The Problem with Rape's Portrayal in Fiction

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There are lots of reasons why rape's portrayal in media is difficult. Beyond the fact that these scenes or "plot events" can act as triggers for a painfully high portion of the population, there's the fact that we're talking about a very real experience with weighty implications. In media and fiction, the portrayal isn't always done particularly well or with much sensitivity.

Now, I don't intend "sensitivity" to mean that discussion of rape should be off limits. However, there are myths about rape that our portrayals tend to perpetuate. Worse yet, the portrayal of rape tends to be used to serve the narratives of men while putting women in the role of victim or damsel.

Our portrayal of rape should more closely reflect what happens in the real world, and that those portraying sensitive topics should be aware of the myths they are perpetuating.

Here are two of the major issues as I see them.

The Issue of Demonic Rapists

The people who commit rape in fiction and media tend to be unequivocally terrible people with no moral compass. More often than not, these are the monsters lurking in the bushes. The problem is that, in real life, rape isn't perpetuated by demons. It's perpetuated by complex people, and typically not by strangers.

About 90% of rape cases involve an existing relationship—often with a friend or romantic partner. Only about 5% of those committing rape would be considered psychotic, and only a minority would be considered psychologically abnormal. In many instances, no physical force of violence is used during the rape. It's terrible and terrifying that rape is committed by those who should be trustworthy, and it's deeply unsettling that rapists are rarely maniacs or monsters (even though they are clearly doing something monstrous). Yet that is where we stand, and it's a far cry from how fiction (be it in television, movie, book, or some other form) portrays it.

That the complexity is removed is understandable but not acceptable. The consistent portrayal of rapists as evil strangers perpetuates common myths about what rape is. Fiction creates the world we see around us, and the overwhelming presence of "demonic rapists" teaches a mythology that makes rape all about evil people rather than major societal problems. It makes it harder to spread awareness, educate, and move forward with effective solutions.

It's not a matter of saying that stranger rape in fiction should be off limits. It's about saying that our portrayal of rape should more closely reflect what happens in the real world, and that those portraying sensitive topics should be aware of the myths they are perpetuating.

Women Become Narrative Objects

Beyond the issue of reinforcing inaccurate conceptions of rape, the portrayal of rape in fiction often uses women as narrative objects designed to serve the story of male characters.

A good example of this is found in Game of Thrones. While many of you know I'm a big fan of the show, the last season was disappointing in a number of ways, and its portrayal of rape was the original cause for me wanting to write this article. So, *spoilers*: While the books have a fake version of Arya being abused, the TV show detours Sansa from her path of empowerment to have her abused, raped, imprisoned, and threatened with mutilation. Ultimately, Reek saves her. Ramsay becomes more hate-worthy while Reek is able to take his first step of redemption. Sansa loses control of her own narrative and comes to serve the narrative of male characters.*endspoilers*

This is far from the only example. I won't go into the details, but those of you who have read Patrick Rothfuss's Wise Man's Fear can probably figure out the instance I'm referring to—where, once again, rape is being used to demonize the bad guys and make the good guy more heroic.

Rape is habitually used in fiction to either a) demonize male characters and make it clear that they are villainous and deserve whatever is coming to them, or b) make male characters heroic because they save the helpless women from rape (or at least take vengeance). In either case, the women are not acting but acted upon. To quote Anita Sarkeesian, this is a game where "women aren't the opposing team. They are the ball."

It's important to write strong female characters, but character strength and narrative strength must both be accounted for to prevent women from becoming objects. We should always ask, "Whose story does this serve?" If female characters are consistently being disempowered for the sake of making men more hateable or likeable, then that's just not okay.


Of course, there's more to talk about here. There are examples (good and bad) to examine. There's the discussion of how we fail to follow the women after they are raped and show their emotional journey, resilience, or pain as they move through life after trauma. There are the major social questions, related issues of women "crying rape" in fiction, and so on and so forth. But for now, I'll leave it here.

What do you think? Have any good or bad examples to share? Other thoughts on how our portrayal can be improved?

