The Problem with Rape's Portrayal in Fiction
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.
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?
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