Rape, Realsim, and the Unquestioned Narrative

Sophia McDougall wrote a brilliant post about rape in fiction and the realism argument. It eloquently gets at the heart of so many problems with rape as a narrative device (because, honestly, nine times out of ten, it is used as a convenient device, so let’s call it what it is) and I strongly encourage everyone to read it. One of the points implicitly and explicitly explored in her post is the idea of the unquestioned rape narrative. There have been many words written about the subject, but it’s worth looking at every time. As McDougall points out, it’s a common trope to have female characters raped or threatened with rape, and to then have that rape/attempted rape glossed over and never become an integral part of the narrative. So why put it there in the first place? Similarly she brings up the fact (and others have done this as well) that if a female character isn’t raped or in danger of being raped, then the narrative isn’t authentic or realistic.

So, not only has rape become an accepted part of the cultural narrative for women, in some cases it has become the expected narrative, the only valid narrative. Think about that for a minute. There are countless other stories to tell. Why do we keep coming back to this one? Is this the mythology we really want to ingrain in our culture, telling it over and over until it becomes the equivalent of the hero’s journey? Is this what we want young women and men to aspire to, to expect, until shrug their shoulders and say that’s just the way life is?

That’s not to say rape should never be written about, but it should never be written about unquestioningly, as if it is par for the course and a perfectly acceptable thing. If you’re on an epic journey, of course rape is part of your past or future. If you’re a kick ass action hero and the baddie has you pinned, of course you will be threatened with rape. Unless you’re male.

Which is another brilliant part of McDougall’s article, unpacking the ‘realism argument’ for the inclusion of rape in fiction, and applying it to individuals who easily find themselves in as many or more dangerous situations as the majority of heroines – James Bond and Batman. Whereas I can actually think of a few situations outside of the movies where Batman has been forced into sexual situations against his will by use of drugs and where verbal threats of a suggestive nature have been used against him, this has not been the case with James Bond. Until the most recent movie.

One of the first things I remarked on after seeing Skyfall was that I appreciated the fact that a male hero was finally subjected to the same kind of treatment a female hero in the same situation would have been. Not that I advocate threatened rape against anyone, but I hoped it would highlight the double-standard and open a dialog. But in the weeks following, I saw people repeatedly misunderstanding the torture scene, referring to Silva as gay or bisexual, calling the scene a seduction, and a host of other things that missed the point by a mile. Sexuality, sex, attraction, and desire have nothing to do with it. The entire scene from the moment Silva descends in the elevator is about a former agent trying to get inside the head of a current agent using every trick in the book to try to break him. Simple, right?

If the scene had been between Silva and Eve, no one would have batted an eye. More than that, there’s a good chance the scene would have been played for erotic value, shot much like a sex scene, or at least the prelude to one, focusing on Eve’s body for the audience’s titillation and implying a sense of harmlessness and pleasure to the actions on screen. All of which speaks to a deeper and far more troubling problem – the fact that some people still don’t seem to grasp that rape and sex are not the same thing. They are not points on a sliding scale where one is simply more extreme than the other. Rape is an act of violence; it has nothing to do with sexuality.

This comes back to the problem of unquestioned narratives and assumptions. It’s why we’re still having discussions about ‘legitimate rape’, the responsibility of the victim to prevent rape from happening, and why certain senators reportedly smirked and laughed at the comparison between rape and forced transvaginal ultrasounds. Because rape isn’t consistently treated as an act of violence. It’s equated with sex, and sex is fun and a little bit naughty; it’s okay to laugh about nervously, and it’s fine not to consider it part of polite conversation and therefore not address it all. And this kind of attitude frequently goes unquestioned.

The cultural narrative needs to change.

Would a shooting victim be accused of over-reacting? Would they be told their wound wasn’t really all that serious because they knew the shooter? Would it constantly be thrown into question that they were ever even shot at all? Would it be suggested that perhaps if they’d willingly let the bullet into their body, or been nicer to the gun, none of this would have happened? Would they be accused of enjoying being shot and actively seeking someone to shoot them? Would laws be passed by reasonable human beings forcing victims to carry the bullet inside them for nine months before it naturally worked its way out, and then care for that bullet for the rest of their lives? No. So why is rape treated any differently?

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