Luke Spencer: General Hospital’s Repentant Rapist

Curator's Note

As the 1970s drew to a close, the most popular character on US daytime television soap operas was Lucas Lorenzo Spencer, erstwhile mob hit man, disco manager, and rapist. In October 1979, Luke raped the woman who was the object of his then-unrequited affections. Laura Baldwin was a waitress at the disco Luke managed, she was married to do-gooder law student Scotty, and she was clearly drawn to unconventional bad boy Luke. One night after hours, a drunken Luke, convinced he would be forced to carry out an assassination attempt on a senator, forces Laura to dance with him, declares his love, and rapes her, as we see glimpses of here in Luke’s flashback.

Because Luke and Laura would marry two years later in the most highly rated daytime soap episode ever, common wisdom has it that the soap quickly buried the rape plot when producers decided to pair Luke and Laura instead of having Luke be the short-term character initially planned. This scene, from November 1979, tells a somewhat different story, in that here Luke confesses to his sister, Bobbie, that he did in fact rape Laura. As the scene makes clear, Luke is tortured by his actions, horrified at what he has done to the woman he loves, and eager to defend her to those who would demean her (Bobbie being one such person). For the nine months following the rape, General Hospital told a complex story about the various characters’ reactions to this event. While Laura’s pain and her struggle over her feelings were central, the part of the tale that most enthralled fans was Luke’s experience. Across these nine months, Luke’s self-flagellation and self-loathing worked to redeem him, not only in Laura’s eyes, but also in viewers’.

The character of Luke offered up a fantasy masculinity in which brutish sexual violence could be seen as the patriarchal past from which new, ‘70s men like Luke were desperate to escape. The real Luke, viewers were convincingly told, was motivated by love, not hate, by passion, not hostility. Luke’s story invited fans not only to ponder the meaning of rape in the disco era, but also to imagine a battle between different versions of masculinity, at war for supremacy within the same wounded man.

Comments

Joe Wlodarz's picture

Great clip! I've always been

Great clip! I’ve always been curious about this plotline and have never seen any of it. What I find fascinating about this particular confession scene is that it’s initially presented as yet another potential rape scenario with Luke smashing the door and confronting Bobbie. The low angle on Luke vs. the higher angle on Bobbie also enhances this power differential between the two characters. It’s an oddly *threatening* confession, even if it is indeed meant to expose Luke’s own anxiety/vulnerability. Does Luke eventually cry? Perhaps in an apology to Laura? I’m just interested in how this threatening vision of manhood gets tempered.

Greg Oguss's picture

I grew up on this show

I grew up on this show (probly starting w/ luke and laura in the early 80s) via ‘clandestine exposure’ b/c my sis wld tape it and/or play hooky from school to watch it. The characters of Luke and Laura (and bobbie and scotty baldwin) are the ones I remember best, though i’ve never really asked myself why. I think the “fantasy masculinity” of Luke, as u call it, is a poor man’s version of the “method acting” of Brando, Ben Carruthers, Dean and Monty Clift. Who were maybe the first male “anti-heroes” of mainstream flix and this frequently meant the audience sided w/ “male aggression” toward women (like in Streetcar). Although John Garfield (and Bogie to an extent) also played conflicted and occasionally un-masculine types back in the 40s. It also seems like the actor who plays Luke is striving for something beyond the run-of-the-mill scenery chewing soap actor performance but frustrated by the limitations of the medium. Which makes Luke come off not so much repentant that his emotions debased him into raping Laura. More like the Actor Who Is Luke is pissed hes been debased into acting in a tawdry scene on a soap (disco owner-mob hit man-would-be-senator-assassin-haha). That’s a quirky reading of the scene i suppose. But the character, as a lower middle class Italian, does seem to relate to the disco/punk scene despite the frequently hermetically sealed universe of the soaps.

