Mariah's History With Sexual Assault On 'Luke Cage' Exposes A Part Of Rape Culture Not Often Seen On TV

Sexual assault on television is being scrutinized at the moment, in part due to shows like Game of Thrones, where rape is a common occurrence, and also as an examination of rape culture in the real world. Jessica Jones broke ground by telling a survivor story from the character's own perspective, and that thread continues with Mariah Dillard's backstory on Luke Cage . There are major spoilers for Luke Cage Episode 7 ahead, so you might want to click away until you've made it that far.

In Episode 7, we learn that Mariah Dillard was sexually assaulted as a child by her Uncle Pete. To protect her, Mariah's grandmother Mabel sent her to boarding school instead of her cousin Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, and Mabel ultimately ordered young Cornell to shoot Pete. This comes to a head when, as adults, Cornell finally confronts Mariah for his long simmering resentment and accuses her of flirting with Pete and essentially “asking for it.” Screaming that she didn't want it, Mariah pushes him off a balcony and proceeds to bash his head in with a mic stand. It's a rare occurrence in which a rape survivor is lashing out not at her abuser, but at an accuser.

This scene is extremely important for reasons that go far beyond the actual plot. For one thing, Mariah Dillard is not the only female character on the show, nor is she the only woman of color, so her background is just one of many stories being told. Her survival is also not what defines her as a character. The only thing that her trauma motivates her to do is kill Cottonmouth, but even that tension had been building for seven episodes, and he provoked her with an attempt to gaslight her. It's not necessarily why she became a politician, either. She is living in the shadow of her ruthless grandmother more than anything else and many different parts of her life have shaped her ambition, not just her trauma at the hands of Pete.

This adds some depth and backstory to Mariah's character, sure, but it doesn't make her "interesting" or "sympathetic" — something that has become a recent problem on shows like Scandal and Downton Abbey . Mariah Dillard is complex but still a villain and a murderer on Luke Cage, and that isn't going to change.

I also think the dynamic between Cornell and Mariah is important to think about, because it's not often that TV and movies shed light on how easily people can ignore the signs of sexual assault, or abuse, and sometimes go so far as to blame the victim, just because they like the abuser. Cornell wanted to become a musician, not a gangster, and Pete was one of the only ones who believed in him. Because of that missed opportunity, he has held that resentment for decades.

This is the kind of sexual assault and survival story — one in which a woman is not defined by trauma and stands up to those who try to blame her for it — that should be on television more often. The way Luke Cage and Jessica Jones handles this issue helps to better represent women on screen and expose aspects of rape culture that could make a real difference.

Images: Myles Aronowitz/Netflix