Portrayals of Rape in Fiction: An Exploration of Where It’s Done Wrong or Right and Why
I’ve been thinking about writing this post since the Take Back The SciFi Redux panel at WisCon where we talked about media that portrayed rape in a horrid, sketchy way but also mentioned some media that did it well. The latter list was very small, as you can imagine.
I’ve railed against the way writers of books and television shows and movies use rape at least twice before. But there are obviously some people who still don’t get it, and they don’t know why they don’t get it. What makes the portrayal of rape in book X palatable to me, but the portrayal in book Y sends me into a fit of rage?
There are three books I’ve read in recent years that make excellent examples – two bad examples, one positive example:
- The Two Pearls of Wisdom by Alison Goodman
- Life by Gwyneth Jones
- The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner
Below is a description of each book that contains spoilers for the story and possible triggers for those who’ve been raped or sexually assaulted, so please take care when clicking. Though my hope is that the issues raised will be more helpful than harmful.
The basic premise here is that the protagonist, Eon, is in training to become a Dragoneye — a magic-wielder who helps to channel the powers of the ascendant dragons in this Asian-influenced fantasy world. There’s a dragon for each year in a 12-year cycle — Rat Dragon, Tiger Dragon, Horse Dragon, etc. — and apprentice Dragoneyes are chosen in the year their Dragon is ascendant, then come to full power 12 years later when the cycle comes back around again.
Only boys are allowed to train and become Dragoneyes. Eon is actually a girl in disguise. Her master decided to train and disguise her because she can see the dragons when most people – including the Dragoneyes – can’t, except during special occasions. When Eon goes through the public ritual where the dragon appears and chooses the apprentice, something unexpected happens: a long lost dragon called the mirror dragon (since it’s the dragon for the year of the dragon) appears even though it’s the year of the Rat Dragon, and chooses Eon as apprentice. This very naturally pisses off the Rat Dragoneye dude because he was all set to come to power, and he’s a bastard, anyway.
Though this book is full of a lot of stock elements and plot coupons, I found myself completely engaged by Goodman’s writing and drawn to her characters. There’s a lot going for this book, but my enjoyment of it stopped dead about a third of the way through.
Around this time the Rat Dragoneye dude discovers that Eon is actually a girl disguised as a boy. This is wonderful news for him because he’d been trying to find a way to regain the power he lost when the mirror dragon showed up, was annoyed that the other Dragoneyes on the council and the emperor were politically against him, and he really hated Eon’s master. He pulls Eon into his room and is all “Hahaha, I have found you out! Now you will do what I say and align yourself with me politically or I will expose your secret!”
You’d think that would be enough, right? Oh, but no. After that’s all settled, he decides that he needs to rape Eon, too.
I did not throw the book across the room, but I came really, really close.
It was over a week before I picked it up again and found that Eon didn’t actually get raped because someone came knocking at the door with an emergency. That doesn’t make it any better.
The first thing that annoyed me about this – other than the fact that it happened – was that I wasn’t convinced the Rat Dragoneye would go right for rape. After all, he had multiple ways to exert his power over Eon and he enumerated those ways, so why the hell did he then decide rape was a good idea? Furthermore, it had already been established that for years the Dragoneye dude had been taking an herb or potion or whatever that had the same effect as steroids, including the impotence part. So… WTF?
Second, I am always annoyed when writers go right for rape because it smacks of lazy writing. Yes, rape happens in real life. I am well aware. But I’m also aware that, as a writer, I get to choose what kind of world I build. Goodman chose to build a Chinese-influenced world, yes, but she altered aspects of culture and history. This could have been another alternation. She could have – should have – chosen to create a world in which sexual violence is not part of the default character of the society.
Goodman compounds her error by having the Rat Dragoneye almost rape Eon again at the end of the book. And this time there’s no one to knock at the door or anything. It’s just a really long, drawn out scene of him trying to get at her in a public place in front of other people… and then something magical happens and it’s all okay again.
This is not the way to do it, people. All too often writers use rape or attempted rape to show that a character is a Very Bad Person. In this case, we didn’t need the rape to show us this. Goodman did a wonderful job of painting the Rat Dragoneye as bad, scheming, evil. She gave him plenty of ways to have power over and control Eon. It’s like she did all the good work of creating complex characters and then, in a fit of madness, threw in this bullshit. Or in a fit of lazy writing. Or maybe a fit of “well, it has to happen this way because he’s evil and she’s a woman.”
No. This does not have to be the way. Like I said, as a writer, you can choose not to make it this way.
It’s been a long time since I read this book, so details are sketchy. I’ll relate what I remember as best I can. This novel is a fictional biography of a woman named Anna Senoz, a scientist who makes a potentially breakthrough discovery about gender while contending with her life as a mother, wife, etc. I was a big fan of this book until, again, I ran into an unnecessary rape scene. But this one wasn’t of the “Here’s why the bad guy is bad” variety, but instead of transparent author manipulation, which is just as bad but for different reasons.
At the end of Anna’s university career she has to work with this guy who is a typical alpha male and who gets annoyed with her because she either won’t let him take credit for something she did or won’t let him take full credit or maybe she plans to report something he did to their professors. I honestly can’t remember. But essentially whatever this dude wanted from Anna, doing it would be detrimental to her future career and she doesn’t want to do it.
He comes over to her flat, tries to convince her to do what he wants, fails. He refuses to leave. He cooks for her. More convincing that fails. Then he forces himself on her all while attempting to convince her it’s something she wants.
The result of this rape is that Anna curls into herself. She lets him have whatever academic thing he wanted or, at least, doesn’t challenge him. It changes the whole track of her career, which eventually leads to the breakthrough discovery she makes near the end of the novel.
