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.

23 Comments

  • Ford A. Thaxton
    Posted May 22, 2015 at 1:35 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    I”m sorry, but have you ever seen any motion pictures made in the last 80 years?

    The scene was very well directed and the reason the camera went to THEON was to see his reaction (As the stand in for the Audience) at the horror of seeing someone who he had grown up with being abused by the same person who had abused him and being powerless to do anything but be forced to watch but cry… That is the point of showing him weeping…. The fact we didn’t see what was happening and could only her sobs off screen and seeing THEON’s reaction is what gives the scene it’s power.

    • Brigit McCone
      Posted May 22, 2015 at 5:38 am | Permalink

      I think part of the problem is that Game of Thrones has just worn out its trust with female viewers. Too many prostitutes murdered, including by the sympathetic hero. Too much casual background rape. Too many main characters (Dany, Cersei) raped without getting a chance to process their trauma or express it in any meaningful way. And the centering of Theon in Sansa’s rape is part of a much wider trend of using the rape of women to motivate and challenge men. As Cate Young points out, women are just weary of this. Any individual example can be justified by character, plot or whatever, but the cumulative effect is just numbing, crushing and overwhelming.

      I know many, many male viewers who claimed that Theon’s torture had become upsetting, gratuitous and unnecessarily graphic. That is what Game of Thrones has been doing to its women routinely, episode after episode after episode, and now Sansa’s rape is supposed to be about Theon too? At least his emotions were centered in his own torture.

      P.S. Women are 51% of the audience. Therefore, Theon is not automatically the stand-in for THE audience, but for AN audience (mostly of men who struggle to relate to female characters like Sansa). Sansa herself is the stand-in for many female viewers, hence their upset when she is casually raped off-screen.

  • Ford A. Thaxton
    Posted May 22, 2015 at 1:50 am | Permalink

    One other thing…..

    “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.”

    WOW, that a pretty SEXIST comment as far as I can see.

    I have know members of my own family who have been survivors of Sexual Assault and I’ve see the pain of this in there faces and I take this subject quite seriously.

    But Really bad thins happen to good people every day of the week, rape is a awful fact of life.

    GAME OF THRONES is set in a world where Women are not treated very well and rape is something that happens far too often, but I’ve seen vastly worse things occur on the show which no one seemed to have been as outraged about.

    We are also have not yet seen the aftermath of these events and how Sansa will have to deal with it.

    • Brigit McCone
      Posted May 22, 2015 at 5:34 am | Permalink

      I think Robert Jackson Bennett’s essay, quoted in this very article, pretty much covered your points: the rape of men and the sexual abuse of boys also happens in real life, yet it is not used as a plot device in fiction in the same way, even though it could be justified by the same arguments.

      P.S. when you read a female viewer’s heartfelt response to sexual violence, seize on one sentence about how male commentators often lack empathy with female viewers, and accuse her of being sexist (sorry “SEXIST” in shrieking caps), doesn’t that show… a staggering lack of empathy? Dude, I think you just broke irony. Your penance should be to listen to Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” on a continuous loop for two hours.

      P.P.S. are depictions of outlandish, medieval tortures really “vastly worse” than depictions of a crime that many female viewers have experienced? Are you qualified to judge another person’s trauma as “vastly less”?

      • Romantic Placebo
        Posted May 24, 2015 at 3:40 am | Permalink

        This.

