story writing

The rape less travelled

So everyone’s talking a lot about rape lately.

That’s kind of a weird thing to kick off with, isn’t it? But it’s true, at least in gaming circles. Much as speculative fiction grappled with depictions of race and culture a few years ago in the RaceFail 09 debacle, gaming (video, RPG, whatever) seems to be hitting a period where parts of the fanbase are (quite justifiably) finding fault in their preferred media.

In this case, it’s female gamers (and their male allies, of course) speaking out about depictions of women in games. Which they’ve done for a long time, because a lot of games depict women in really fucked-up ways, from lesbian sex ninjas to big-titted prizes for male characters to win. Other games depict women in much better ways, and indeed in really interesting and effective ways, but it’s the shitty depictions that get the attention – and rightly so.

And all of that has pretty much been horses for courses for ages, enough so that game companies seem to think we’ll be bored with standard, easy misogyny and are instead playing the rape card to get our hearts started.

The tipping point for the explosion of discussion on this seems to be the new Tomb Raider game, of all things, a prequel in which we learn how Lara Croft learned how to do flawless backflips while wearing Daisy Dukes. But because the notion of a capable female protagonist is just crazy talk, this prequel casts Lara as a vulnerable Other that gamers will want to shepherd and protect rather than embody or empathise with. Lara is just a weak girl, and players must look after her as she’s beaten, brutalised, starved, kidnapped and threatened with rape. Screw up and she dies; make a mistake and she is raped and killed. And then you reload and she’s fine and you can try again.

Man, that game sounds fan-fucking-tastic, don’t it? Because the best way to pave the way for an escapist adventure where you shoot dinosaurs and explore a wardrobe of belly shirts is to drop us off at Rape Camp for a spell first.

One of these things is not like the other

Reaction to this has been largely negative – imagine that – and the game’s producers have started backpedalling so hard they’re running the Tour de France in reverse, but the important thing is that it’s really kickstarted a discussion about rape culture in gaming. And kickstarted a whole pile of rape threats to any woman talking about rape culture in gaming, of course, because the human race is awful.

(If you’d like to read more on these topics, I recommend this excellent article by Daniel Golding, which talks both about the problems with gaming culture and how we can perhaps work to understand it as a product of the general culture. Seriously, check it out.)

And while this is all happening in the world of videogaming, it’s also cropping up in the smaller, less visible but equally problematic world of roleplaying, which also has a long and storied history of treating women as Scary Vagina Mutants and rape as just one of those things us fellas can joke about with impunity. The uptick in women saying ‘hey, this is shit’ and games pushing the rape button for attention is smaller there, but it still exists, and the waves being caused by the videogame discussion are lapping against the dicey shores and kicking over rocks.

Under one of those rocks lives James Desborough, creator of ‘hilarious’ ‘games’ such as Hentacle and The Slayer”s Guide to Female Gamers, which are every bit as charming as they sound. His attempt to cash in on the outrage women feel about being objectified and othered was to write an essay called ‘In Defence of Rape’, in which he says that ‘rape or attempted rape is a fucking awesome plot element’. I won’t put in a link to that, because – and I want to say this in as professional and dignified a manner as I can – Desborough is a piece of ambulatory dogshit shaped like a man. He’s a noxious, pathetic failure of a person who’s built a ‘career’ out of publishing games that objectify and demean women, that glorify and trivialise sexual assault, and that present the most egregious kinds of misogyny under the argument that ‘it’s just a joke, don’t take it seriously’. If you want to see an indepth takedown of his pathetic ‘argument’, there’s a terrific essay over at MightyGodKing that does just that.

Rather than an image of any of this awfulness, please enjoy this photo of the Dalai Lama hugging a penguin

(Also, I’m sure that during his regular egosurfing Desborough will find this blog and leave a bullshit comment, and I’ll delete it and block him, just as I’ve deleted and blocked his bullshit comments on other social media platforms in the past, and he’ll cry martyrdom and censorship to his rape-is-awesome fanbase and they’ll talk about how terrible I am while rubbing their dicks. This is a dance that has happened before. It is a dance that will happen again. Like the Macarena, but one dancer is a piece of dogshit.)