Robbie Blair

Column by Robbie Blair

Robbie Blair is a world-wandering author and poet who blogs about his adventures, the writing craft, and more. He was doomed to write when, at just three years old, his English-professor father taught him the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Robbie has since published more than a dozen creative pieces in literary journals (including Touchstones, Enormous Rooms, Warp + Weave, and V Magazine). Robbie Blair's website is loaded with travel narratives; original creative work;  writerly humor; pretty pictures; writing games, lessons, tips, and exercises; and other uber-nifty™ content.

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Comments

Cody Dagg's picture
Cody Dagg September 14, 2015 - 7:16am

I agree that it did take away control from her own story. Shafted her role a bit.

Robert Parker's picture
Robert Parker September 14, 2015 - 8:52am

Another serious problem with how the rapists are demonized is that it reinforces the idea among potential rapists that "if I'm not a villain, nothing I do could be rape." This is evidenced by the #NotAllMen concept -- this sincere belief that a normal male isn't capable of rape, and thus the men themselves ignore the warning signs that they're engaging in criminal activity.

Alon Perel's picture
Alon Perel September 14, 2015 - 9:46am

"To quote Anita Sarkeesian, this is a game where "women aren't the opposing team. They are the ball.""

Lol. *facepalm*

Monica WarBabe's picture
Monica WarBabe September 14, 2015 - 9:48am

I will never forgive nor read anything more by Lev Grossman after he used rape in the most vile way during the second of his Magicians books. *spoiler* Julia's rape by a demon gave her her ultimate powers and she ended up liking it halfway through. I still want to punch him when i think of that.

Corey Armstrong's picture
Corey Armstrong September 14, 2015 - 10:28am

Here are my issues with you examples. First and foremost you used fantasy based fiction as your examples. Not only do both George and Patrick write strong females characters, but the enviroment in which these worlds take place is a male dominate society, which is realistic. During the times of swords amd shields, women were not viewed as equal to men. Now to have Characters like Deena Cersei, Dany, Arya etc. I think both these writes have done an amazing job portraying strong female characters where in a real world setting women were viewed as property (not that I am saying they are, that's just how it was during our dark periods of history). Secondly,I do agree that Sansa should not have been used to convey fake Arya's story. However, it was a necessary evil to consolidate stories into 10 episodes. Why not use 50 shades of grey as your example. The main character uses her save word and the dude still keeps going. That's rape that's not demonized. Yet women still glorify Christian Grey or whatever his name is.

Rich Paul's picture
Rich Paul September 14, 2015 - 11:00am

Every crime victim "loses control of his story".  If they were in control, they would not be crime victims.  Just as a person who is raped (both genders rape, both genders are raped, I know some people don't want to know that) is not in control of the situtation, a person who is murdered, kidnapped, robbed, beaten, tortured, arrested, jailed, tried, convicted, flayed, drawn and quartered, castrated, branded, smashed with hammers, set on fire, drowned, poisoned, toe-cut, nose-cut, beaten with bastanada, or has their hands and feet chopped off are not generally in control of the situation.

Meanwhile, the idea that men who rape are healthy and normal is <b>insane</b>.  You may not be able to locate or diagnose what is wrong with them, but there is no question in the mind of any sane person that something is wrong with them.  Perhaps, if you regard rape as normal and healthy, there is something wrong with you?

adifferentworld's picture
adifferentworld September 14, 2015 - 11:53am

Perhaps I'm not qualified to comment about the specific examples you've chosen, as I haven't seen or read the titles to which you refer.

However...

In the case of a woman being sexually assaulted, it is realistic for there to be onlookers or participants who use the situation to their advantage in either direction- for the greater good or for their own personal gain. (I'm thinking of the film The Whistleblower, in which a sex trafficking victim is turned away by the system because she won't testify against the men who held her life in their hands.) The woman frequently gets lost in the narrative, and I say narrative because that's how it feels. Unreal, like a movie. A doctor or someone in the justice system may easily be horrified by the event and encourage the victim to pursue mainstream justice to ease their own sense of right and wrong. They could just as easily do so to pad their resume with a successful treatment or conviction. 

Women are used as balls instead of acknowledged as players in all kinds of ways. To anyone who takes the time to notice, it can be seen in a case of revenge rape, "spoils of war" rape, and more subtly in statements such as "You should bring your wife," as she sits right there. In these cases, I remind people of my name, not my marital status, which is often confused as ownership and can go both ways.

