Fictional while female; The rape culture in fiction
I was once involved as a working pro in a workshop for beginning writers where one of the participants turned in a largely serviceable, almost good, excerpt from a novel-in-progress. But when I hit the synopsis appended at the end of the sample, I came to a screeching halt.
In his synopsis the writer wrote of his female character being assaulted, and then of the male protagonist “interrupting the rape“.
What in God’s name, does “interrupting a rape” mean?
There is no such thing as “interrupting a rape”. Rape is only a sexual assault in the most literal of literal meanings. Above and beyond that, rape is a crime of power, not sex. The sex is a means, not an end. Penetration is more or less irrelevant, once you’ve been pushed into the process of being dominated by someone, of having your person manhandled against your will, of being unable to help yourself at all. Once that process is begun, it is unstoppable. The invisible scars have already started to form.
I remember reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar books, which contained a particularly egregious rape scene – it was oh-my-god the classic, the innocent young girl taken and raped by the Dark Lord. But although this was very much “the trope” for fictional women characters, Kay transformed it into something else. He showed what a rape was, what it could be, what it MEANT. The rapist in question didn’t just take the helpless body before him. He took the mind. In front of her agonized gaze, he changed – changed into people she loved and trusted who were now here brutalizing her – into her priest, into her father, into her greatest love.
In Kay’s novel, when his abducted girl was rescued at last, her friends stand there and gaze at what Kay describes as “the wreckage of the woman on the floor”. There were several things in play here. One important one was simply this: rape is not something that is done to *a single individual*. Rape affects lots of people who surround the victim. Why do you think there are things like honor killings?
Assaulting the person – and by inference her dignity, her standing, her social and cultural position – is also an assault on her family, her tribe, her culture, her society. Often the only way out is for the society to blame the victim and cast her out or kill her for the crime of being unable to defend herself.
Rape is, and has always been a crime of power and not of sex – if it weren’t then seven-year-olds and ninety-year-olds would never be raped. It is meaningless to start pointing fingers at how the victim was dressed. A pair of jeans is no more a defense than the briefest of mini skirts or a pair of bloomers. It’s a dominance thing, and it does not matter what the victim was wearing. It hinges on consent and a woman who is actively fighting her assailant but losing the physical battle because she is not strong enough to outwrestle someone bigger and heavier than her or even a number of such people is not giving that consent, and neither is the woman who is simply too frozen with terror to attempt to put up such a struggle, or who has been drugged or otherwise intoxicated or passed out or simply made unable to communicate.
Once again, the game is power. The idea here is domination, and consent is not required. But an inability to protect or defend such a female may be a shaming thing to the men around her, and so they choose to blame her for not resisting hard enough (hence honor slaying). Or else the men will respond like one of the characters in Kay’s novel, and vow vengeance, and often ride off to their own destruction in expiation of something.
But if it is used just as a plot device to trigger such an action a rape really is trivialized – because all it is, then, is literally the thing that pushes the plot forward and the woman involved is and remains ever after a pawn in the plot chess game being moved thither and yon only as a set piece which serves as a signpost to further plot developments, especially if she gets pregnant as a result of the rape. Which in fiction happens often enough. Hey, another plot wrinkle. What are we going to do with this unwillingly pregnant woman and this child born of violation?
And if a writer DOES use it to focus the vision of a piece of writing on the woman-as-character, then it seems she is left with two choices and two choices only. Either she can knuckle under and crumble and be a victim, thus circling back into pawndom, or else she can be “changed utterly” by it and turn into a badass queen bitch who goes out with an Uzi and a machete and mows down anyone in her path (and this, although it seems like she’s taking the responsibility for her own actions, is almost as much pawndom and basic flimsy two-dimensionality as the other. I mean, really, is surviving a rape the ONLY thing that will turn a woman into a Ramboette?)
Our young writer from the workshop wasn’t even thinking about it. When I called him out on the rape he did go to THAT place – that it was a “non-lethal” thing, that it was something “big” that would “change” her.
Dear lord, why is it always rape? Aren’t there any other big things that can change a woman?
In this instance her rape really was something that was a plot mover not for her but for his (male) protagonist…) Why is “oh yeah, rape” thrown in just as a general reason for motivations and personality changes which the writer might otherwise be too lazy or too incompetent or thinks it is too much trouble to get into, especially if it’s only a secondary character and oh hey it’s an easy out.
Rape is NOT trivial. And yes, it might be non-lethal in some circumstances but it can be very dangerous in others – and in too many instances leaves the victim, as it were, on trial. But rape is a crime with many victims – a spreading circle of them around the single individual who has been assaulted directly – and in one sense a “literary” rape between the covers of a book also has that circle, the readers of that book. The readers who might well have a closer acquaintance with rape than an author who has never experienced one or been close to somebody who has and who thinks that it’s okay to just use that as “an experience” even if it has no direct plot relevance other than just to give the storyline a shove in a general desired direction.
In literature, as in life, rapes and assaults will happen. But in literature they will happen as a plot device, as something “non-lethal” to throw at a character – which is all too often the consequence of being Fictional While Female – the author shies away from giving that female character protagonist agency in her own right so rape is flung at her at random just for something nasty to happen to her, or to trigger something nasty to happen to those close to her. And when the trap is sprung she then either overreacts, or shrugs off the experience in a startling manner as though it had happened to someone else entirely and is perfectly happy to be necking with the hot! young! protagonist! in the very next chapter without even appearing to remember, let alone recoil away from the thought of, somebody else being intent on pulling mostly the exact same moves but in very different context only a few pages before, giving the reader a bad case of mental whiplash.
Rape is not trivial. If it happens, in a story, it had better have a good reason for being there. Those good reasons are very few indeed, and you really have to make a case for one.
Can we just agree that it’s time to start treating the women in fiction as human beings and not just a potential set of bones to jump when the plot going gets sticky for the rest of the story?
(Author’s note. This was excerpted from a longer post I did on LiveJournal three years ago.)
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