Rape In Fiction (Or: “Oh, Game of Thrones, Really?”)
(No super-spoilers, but this will talk in vague terms about the latest Game of Thrones episode.)
(You are warned.)
(THE BRIDGE IS OUT)
The latest Game of Thrones episode has a rather, erm, pivotal rape scene in it. Without getting too specific, a normally very powerful woman is very clearly raped during a moment of weakness. And it’s super-gross, in part because the sex in the books is — reportedly, as I have not read them — consensual. In part also because one of these characters has been undergoing some changes as of late and we have come to like this character quite a bit — and this character is also the rapist.
The super-grossness also extends to the commentary after the fact, which frequently flings past whether rape is appropriate in fiction and storytelling and settles on whether the scene was even rape — or, it discusses the granularity of consent, which is fine for legal battles but a little squicky in talking about what happens on-screen with a major pop culture property. The fact that the ensuing discussion was whether or not the victim’s pleas and no’s were loud enough, frequent enough, convincing enough. (Spoiler warning: they were.) Did she kiss back? Was she secretly giving into it? On a book page, this might actually be something you could get across, as we have access to internal dialogue. On-screen, we are left purely to text, only to visual, and what we’re left with is a character who says “no” up until the end, who struggles (albeit weakly), and whose rapist basically says “I don’t care.”
That’s rape. Despite what anyone will tell you, it’s rape. It’s the rape of a powerful (and somewhat unlikable) woman by a less-powerful (and more likable) dude.
It’s rape on-screen. It’s rape off-screen.
The granularity of “no” does not exist. Game of Thrones may be a world of many grays, but a “no” that never turns to “yes” before the sex begins isn’t beholden to any spectrum.
That part is black and white.
The discussion then must be: well, why is this a problem? Rape exists in fiction. And it has to be allowed to exist in fiction. It’s a rough, tough, terrible topic, but to ignore it is all the more sickening — to sweep it under the rug and not shine a line in that dark space is basically to deny it in reality, as well. One of fiction’s chiefmost strengths is that it allows us to bring up these things and make us feel something about them — it’s addressing them, making us deal with it, and it’s being real about it.
That said, as storytellers, it’s vital to think about what we’re putting out there. There exists a mode of thought that says authors have zero social responsibility, and I’d argue that’s technically true in the same way that nobody anywhere has any social responsibility to anyone. We’re all basically just animals in a zoo, but what makes us human is thinking about the ramifications of our actions. And what makes us smart storytellers and capable authors is thinking about the ramifications of our stories. That doesn’t necessarily mean not putting scary stuff on the page (or on the screen). It just means being mindful of consequence.
And one of those consequences is that some of your audience will have been the victims of rape. This is the case because instances of rape and sexual assault against women in particular are very, very high. It leaves living victims. Victims who have to deal with the trauma off-screen. Putting it on the page or screen means forcing them to revisit that act. That’s not to say that, again, rape is verboten. But it does mean you should very seriously look at how you handle the topic. Are you handling it with maturity? With care? Is there a point other than the gratuitousness of it all? Are you using it as a cheap-and-easy plot point, or as a meaningful moment? Is it a lazy trope, or a crucial moment?
The problem, as I see it, with the rape scene in GoT, is many-fold.
First, it’s done in a world where rape is basically as common as horses. It’s referenced damn near every episode. Women are victims. Men are rapists. It’s practically becoming a thesis of the world. The worst thing done to women is rape. Rape, rape, rape. The show is getting rapey as shit. (More notable perhaps because the books aren’t quite so?) At this point, that’s drifting toward fetishistic and gratuitous — in part because it seems to revel in its statement.
Second, it’s more a trope than it is an actual thing. It’s lazy, cheap, short-shrifted. It’s code meant to again invoke that grayness of the characters — “Oh, look, even the most powerful can be laid low, and even those characters you like are basically pieces of shit.” The rapist-and-victim message, again. Really, we can’t do any better?
Third, it feels out of character and is a change from the book — a change that makes these characters worse and weaker than they have demonstrated in the past (at least, I’d argue).
Fourth, the rape was soft, weak, almost as ineluctable as gravity — the strong woman just sort of gives into it (and here you’ll want to discuss the was she really raped? question again but once more please be aware of the persistent lack of consent given) and makes rape look less like a violent act and more like a fact-of-life. (And it really is a fact-of-life in the GoT world, which is troubling in how it reinforces that “women = victims, men = rapists” vibe.)
The point I’m making is, if you’re going to deal with rape in your fiction, please give it weight and consequence. Do not let it drift toward being a lazy, cheap trope. Exercise every ounce of storytelling wisdom and skill and don’t just let it devolve into some half-ass plot point. It’s not a plot point in anybody’s lives. And last, remember that rape is real. It’s not the domain of fiction. It’s not granular, it’s not a spectrum, it’s not a shruggy hand-wavey sort of maybe-kinda-gee-I-dunno thing. Some of your audience will be victims of rape. Remember that, and think of them.