To say that myths are being perpetuated is not a statement I can stand behind in this case. People really do think this way. What I'd like to see is examples of this happening, and the woman standing up on her own two feet to walk away from the so-called saviour AND the perpetrator. Maybe she'll become president and have both men by the balls. Hopefully, she'll use her power more responsibly than they did.

To get the ball rolling, maybe I'll write that story. 

JohnConstantine's picture
JohnConstantine September 14, 2015 - 11:56am

Agree with Rich Paul, and not sure I can agree with any of the points in the article

You said fiction creates the world we see around us? Then where does the fiction come from, and furthermore why is it called fiction? If the publication of GoT isn't going to conjure magic and dragons into existance or bring back the popularity of swords, I highly doubt it will effect rape figures.

First of all, yes lots of rapes are commited within relationships or by people who are known to the victim, however I cannot for the life of me understand where you think this somehow makes them better people? The fact that somebody is in a relationship with somebody else doesn't make them a good person or non-demonic or whatever, Ramsay Bolton has friends, assosciates and relationships in game of thrones. It doesn't make him not a monster. Hitler had friends and even a wife. Rapists may not always be strangers, but they are always evil. I don't know what fiction you watch/read but more often than not that's the way rape represented in fiction, when it's represented and it's deeply troubling that you would think otherwise.

As to your second point, well, Sansa never had control of her story. That's the point of Sansa, that she is unable to claim her own destiny and therefore gets shunted around from person to person until her strategic usefulness dries up, unlike Arya(another woman btw). She didn't lose control of her story when she was raped, she never had control to begin with. Not because "women are consistenly disempowered" but because some women in GoT have power(Cersei,Margaery,Arya,Brienne, Lady Stoneheart, etc.) and some don't(Sansa, various prostitutes). Just like some men in game of thrones have power(tywin,jaime, ned stark, roose bolton, etc.) and some don't (rickon, hodor). In short, you're creating a problem that doesn't exist through myopia and willful ignorance.

Unsurprising that you would quote Anita Saarkesian, was Jaime not being "acted upon" when his hand was cut off?

Theron Couture's picture
Theron Couture September 14, 2015 - 5:33pm

I think the greatest issue with rape in literature is not the devaluation of the woman or the dehumanization of the male, but of the tendency to forget that any forceful sexual act comes from a position of power and strength. Abuse of said power over a weaker victim is the real issue. Rarely does mainstream literature explore the dynamic of rape beyond its use as a paternalistic trope. Not all victims of sexual assault/abuse are women, and not all perpetrators of sexual assault/abuse are men. Arguing over specific character treatments when the very act of rape has become the goto device for flattening character identity is missing the point of the problem entirely. Even legal terminology for what amounts to the same forceful set of actions uses differing vocabulary, leading to a separate but equal treatment of the same crime.

Andreia Marques's picture
Andreia Marques from Brazil is reading Oryx and Crake - Margaret Atwood September 14, 2015 - 6:02pm

"Sansa never had control of her story. That's the point of Sansa, that she is unable to claim her own destiny and therefore gets shunted around from person to person until her strategic usefulness dries up, unlike Arya(another woman btw). She didn't lose control of her story when she was raped, she never had control to begin with."

She lost the command of her own storyline when the authors axed it in the name of making Ramsey - a seriously minor character - more evil for views.

In the book series, it's shown that Sansa is learning and beginning to be a player in the Game of Thrones. Sure, she's in control of another man, but she's learning and beginning to take the reins of her own life. She helps, she connives, and she is beginning to earn her empowerment.

In the series, she's raped and then saved by a dude. There is no growth, there is no change, merely continuation of her suffering.

So *any* character growth she could have was axed for Ramsey and Reek's sake, even though they matter absolutely not at all in the books. Because they needed an obvious Big Bad and Reek needed his redemption.

Also, while rapists are evil by default, they are not always "flay the victims alive, hunt women with wild dogs, mutilate people for shits and giggles" obvious evil, and that's what they mean by demonic evil. Sometimes they're dads, they're well-known and well-liked in their communities, they're generally considered normal, upstanding citizens. Nobody would claim Ramsey is a normal person, because he's *obviously* evil. That's what they mean. Rapists are not always - actually, they're much more likely not to be -  obviously, nearly comically evil like Ramsey, yet media keeps portraying them as such.

