this genre. It’s amazing that I turned out as close to normal as I did when I consider all of the messaging to which I was exposed.

According to RAINN, one in six women have been a victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. If I find that number surprising, it’s because it’s as low as it is. I’m not a crime statistician, but I would bet that number is far higher.  

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is nearly the same age as I am. The assault she described in her testimony in front of the Senate Judiciary committee is nearly identical to what happened to me when I was 15. I was at a friend’s house party. Underage drinking was going on. I went upstairs to sleep off two Sloe Gin Fizzes in my friend’s bedroom, and woke up with a classmate straddling me, attempting to remove my shirt. I was fortunate that another classmate walked into the room in time to scare him away.  

Just like Dr. Blasey Ford, I told no one until I had put decades and thousands of miles between myself and the attacker. When people wonder “why didn’t she say something sooner,” I cringe. I know why. We swam in the same waters. We came of age in a culture that primed women for victimhood and rewarded silence. To be so desired that you incited lust in another person was meant to be a compliment. Abduction was the highest form of flattery. Even if she had told someone, they might not have given it its true name.

Here’s the hopeful part. Somehow, even with all of this programming during my formative years, I survived and managed to grow a steely feminist within myself. I resonated with a new generation of female characters that didn’t need rescuing: Witch Blade, Dark Angel, Xena, Agent Scully, Buffy, and Captain Janeway. The idea that a woman could take her own destiny in hand, and live life on her terms, evolved from being novel and enticing to obvious and inevitable.  

I like to imagine a future, 30 years from now, where the women wearing the mantles of power were, as girls, exposed to images and stories in which women were strong and didn’t require saving. They’ll have made it to young adulthood without being inappropriately touched by a teacher or coach. They’ll have been exposed to the concept of consent (as will their male peers) and will be better equipped to navigate the nuanced and confusing sexual politics of high school and college. And they won’t have watched hundreds of hours of female bondage on the Cartoon Network.

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