  • Silver
    Posted May 22, 2015 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    I hated what they did on Game Of Thrones, its made me utterly loose all respect for the show and I was already weary after the other incident the worst part is the writers said they were empowering Sansa’s character by doing it. There is nothing empowering about rape it’s taking away someone’s power on every level and hurting them emotionally on every level possible. I’ve been thinking about this and I think the problem is its the male writers on these shows and that there are not enough female writers to tell them that what there writing is horrible, unnecessary and a poor plot line. I also think women have stood up in the past and said this but then the other male writers at the table have shut them down at all costs. I filmy believe that some of these writers don’t even think rape as rape in that they think its just some bad sexual exsperiance that men and women get over in a day or so and its no big deal, when its completely the opposite it gives people night terrors and they live in fear that their rapist will come back and do it again. I agree rape is a cheap plot line and its not just heterosexual rape its gay rape as well, I’ve seen orange is the new black have people thinking that one woman’s dialogue to her her ex girlfriend that she’s was going to have sex with her in her sleep be perceived as some kind of sexy talk when what the woman was actuality threatening rape and its was blatantly obvious. I agree rape needs to stop in shows but I think sociality needs to change to make this possible because its only when rape is perceived as bad as cannibalism by men, women and teens will it end and no longer find its way in to plot lines in shows and media.

  • Romantic Placebo
    Posted May 24, 2015 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    “Rape for flavor” is officially the worst phrase ever to be used in the context of TV…

    • Posted May 24, 2015 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

      Sorry about that! I wanted something that would evoke the casual way rape tropes get inserted into media narratives. Too much?

      • Romantic Placebo
        Posted May 24, 2015 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

        Anything involving rape becoming a phrase is really too much, but it’s necessary unfortunately.

  • Romantic Placebo
    Posted May 24, 2015 at 3:40 am | Permalink

    Spot on. I’m sick of trying to talk with fangirls about how this is problematic, how everything they say is just justifying the events, and the fact that it’s all because they love the character so much that they HAVE to see something good out of shitty things happening to them…

    Rape MUST be represented, but goddamit it’s amazing how little men seem to understand about it. I was talking with a bunch of people during the Emma Sulkowicz verdict, and it just occurred to me that they were all convinced of the need to evaluate her story and her actions SO closely in order to find ANY excuse that “proved” she was lying. Men and women say they hate rape, but will look for any reason to defend rapists, even if that sends a horrible message to alleged survivors.

    Men want unambiguous circumstances, and fiction gives them to them, and in the process it hides away the nature of rape in our society. Of how people don’t come forward immediately, of how some try to stay friends with their rapist because they can’t bare the thought of that relationship changing, and the self-blame that occurs when they try to convince themselves that if only THEY hadn’t “let” themselves feel violated. Of the fact that coming forward is not something women can just DO in order to ruin a man’s reputation; they have been raised to know that making an accusation is the quickest way to ruin their OWN lives, not their assailants’.

    These portraits of assault we keep getting from our most widely viewed source are like crayon drawings, made with broad strokes of cruelty and splashes of pain. And when they’re done, men just hang them up in a gallery and say “See? Aren’t we brave depicting what people who aren’t us go through?”
    And women can only stand there, shaking their head and not knowing how to explain how their painting makes them feel…

    • Brigit McCone
      Posted May 24, 2015 at 7:41 am | Permalink

      What kills me is that you can use the freedom of TV to show, totally unambiguously, that a character was raped (e.g. Cersei’s repeated no’s and visible distress while Jaime forces himself on her) and the creators / male viewers will STILL question it. That suggests that, while we justify our need to discredit survivors with the “what if they were lying” defense, it actually is just that: a pathological need to discredit survivors.

      • Brigit McCone
        Posted May 24, 2015 at 8:23 am | Permalink

        By the way, further to your “rape MUST be represented” remark, I really recommend ‘Blackstone’, the show I reviewed this week, as a show that is hard-hitting about violence and misogyny while centering the responses of women, empowering their resistance and never feeling gratuitously titillating in its depiction of sexual violence (though it has some male-gazey filming of strippers, but you can’t have everything). If Ford A. Thaxton is still reading this thread, I’d definitely tip ‘Blackstone’ as an example of how the “culture of misogyny and normalized rape” thing can actually be depicted responsibly.

      • Romantic Placebo
        Posted May 24, 2015 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

        Or a pathological need to not see certain “morally ambigious” male characters as fully horrible.

        Walter White syndrome.