Most of the time, the rapists are the Ned Starks, not the Ramsey Boltons of the world.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated September 14, 2015 - 7:05pm

@Rob - 

It's important to write strong female characters

I'm hoping you don't mean all females should be written as strong characters.

@tracitse - 

Wait what? I'm not saying it is good storying telling to have every woman need a man to come to save her, but a guy trying to help someone in a bad spot deserves to have that woman scorn him and come back and have power over him? What kind of narrative is that? No good deed goes unpunished?

Shel T. Ferlan's picture
Shel T. Ferlan September 14, 2015 - 9:16pm

May I suggest you Baise moi, a French film about rape and payback wrote, acted and directed by women. It's hard and disturbing but I believe it matches the point.

Dinah Day's picture
Dinah Day September 15, 2015 - 12:39pm

Thank you for your article. I have no authority on this subject, but just last night I finished the last season of Orange is the New Black and I was impressed by the women-centered way the writers handled this complex issue. They put the audience in the same place as the victim, wondering if the new guard was trustable or not the whole time. I wouldn't have liked him, but I understand the female prisoner was in a very different situation than mine. And although i never related to her character before, i totally related to this even though i have minimal experience with being violated myself. The psychological abuse she put herself through afterwards, and the way her friend (one of my favorite characters on the show) convinced her she was - in fact - raped, made me burst into tears.  But i don't think i've ever cried watching the show before, no matter what heart-wrenching storylines were unfolding.

Most importantly, their desire to get revenge (girl with the dragon tattoo style) was thwarted only by their own consciences, and they still have to figure out how to protect the next woman from being abused by him in the same way - in a prison that cannot be trusted. So thoroughly woman-centered and human, i was fixed to the screen.

My only criticism, which i have for most sex scenes, is how the men (in two seperate rape scenes) seem to penetrate more quickly and easily than i generally experience in real life. At one point she whispers, "i'm not even wet"...which is exactly what i was thinking. Perhaps I'm just coming from the perspective of someone who's never been hurt in this way.

As I've felt many times watching this show, I'd love to hear the opinion of someone who's actually been in a situation similar to this.

Ian Osmond's picture
Ian Osmond September 22, 2015 - 5:29am

One of the weirder compliments I ever gave was to Jo Walton, whom I consider a friend.  I told her, "I think you write about rape better than any other author I've read."

Because characters have been raped in her books, and it affects every one of them differently.  Sulien found it unpleasant, but not actually all that significant to her life.  The resulting PREGNANCY was critical to the entire history of the-not-the-British-Isles and her son, the heir to not-actually-King-Arthur.  But, while she didn't LIKE the fact of the rape, it didn't even make the top ten list of important things that happened THAT DAY.

In her most recent book, when one of the characters is raped, it destroys her friendship with the guy who raped her.  But, other than making sure to never be alone with him any more, she doesn't change her behavior or thought patterns or anything.

Every character who's been raped in one of her books reacts differently, and in ways consistent with their personalities, and it's hardly ever the most significant thing about them.

Ian Osmond's picture
Ian Osmond September 22, 2015 - 5:29am

One of the weirder compliments I ever gave was to Jo Walton, whom I consider a friend.  I told her, "I think you write about rape better than any other author I've read."

Because characters have been raped in her books, and it affects every one of them differently.  Sulien found it unpleasant, but not actually all that significant to her life.  The resulting PREGNANCY was critical to the entire history of the-not-the-British-Isles and her son, the heir to not-actually-King-Arthur.  But, while she didn't LIKE the fact of the rape, it didn't even make the top ten list of important things that happened THAT DAY.

In her most recent book, when one of the characters is raped, it destroys her friendship with the guy who raped her.  But, other than making sure to never be alone with him any more, she doesn't change her behavior or thought patterns or anything.

Every character who's been raped in one of her books reacts differently, and in ways consistent with their personalities, and it's hardly ever the most significant thing about them.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal September 25, 2015 - 12:20pm

This conversation will never get anywhere until everyone agrees on what rape is and isn't. And that won't happen any time soon.