I recently had THAT conversation again; the one where I criticise a fictional world for gratuitous use of rape and sexual aggression against women, only for fans of said universe to defend it by telling me how it’s a harsh world and that’s what would happen. It’s a tiring conversation, so here’s why you don’t have to use rape to ensure your readers know your world is horrible.
The worlds I hold up as examples of fiction that rely on rape and violence against women are Game of Thrones and a video game series called The Witcher, but they are certainly not the only or even the worst culprits. Both of these stories are set in pseudo Medieval, fantasy worlds and feature a strong cast of male and female characters. They are both applauded for their unflinching and accurate portrayal of the brutality of this period of history. The violence is violent, the dirt is dirty and the women are raped or sexually subservient on a regular basis, the argument being that women had no rights in those days and this is a bad world.
If you’re not familiar with Game of Thrones (spoilers ahead), it’s a series of fantasy books and an enormously popular TV show. I haven’t read the books because having watched one season of the show, I quickly tired of the misogyny and white saviour storyline. For instance, in episode one, the blonde hero Daenerys is introduced in full frontal nudity stepping out of a bathtub and has her breast fondled by her brother. She then goes on to be married against her will to a brown-skinned ‘barbarian’ who proceeds to rape her on their wedding night. She’s then taught how to ‘please him’ and seems happy to fall in love with her rapist – let’s not dwell on the inherent racism.
Meanwhile, another female character is soon on all fours engaging in consensual sex with her brother. There is a lot of sex on GoT and none of it seems loving, it’s just a good bang, with the women almost always on all fours. And if sex isn’t central to the scene, there is often a naked woman wandering around in the background. Gratuitous is the word. But fans will tell me how Daenerys becomes a strong hero and there are other strong female characters, so author George R R Martin gets a free pass, plus it’s a hard world, so, obviously rape is almost certain.
Similarly, The Witcher uses violence against women to depict an edgy, dark world with more than a little titillation. As a game, sex with women is treated as a reward for the player. After each sexual encounter, the player receives a soft porn picture card (see also trophy), so you can literally collect sexual conquests. This is dropped in later games, so that’s progress. However, the games still use rape and misogyny to show us how bad this world is, rather than exploring the social structures at work and the consequences of the sexism faced by the women. It’s rape and misogyny as window dressing to create a ‘mature’ backdrop that has sex and serious issues all at the same time, but luckily that means the developers get to show boobs.
Misogyny as historical accuracy is the favourite disclaimer for fans of things like GoT and The Witcher games. The only trouble is, these are both fantasy settings, which include dragons, magic, vampires and other mythological beings, so the unyielding pursuit of accuracy is a thin argument. The ‘realism’ argument is just an excuse for male power fantasies, which reduce women to victims or being sexually available to the male protagonist. You only have to look at the costumes the female characters wear in The Witcher to see that historical accuracy is not at play here. Ironically, by using rape and misogyny as titillation both of these worlds undermine their engaging female characters.
In contrast, the BBC TV show based on Len Deighton’s novel, SS GB, is a dystopian alternate history which considers the fallout if we hadn’t won the Battle of Britain. The Nazis now occupy Britain and the result is a dark alternative to our reality, where the plucky Brits and the Allies conquered evil. In the world of SS GB, everyone is living in fear, the King is in prison, the police are semi-controlled by the SS and only the North is still resisting Nazi rule, so it’s grim down South. It’s hard to imagine a more horrifying world, than living under the Nazis and yet, not a single woman has been raped so far, in SS GB. The writers understand that having your freedoms stolen is threat enough. It’s something everyone can relate to and doesn’t reduce women to the spoils of war or men to rapists.
The important thing to remember is that as a creator you are in control of your world and the things we see in that world. Unfortunately, rape is part of all periods of history. We live in a time in history where, in the West, we live longer, with more equality, freedoms and higher standards of living than many before us, but rape still exists, so it is not an indicator of a bad world and could always be an argument for ‘realism’. The problem is that rape is used so often as the ultimate punishment for female characters, regardless of the world or period of history they live in, that it’s a tired trope, which is rarely given the care it deserves.
As writers, we’re always told to put our characters through hell. Conflict and hardship are at the heart of a good story. There are so many ways to introduce conflict, but female characters are usually faced with the threat of sexual violence, in order to force their character to ‘grow’ or even worse to show a darker side of a male character.
Before you go ahead and rape your female character, stop to think about the occasions when you’ve considered raping a male character or you’ve been inspired by another piece of fiction, which really pushed a male character to ‘the edge’ with the threat of sexual violence. The truth is men in fiction are challenged in a myriad of ways, but too many writers forget that women can be challenged in the same ways because they are people too. I’m not asking for male characters to be raped in a misguided call for gender parity, I am asking you to consider different ways to threaten your female characters. Put simply, your female characters should be more than a body waiting to be violated.