        • Brigit McCone
          Posted May 24, 2015 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          Ha! yeah. Can’t shake the suspicion that Walda White would be branded a “psycho hell bitch” after episode 1

      • Gowan
        Posted May 25, 2015 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

        Anyone think that it is somewhat like Fifty Shades of Grey in that regard? Creators, it seems, manage to represent real things that exist in the real world, and totally misunderstand their own creation. With Fifty Shades, it is a pretty accurate depiction of an abusive relationship, with GoT it is an accurate depiction of how rape often looks in the real world … it always puzzles me how they can show it so accurately, yet not be aware of what it is.

        It is as if you read a perfectly well-written story and then are introduced to the author, who happens to be a monkey with a typewriter.

        • Brigit McCone
          Posted May 26, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

          Or something scarier than a monkey with a typewriter – a human who has normalized and romanticized abusive behavior in their own life.

          NOTE: I’m not specifying that the creators were abusive/abused, it could be a question of witnessing or even picking it up from second-hand accounts. But, like you say, they certainly capture the real-life flavor while misinterpreting it.

    • Signify
      Posted June 14, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Women must not only “stand there, shaking their heads.” Speak out loudly and strongly. Don’t be “nice.” “Nice” hurts. Five years ago, or so, I was stunned, when a well-known woman who claims to be an earth goddess, uber-feminist type, supported the sending of photographs of their breast cancer altered breasts to an unknown man who claimed he wanted to put them in a book. Fully sanctioned, women sent in the photographs. I tried hard to put a stop to this, but I was eviscerated by that community for warning and protesting. (There was no book).

      Why would a completely competent woman and her ‘followers’ sell themselves out, sell their very breasts, and the disease which ravaged them, to a stranger. I hear middle school girls screaming the entire time they are outside. They’re playing a role that has not been vanquished. When I was that age, the girls were more often competing with the boys on the jungle gym.

      Women need to teach their daughters, and their daughter’s daughters, that they can not only survive, but flourish, without playing stereotypical roles in this lifetime. (On that note, say, “girls and women,” – not “people,” please, even as we know that boys and men are also raped).

      Question: do you all watch these shows as a sociological test – and, if not – why do you watch them.

  • r daniel
    Posted May 31, 2015 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
    • Posted June 3, 2015 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      I love this tweet. So. Much.

    • EggSalad1
      Posted January 3, 2016 at 6:45 pm | Permalink

      It’s not a matter of simply not depicting sexual violence. Fury Road is great, but Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a far more explicit treatment of similar material, has a lot more to teach us about creating narratives addressing the topic that neither trivialize or exploit.

    • TiberiusNugicus
      Posted January 14, 2016 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      Because Mad Max and Game of Thrones are so similar in plot line and themes right?

  • Signify
    Posted June 14, 2015 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    It was only within the last four days that I’ve heard about ‘Thrones’, and then, with a vengeance. The hypothesis in this house is in agreement with thoughts here: that the general public has become emotionally and mentally sterile, and that it is only the shockingly disturbing, yet, as you say, ‘fictional’ references, that they come ‘alive’.

    Anyone who does not understand the extremely negative effect this show, and other things like it, is having on humanity, is already dead. I don’t want to have it in my mind that there are so many people who are in favor of a show like this, and that, on some level, these themes are, in fact, integrated in their thoughts and actions. It is soul death.

    Do we want medical professionals who are enthralled with a show like this? Students and teachers? I’ll tell you this: if I encounter anyone who embraces this “thing,” or anything like it, that’s the last time they will encounter me, or mine.

    There should be censorship. Television and the Internet and video games bombard the dead general public with violent scum. This is not “Freedom of Expression;” this is perversity. (I’ll add that anyone who participates in the making of shows like this is guilty of perpetuating violence).

    I am grateful this website exists, and that you all get the big picture. Imagine if I had not found testimony that counters the popular acceptance of violence.

  • Derek Orrino
    Posted July 10, 2015 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Nothing should be out of bounds or taboo in fiction. It would be a sad world to live in if writers were not able to explore things like rape and murder and how they affect characters. This is a really disappointing read.

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