I’m Sick to Death of Talking About Rape Tropes in Fiction

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This guest post by Cate Young previously appeared at her blog BattyMamzelle and is cross-posted with permission.


I’m sick of talking about rape.

Forcible rape, date rape, grey rape, acquaintance rape, spousal rape, statutory rape and now fictional rape. I’m sick to death of explaining why the callous rape of women and girls in media is a very bad thing for our culture and why we should cut it out. *wags finger*

This Game of Thrones storyline is just the latest in a long line of excuses and equivocations for why the depiction of brutal and gendered violence against women is a storytelling necessity. People are sticking their heels in on both sides but to me the moral position is clear: there is nothing to be gained from lazy representations of rape in a media landscape that already devalues women and reduces them to objects and property.

Now I’ve read the arguments in favour of the narrative value of Sansa’s rape. That it showed that Ramsay was a sadist. That it would help Theon come back to himself and help Sansa escape. That it would motivate Sansa to seek vengeance. But it’s all bullshit.

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What did that scene add that we didn’t already know? Did the writers think that cutting Theon’s penis off was too subtle to indicate Ramsay’s sadism? Did they think the brutal murder of her mother and brother were not strong enough motivators for Sansa to want revenge against the Boltons? Could they not conceive of a single other way in which Theon might be able to mentally recenter himself? What about this particular rape scene added such probative narrative value that it had to be transposed from one character to another even as the original victim is excised from the story? All it was is more rape on a show already replete with rape, for the sake of having rape. None of this is new information.

And it’s not that rape should never be represented in fiction. Rape is everywhere. It’s unfortunately an all too real danger of the world we live in. But it’s not as though there is some dearth of rape representation in media. Using rape as a narrative tool is lazy, and especially so when it’s invoked this many times in the same show. We are now at three female characters (all of whom are considered major point of view characters in the novels) who have been raped in the series, two of whom weren’t raped in the source material. It’s just rapes on rapes on rapes up in this bitch…

And then to add insult to injury, the framing of the scene takes the emphasis off of Sansa and her trauma and places it firmly on Theon and his anguish and having the witness the act. That slow close up to Theon’s face as we hear Sansa scream and cry in the background places him and his emotions squarely at the centre of the scene. We see not, Sansa’s emotional turmoil at being humiliated and degraded by her new husband, but Theon’s tortured face as his guilt consumes him. So on top of Sansa being raped in the first place, that violation is used not to make us feel sympathy for her, but for a man who betrayed her and her family. She doesn’t even get to be the subject of the violence that is happening to her. Her pain instead gets used as a device to advance a man’s character arc instead of her own (the perils of which I talked about back in December in this essay about the rape plot in the CW show Reign).

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Aside from being lazy, careless depictions like this are dangerous. They desensitize people to an issue that is still very pressing. It’s not that rape shouldn’t exist in fiction, but they must be framed responsibly. Fictional female characters are forever being raped as retribution against the ills of the men they’re connected to, or as punishment for not being submissive to the men around them. And this happens time and time again across genres and media. So while the denotative reading of these acts might be that “evil men rape” the connotative interpretation over time becomes “rape is a valid punishment for women.”

That is a dangerous idea to be spreading.

As author Robert Jackson Bennett puts it in his brilliant short essay on the subject:

“Now instead of raping a buxom, weeping young woman, your Extremely Bad Dude is now raping a terrified six year old boy. Does it still feel like it deserves to be there? To use the usual fictional rape apologist arguments, there’s no reason this scene shouldn’t exist. Child rape exists, and no doubt happens in times of war. It probably happens even more in third world countries that are at war. Historically speaking, I’m sure there have been thousands of child rapes since the dawn of humanity. Maybe millions. Practically speaking, it would be remiss not to include a child rape scene or two, right? It happens. We must be truthful to reality. It’s our duty. Or, wait – is it possible you’re using this horrific, degrading, monstrous act as window dressing?”

Why is it that sexual violence against women is the only kind of violence seen as such an inevitability that not including it raises suspicions?

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And for all the people who keep harping on about how much worse Jeyne Poole’s fate was in the novels, you’re missing the point. We’re at the juncture now where the series will likely deviate wildly from what George R. R. Martin wrote in the novels and from what he intends to write in the future. This gives the show’s writers enormous latitude to readjust the moral compasses of these characters. Evil men will stay evil, and good men will stay good. But how evil and good they may be is up to them. I find it very upsetting and frankly offensive that in all the retooling that was done to this storyline, the rape scene was the one thing that just had to stay. We’re literally talking about an entirely different character with a different history and experiences, but she just had to get raped because…. “realism?” It’s amazing to me that we can accept a fictional world where dragons are real and men kill their brothers by shadow proxy, but a world without rape (or even just a little less rape!) is unfathomable to some people’s imaginations.

But when it comes down to it, I’m sick of talking about rape because it’s exhausting. I don’t think the men who are disingenuously barging into these conversations understand how truly exhausting this new cultural trend can be for female viewers. And often they bring up the many, many murders on Game of Thrones as a counterpoint, but that isn’t a 1:1 comparison. For one thing, nothing is preventing men from “making a stink” about the excessive violence of these shows. We as women aren’t required to not care about something that affects us because men don’t care about something that affects them. But I digress…

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In our daily lives, murder is not something that most people are actively protecting themselves against. For most men, unless they’re in the people-killing business, getting murdered is not exactly a daily, top of mind concern. But for women? Getting raped is a daily concern. Women have whole routines built around not making ourselves vulnerable to rapists and sexual predators even for a second. Every day we have to think about getting raped. We self-police what we wear, where we go, when we go, how we go, with whom we go, all in an effort to make sure that we’re taking every possible precaution against being raped. And then we’re raped anyway and society tells us it’s our own fault for not having a more effective rape routine.

So for women to then come home, (hopefully having managed to not get raped) and have to watch ALL THE TV SHOWS be about women getting raped? It’s too much. The men defending Sansa’s rape don’t get that this depiction is yet another reminder that rape is everywhere, there’s no escape and that we could be next.

If you really to make a leap, we can see this uptick is the engagement of rape tropes as an element of social control. Because it isn’t just Game of Thrones that’s doing this. From House of Cards to Scandal to Reign, lots of shows are adding rape “for flavour” and it serves as a constant reminder of danger. When we look at it like that, is it really too much to ask that creators are at least responsible with their use of rape in fiction? When you’ve created a scenario where an entire segment of your audience is actively debating whether or not Sansa was even raped because “she chose to play the Game of Thrones” you’re being irresponsible with your craft. These discussions are not fun rhetorical games. They have an active effect on our lives as women. It’s disheartening as a feminist lover of television to find that this is the new status quo. Rape your women, king your men. And watch TV behind your fingers.

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I gotta say, I don’t know how many more television shows I can watch while quietly mumbling “please don’t rape her please don’t rape her” under my breath.

Can we please stop raping our fictional women?

I’m all raped out.

 


Cate Young is a Trinidadian freelance writer and photographer, and author of BattyMamzelle, a feminist pop culture blog focused on film, television, music, and critical commentary on media representation. Cate has a BA in Photojournalism from Boston University and is currently pursuing her MA in Mass Communications so that she can more effectively examine the symbolic annihilation of women of colour in the media and deliver the critical feminist smack down. Follow her on twitter at @BattyMamzelle.