Allison McCracken's picture

I vividly remember when Luke

I vividly remember when Luke & Laura dominated popular culture, but I never knew their relationship started with a rape! So fascinating, and a reminder to me of just how culturally prominent day-time soap stars and plotlines were in the 1970s. I agree completely with your analysis here regarding the transitional masculinity of Luke’s character and now I finally understand why women were so into him as a romantic fantasy. Questions that came up for me watching the clip: was the disco itself commonly portrayed as a dangerous space for women, or just the “disco-era” itself (in a Looking for Mr. Goodbar way)? Considering the way in which disco became culturally associated with a kind of feminized, even sissified masculinity, it’s really surprising to see the disco here as a site of threatening masculine aggression. Also, I’m intrigued by Bobbie’s assumption that Laura’s character is a slut rather than a victim, and am curious about the text’s relationship to feminism—does the masculine “Bobbie” represent the text or audience’s view of feminists and/or higher-class, professional women as unfairly critical and alienated from the lived experience of their lower-class sisters (as I presume Laura-the-waitress to be)?

Avi Santo's picture

really fascinating clip and

really fascinating clip and discussion. I too grew up knowing all about Luke and Laura (I watched Another World, though), in many ways, the earliest soap opera super-couple. All of this brings a couple of ideas to mind. First, I am struck by the similarities in this plot and the narrative trajectory of Saturday Night Fever, in which Travolta, angry over both the racist politics of the disco and losing the dance competition (he and his partner initially win the competition, but Travolta recognizes that the black couple were better than he was and gives them his trophy), almost rapes Stephanie. It is this act that seems to unleash all his inner torment and, in a sense, redeems him, because he is able to recognize just how brutish he is capable of being. Both the GH example and SNF seem to construct a classed ethnic masculinity that is in need of being suppressed. I wonder if Luke’s appeal is his guilty conscience or the masochistic (and thusly heroic) suppression of his “true” masculine nature — a kind of have your cake and eat it too scenario that allows him to embody both hard and soft masculinities, with the latter actually a sign of his power, because he punishes himself for his loss of self control.

Elana Levine's picture

Thanks for all the great

Thanks for all the great comments and questions. I’ll try my best to address them all: Joe: Yes, you’re right that Luke is threatening to Bobbie here, but he does have many moments of emotional vulnerability, crying, etc. I read his threatening tone as him trying to defend Laura to Bobbie (who is sullying L’s reputation) and as his anger at himself.

Greg: Tony Geary is definitely doing a method thing. Part of his renown as a soap actor then and now was his “different” acting style–and the fact that he defied the typical soap lead style by being a not-conventionally-handsome anti-hero. I’m not sure I buy your “Actor who is Luke pushing the boundaries of soap limits” reading, but Geary and Luke both challenged a lot of things about soap masculinity, so it makes sense that you would be picking up a reading like this.

Allison: I don’t think the Campus Disco was presented as a threatening place on GH—except in the rape scene when the disco lights and music become ominous and disorienting. But from an historical distance I think we can see the significance of the disco setting as a stand-in for the sexually “loose” society. Your read on the Bobbie/Laura dynamic is so interesting because the characters are actually positioned in quite the opposite way. I’ll try to explain this in as condensed a way as possible: Bobbie and Luke are the working class characters—they grew up in a whorehouse run by their aunt (mom died, dad was a no-good drunk). Bobbie was a teenage prostitute and came to Port Charles seeking respectability by becoming a nurse. She’s always trying to prove herself as a result. In contrast, Laura is the privileged daughter of doctors. She’s a college student at this point and married to a law student, so she works at the disco to help support herself and her husband. Bobbie constantly resents Laura for her goody-goody image and privileged past. She also wanted Scotty for herself and tried to use Luke to break up L and S. So you’re right that there is hostility here, and it is class-based, but I think the audience is supposed to see Bobbie—a somewhat manipulative character—as the unfair one. After all, we know that Laura has feelings for Luke but did not willingly sleep with him. We know L is not a slut, but rather a victim.

And Avi: Yes, yes, yes! I hadn’t thought about this comparison, but there is absolutely an SNF thing going on here— GH was clearly trying to capitalize on the movie’s popularity with the disco setting, the sexual aggression, the working class masculinity.

I could go on about this for days. Thanks for all of your great insights!

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