When I read the book (I did finish it) I felt like giving Gwyneth Jones the evil eye and saying “I see what you did there.”
Blatant author manipulation is annoying no matter what form it comes in, but that it came in the form of a rape just pissed me off double. And the thing is, Jones is an amazing writer and (I would have assumed) better than such trickery.
Thankfully, the rest of the book isn’t all about Anna’s triumph over the devastation rape wrought on her – another tired trope of tiredness. It certainly affects her throughout life, but her life is not about that rape. This is one thing Jones did right.
But I cannot get behind the rape because it was not in any way organic to the story nor necessary except in that Jones needed Anna derailed somehow. I felt, and still feel, that if Jones couldn’t have figured out a way to do this without getting painted in the corner, there’s something really wrong.
I’ll reveal two things up front about this book. 1: It’s one of my favorites. I just love it. 2: It’s written by one of my favorite people. That may color my opinion in this case, but others are free to chime in and refute or back me up.
This book is about Katherine Talbert, niece of the Mad Duke Tremontaine in Kushner’s secondary world (first introduced in Swordspoint). The Duke brings her from the country to his home in the city and makes her learn swordcraft. At first she resists, because fighting with a sword is not something young ladies are supposed to be up to, but then she becomes quite good and learns to love it.
One of the secondary characters in the book is Artemesia Fitz-Levy, a girl about Katherine’s age (16?) who is on the verge of coming out in society at the beginning of the book. By the middle she’s been to many balls and parties, found herself courted by a couple of nice boys, but gets a marriage proposal from Anthony Deverin, Lord Ferris. Ferris is the main antagonist from Swordpoint, though Kushner does a good job of showing us that he’s a jerkwad at the beginning of TPOTS as well.
Ferris is much older than Artemesia – he’s the same generation as her father – and she’s not strictly attracted to him. But her family convinces her that the match is highly desirable and she’s in favor of having a powerful, well-off husband.
Artemesia learns that there are balls and parties that she’s unaware of and not invited to – because they’re for the seedier element in the city… and men – and challenges her fiancée to take her to one of these parties, so he does. At the Rouge’s Ball Ferris seriously gets off on watching other masked men dance with Artemesia in ways that are not, shall we say, proper. Then, when he’s supposedly taking her somewhere to rest and collect herself, his “passion” for her overflows and he pushes her up against a wall and rapes her.
Afterwards, as she’s hiding from Ferris, Katherine stumbles upon her. Finding out what he did, she immediately finds a relative of Artemesia’s to see her safely home.
The closest real-world analogue to this is obviously Date Rape. And what follows in this particular subplot is typical to what many women experience after this type of assault. Artemesia’s parents think she is being absolutely silly when she wants to break off the engagement with Ferris. It would cause a scandal! Plus, she was going to marry him, anyway, so what’s the big deal if they had sex before the wedding? Plus, she was foolish to have him take her to such a party as that. And really, she’s always been overdramatic. She should just get over herself and feel lucky that nothing worse happened to her.
Ferris, of course, tells her that she wanted it, it was her fault, and that she’ll learn to like it when they’re married.
The only person who feels that she was wronged, that it was not her fault, and that she absolutely should not marry Ferris, is Katherine. And this is where the book gets awesome. Katherine, who is now a swordsman (swordswoman?), challenges Ferris to a duel to settle the matter of honor. Though her family feels that their honor has not been impinged, Artemesia rightfully feels that her personal honor, which matters just as much if not more, has certainly been. Katherine feels the same. And so she fights for her friend’s honor. And wins.
Here’s where I think Kushner’s portrayal goes right where many others go wrong.
First, the rape was not used to establish Ferris’ evil villainy. We knew he was an ass and, oh look, more proof. (ETA: This is not necessarily an issue with the other two books under discussion, but is a problem in general with books that include rape or sexual assault. Sorry I didn’t make that clear before!)
Second, the whole situation arises naturally from what we’ve seen of the characters, culture and situation in the novel. Even more so if you read Swordspoint. The sequence of events that happen before the rape don’t feel like author manipulation, and you don’t get a sense she just dropped it in there because Katherine needed someone to duel, or because Artemesia needed to be “ruined” or whatever.
Third, the reactions of Artemesia’s family and her attacker are so fucking typical it makes you want to scream, especially if you’ve been through something similar or watched a friend go through it. But the attitude of the book is always: These people are wrong. Dead wrong. Look at how wrong these people are. Even though Artemesia is depicted as being a bit silly and too concerned with clothes and balls and such, it is never, ever implied by the authorial voice that this was something she deserved or had coming.
Fourth, when her family and society fail Artemesia, it’s another girl her age who believes her, consoles her, and then fights for her honor. Because of Katherine she doesn’t have to marry Ferris and she gains a personal triumph, though of course it doesn’t erase what happened to her. The whole novel is about how Katherine becomes powerful and empowered because she has skill with a sword, and this subplot is one part of that. It’s also a big Fuck You to a society that tries to keep girls confined to a narrow social construct.
I guess what it comes down to is that The Privilege of the Sword does not merely reflect the way things are except with fantasy furniture, but points the way toward the way things should be by modeling it in many different ways in the book.
One good thing I can say about all of these books is that the rape or attempted rape is never written in a way that’s meant to titillate or blur the line between sex and rape. It’s never ambiguous or labeled “seduction” or any such bull. When you start looking at depictions of rape written by men, you get way more of that.
But with the Goodman and Jones novels I ended up feeling very negative toward them overall – even though there was plenty to like otherwise – due to the rapes depicted. And this is how I feel about almost every other book with a rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
I just wish that writers would stop using rape as a shorthand or shortcut. I have said in the past that we should just set rape aside all together since most people don’t seem to know how to handle it right. But TPOTS is the example that makes me say instead: why can’t you all be more like this, if you must?