There’s an interesting discussion going on at Feminist SF Blog (which I’m now a contributor to) about Battlestar Gallactica and rape as a plot device. The post that generated this discussion is not about BG or Rape, and thus it has drifted a wee bit off topic. I think it’s an important conversation to have, though, and not just in the context of SF media (though I will certainly use that as my springboard).
You see, I am tired of depictions of rape in media. Not because I think rape is a ‘done’ subject or that there’s no more to say about it. Quite the contrary. But I am tired of seeing rape on my TV and in my fiction because it’s never addressed, it’s used, and used badly, and used for all the wrong reasons. Because it’s used and abused by writers and filmmakers and media people we run the risk of trivializing rape. Or, worse, seeing it as something slightly arousing.
This will not do.
I’m going to warn any potential readers that this post and discussion might be triggering, thus you may want to skip it if you feel it will upset you in that way. I’m going to warn any potential commenters that I’m going to monitor the discussion very closely and will not allow any bullshit, abuse, or minimalization of the act of or portrayal of rape. It’s a touchy subject, so let’s not get crazy.
I’ll start with when I reached my personal threshold on stories with rape as an element. I used to be a ‘slush reader': a technical publishing term for the person or persons who read submissions for magazines or book publishers. The magazine I first slushed for accepted science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories. I saw my share of bad fiction, believe me. But the worst ones, the ones I still (unfortunately) remember, are the ones where rape was a major part of the plot.
The majority of these stories were horror (because some people seem to think that horrific = horror, a sad mistake) but we had a share of sf and f stories like this, too. Most of them started out with the rape, or got to it within the first three pages. It was clear that the author was using rape to show that a certain character was bad/evil/not to be trusted. Or it was there for shock value. It’s like showing a villain kicking puppies, but much more annoying.
All of these stories were rejected.
Mind you, I didn’t kick them back simply because they contained rape. The writing itself was usually not very good, or the story was pointless and not horror at all, just gross and annoying. But these stories had the effect of waking me up to the many times I’d seen rape depicted in fiction and the reason for its use. I started to notice the many TV shows, movies (cinematic & not), and books with rape as a plot point. I saw it more and more until I realized that the trope was everywhere.
A long time ago I wrote a post about Lifetime original movies and how much I despised them. One of the reasons I noted was the incredible number of movies about rape. Women get raped by men they know, by men they don’t know, by husbands, boyfriends, stalkers, and ghosts. Sometimes the women get pregnant and deal with that, sometimes they have to find this man, bring him to justice, and deal with that, sometimes they have to come to terms with their pain, trauma, and fear with or without support. I other words, Lifetime has covered a range of rape experiences three times over. Yet, they continue.
There comes a point when it gets to be too much. That point comes when it stops being about helping, informing, or supporting women and becomes more about how many people they can shock and how many ratings points that will generate. And that is really disgusting.
This is coming from a network that is supposedly “For Women”.
Often, Lifetime movies that have rape in them are about rape and how a woman deals with it. In other media, particularly in SF/F media, rape is thrown in as a plot point, or for a bit of easy characterization. As I said above, if you see a character raping someone, that is usually an indication that the character is meant to be evil. It’s quick and easy for the creator to do this. I wonder if they even consider the implications of it?
Another way creators use rape is to show that a character (99% of the time a female one) is ‘strong’. She may have been raped, but that didn’t reduce her to a snivelling mess, oh no! She got angry! She got strong! She got even! Thus passively putting down any woman who was actually raped and did not react in that way. This is also quick characterization, and it’s just as cheap and lazy as ‘he’s a rapist so we know he’s the bad guy’.
The problem with this use of rape in fiction and media is twofold. It’s cheap and lazy, as I said, and it’s also using rape instead of addressing it. When we see rape in media, we see it used as a way for men to exert their power over women, or used as a way to tell us something about a character, or used to drive a plot in a certain direction, or used to highlight vulnerability, depravity, and power struggles FOR ENTERTAINMENT .
I need to sit back and breathe, so here are a couple of quotes from the discussion on FeministSF:
Ide Cyan on Battlestar Gallatica:
That’s FOUR recurring female characters on this show that have been raped or threatened with rape, and three out of the four lead female characters.
NONE of the male characters, be they lead characters or supporting characters, have been raped.
No, male characters have the privilege of being seduced , which clearly implies they have too much power to be forced .
Laura Q (quoting the comment in its entirety because she makes excellent points):
I think Angry Black Woman (ABW) nailed the point about rape: It’s used, cheaply and disproportionately, as a plot device in SF/F generally (and, it sounds like, BG). Eric (and maybe others; sorry, I just skimmed the discussion) are pointing out that rape is used to show that humans are prone to bad behavior and that rape is inscribed as a “bad thing”. Well, no shit. I think mainstream media characterizations of rape as a “good thing” are rare. But there’s a lot more to use of rape as a plot device than whether it’s shown as good or bad.
Liz Henry has written elsewhere about the eternal rapeability of female characters–that female characters in FSF are frequently shown as rapeable in order to highlight their goodness/innocence/vulnerability/femaleness or other traits. What you all are describing in BG sounds like the same thing: the use of rape and rapeability as a shortcut device for characterization or plot development (as ABW puts it). I’ll add that it’s also often for shock value & titillation–I can’t speak to BG since I haven’t seen it, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that wasn’t an *element* of the choices.
Let me suggest that this “shortcut” is hackneyed & tired, #1. Pretty much, we know that women are rapeable. If popular entertainment creators, directors & writers are interested in plot shortcuts & titillation, here are a few suggestions:
* equal opportunity rapeability: men can be raped and sexually assaulted too. (The point that Ide raised about men being seduced rather than raped is important and says a lot about the double standards in SF/F as a whole.)
* realistic depictions of rape as a crime involving serious repercussions to victims, whether “strong” or not
* realistic depictions of *other* crimes than rape which also involve serious repercussions to victims; for instance, physical assaults NOT involving genitals or sexual contact can raise PTSD, issues of vulnerability, etc.
* uses of crimes that are NOT rape to show how humans treat each other badly or as stand-ins for criminality, insanity, or bad-characterness of the villain
* analyses which contextualize rape in feminist terms: meaning, the next time we have our sensitive female character talking to her therapist or weeping over the rape or attempted rape, why don’t we also have some assessment of rape as a political issue, an expression of violence used to control women?
This is a problem not easily solved.
I offer no conclusions here. No calls to action, either. I’m opening this up for discussion. Dissect my views if you want. Challenge me. Or, agree. Offer up your list of books or stories you wish you hadn’t read or shows and movies you wished you hadn’t watched because of this issue. Talk about it, is what I’m saying. The only way things are going to change is if we talk about it thoroughly and intelligently.