Rape and speculative fiction

As I mentioned back in May, Seanan McGuire (of the Crptid and October Daye urban fantasy series) got a question from a fan last year asking when one of her protagonists was “finally” going to be raped. McGuire’s response: Never.
McGuire explains that while rape can certainly be powerful “rape in fiction can also be a problematic and belittling thing, used to put cocky heroines in their places… When a superheroine needs a deeper, edgier backstory, there’s always some previously third-tier villain with a de-powering ray and an agenda waiting in the wings. I read a lot of horror, a lot of comics, and a lot of urban fantasy, and the one thing these three things have in common is rape. Lots and lots and lots of rape.”
First off, I haven’t taken a survey to confirm her assessment, but I have heard people complain many times that rape is a kind of default threat whenever you have a female character, particularly in an action/heroic/fantasy/super-heroic setting.
Justifications? Rape is common in real life. It’s shocking (as Mark Millar notes here). Lots of women get raped. It’s a natural part of the bad guy’s arsenal. It’s a terrible threat a villain can use against women to show how badass they are (see the link in parentheses). And because it is, after all, a truly horrible thing to happen, which adds to the drama. Or as McGuire says, conveniently provides an “edgier” story.
McGuire’s questioner assumed it was inevitable. R. Scott Baker (as Foz Meadows critiques here) argues that men are so innately prone to rape that he natural makes that a plot point: “women get the short end of the stick in all my books.Why? Because they find themselves caught in predatory systems designed to exploit them. Depicting strong women, ‘magic exemptions’, simply fuels the boot-strapping illusion that is strangling contemporary feminism.”
Which is why, I think it bothers me. That’s pretty much identical to the assumption behind so much rape apologism (like James Taranto’s claim that efforts to criminalize sexual assault in the military criminalize male sexuality), that rape is inevitable if women dress sexy/go out drinking/walk around in public without a protector, etc. (I’m not accusing Baker of being a rape apologist in real life, just of using similar logic). As Foz Meadows says, it’s assuming their is only one inevitable way men and women (or any other groups) can relate, and that’s the way we see around us (a common assumption among pop-evolutionary psychologists and “rape is a biological adaptation” theorists. Who are wrong).
(Some form of “rape is inevitable” may have cropped up in Barry Malzberg’s several-decades-old book on writing SF, Engines of the Night, which I remember primarily for a lot of whinging about his creative torment as a writer. In discussing stupid SF concepts, he referenced a couple of times male characters who gain godlike power of some sort, but never rape anyone.
Now I don’t disagree that many men with power absolute would indeed rape someone—but they’d do lots of other horrible things too, so why single rape out? Other than apparently it felt like a more obvious example of Power Corrupting than, say, conquering the world or killing people who annoy him. Both Irredeemable and Keith Laumer’s Test to Destruction show power corrupting without any rape whatsoever. And show it damn well, too).
And while rape can be powerful, as McGuire points out, it’s also a cheap shot. An easy way to put a woman in her place. Or let her lover/partner/whoever avenge her while she’s all fetal. As noted in the comments here, if rape is about showing how bad-ass the villain is, it’s not really about the victim at all.
And of course, a lot of these arguments in favor of using rape could be applied to male rape (as comics writer Steven Grant once pointed out). It shows the rapist is hard core and dangerous. It gives the story more edge. It demonstrates the villains evil dominion. And prison rape is notoriously about displaying and flaunting power and dominance, so why not?
Yet somehow, we don’t see it as much. Go figure.

1 Comment

Filed under Politics, Reading, Undead sexist cliches, Writing

One response to “Rape and speculative fiction

  1. Pingback: Genre discussions (#SFWApro) | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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