Sunday, June 22, 2008

Rape shorthand

When I was at the library, I picked up a copy of People of the Nightland, by W. Michael Gear and Kathleen O’Neal Gear. The story deals with conflicts between tribes of Native Americans in the past, and at the start, one tribe captures and gang-rapes the hero’s wife. Subsequently, several women from another tribe are captured, and a traitor rapes a few of them. Towards the end, the hero gets into an enemy camp and discovers a warrior guarding some captives – three naked women and one eight-year-old girl (this was the point at which rape lost whatever shock potential it had left, so pedophilia was used instead). I doubt I’ll be picking up another book in this series.

Some fantasy novels do this as well, using rape as a shorthand device to inform the reader that whoever’s doing the raping or attempted raping is evil. Terry Goodkind’s Stone of Tears is a great example of this – the heroine is nearly gang-raped, though being the heroine, she escapes in the nick of time. Other women, including her sister, are not so fortunate. That’s an issue all its own, so what I’ll focus on in this post is the device of having captive women raped so the readers know which side of the battle to cheer for.

This can be (and often is) overused. The first hundred or so times I read about the bad guys raping women, I reacted accordingly. Now I’m tired of it. Other readers may be too, judging from the number of times I’ve seen writers bypass the women and go straight to the children. This may well be realistic, but it’s getting dull. I’d like to read a book where the bad guys captured some women and kids, but their leader ordered the prisoners not to be raped and actually enforced the order.

Another problem with this device is that I don’t find it realistic that the rapes are all committed by the antagonists. If I learned anything from what happened at the Abu Ghraib prison, it’s that sexual assault of prisoners happens even on the side which is supposed to be liberal and democratic. Of course, if a captive enemy woman in the protagonists’ camp is in danger of rape, that’s the signal for the hero to rush out, save her and take her to his tent, where she puts up token resistance before surrendering to his manly charms (e.g. Troy).

Once a man has raped a captive woman, he’s usually classified as Chaotic Irredeemably Evil, and is often killed to pay for it (or to show that whoever killed him is a good person appalled by the crime). He may sometimes be killed by the woman he’s currently raping, which was poetic justice the first couple of times I read it and became predictable thereafter. I’d like to read a novel which went deeper than this, to explore what might happen to a man who raped a woman as part of the aftermath of war, then regretted it later. It’s easy to make such a man evil and kill him off; it’s not so easy to make such a man a multifaceted character and let him live while paying for the crime in other ways.

In a battlefield context, I don’t think rape can be completely taken out of the picture, unless both armies are wholly asexual. It’s one of the quickest, easiest ways to hurt and humiliate the losers of a battle, which is why I don’t buy that it never happens on the good guys’ side, unless they keep a tight close watch over all their troops and make it clear that there are serious penalties for disobeying this order. Another plug for A Song of Ice and Fire here – when Dany conquers Meereen, she accepts that rapes will happen during the sack of the city, but clamps down immediately afterward. It helps that she has thousands of soldiers who always follow orders (and who are probably incapable of raping anyone themselves).

The other thing I like about Martin’s handling of rape is that he realistically depicts its consequences, so it’s not just a way to wring shock and outrage from the readers. And the victims usually have names, which was more than could be said for the three captive women and the little girl in the book I read. Rape happens, but it shouldn’t be a shorthand device.


colbymarshall said...

Agreed, it's too common. I also think, like you, I'd like to see a male perspective where the rapist doesn't just die and it be the end.

Marian said...

Thanks for commenting! I'm hoping to try that in my next story - have the protagonist be guilty of rape, but show him paying for it and trying to redeem himself. I don't think it will be easy, but at least it will be different.