There’s a lot of back and forth about Desborough, his works, roleplaying’s attitude to rape and all of that happening on various gaming forums right now, as well as petitions, flamewars, accusations of censorship and the like on other platforms like Google + and Facebook. People are angry. That’s possibly a good thing, because anger can motivate people to get things done. Or it can motivate them to scream and snipe at each other on the internet for the foreseeable future. We’ll see which happens.

But in any event, there’s a quick (!) précis of what’s been going down in the world of gaming and discussions of rape.

Fun times.

But although I occasionally discuss gaming because I love games so goddamn much, this is primarily meant to be a blog about writing. So what about rape in fiction? Should writers censor themselves and shy away from the topic? Should it be taboo? Or should they view it as a ‘fucking awesome plot element’?

Many writers have used rape well as a meaningful and important event in their novels and works, from William Shakespeare to Alice Sebold. And many more writers have used rape for cheap stakes-raising and shock value, or as a clumsy and trite tool to motivate female characters who can only be defined by their femininity and by ‘overcoming’ it through trauma. And, obvious bigot and censorship lover than I am, I think a writer who views fictional rape as ‘fucking awesome’ is unlikely to write the next Lovely Bones or Titus Andronicus.

What to write instead? Well, here’s a great quote from author John Perich (whose book Too Close to Miss is on my Kindle and waiting to be read):

On the Great Wheel of Unfortunate Fates that writers spin whenever they need something bad to happen to a protagonist, there are several entries for men:

  • Losing a job or a source of wealth;
  • Getting hurt;
  • Getting scarred;
  • Losing a loved one;
  • Having a loved one kidnapped;
  • Having a loved one used as leverage for a threat;
  • Being arrested;
  • Being seduced by nefarious people;
  • Being betrayed;
  • Being watched by nefarious people;
  • Being lost far from home;
  • Etc.

If your protagonist is female, however, there are only three:

  • Sexual assault;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Pregnancy.

I’m exaggerating for comic effect, but not that much.

(As Perich says, this is an exaggeration, but it’s an effective and useful one.)

All of this is particular interest to me because I’m writing two books right now that star female protagonists, and young female protagonists at that. I want to cast those young women as interesting and flawed characters who overcome trials and their own weaknesses to find victory, albeit in very different kinds of stories, and in a way that engages, rather than alienates or upsets, both male and female readers.

Here are things that happen to Gwen in Arcadia:

  • Struggling to tell fantasy from reality
  • Becoming homeless
  • Making really bad decisions that hurt herself and others
  • Unrequited love
  • Reading The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth time
  • Being chased through Melbourne’s alleyways by a private detective
  • Failing to protect that which she loves most
  • Doing everything she can to make it right again

Here are things that happen to Kember in Raven’s Blood:

  • Getting arrested for sedition
  • Trying to repair her relationship with her father
  • Uncovering the truth about a vanished masked avenger
  • Fighting golem-men, giant snakes and other monsters
  • Nearly drowning
  • Running across rooftops
  • Dealing with tragedy and loss
  • Taking up the mantle of a fallen hero

Here are the things that won’t happen to either character:

  • Getting raped
  • Being threatened with rape

These are stories that involve physical and emotional danger and turmoil, and I want to make that danger and turmoil exciting and gripping. But taking rape out of my repertoire doesn’t do much to stop me telling the stories I want to tell and to (hopefully) make those stories exciting and emotionally engaging. Hell, it doesn’t do a goddamn thing to my work.

In the end, writers have the right to use rape as a device in their stories. And if they exercise that right, they then have the responsibility to exercise it well, with sensitivity and care and for powerful emotional effect, rather than using it for cheap, visceral pops. When they succeed, it should be acknowledged; when they fail, it should be discussed; when they don’t even try to do it right, they should be criticised and possibly even condemned. (Certainly if they’re arsenuggets like James Desborough.)

For my part, though, I think I’ll just avoid it, because I don’t see a need for it in the stories I’m currently writing and those I’m planning to write.

(I may have a future idea that requires addressing rape, sure; I get lots of ideas, and maybe Future Me will come up with a story that demands a careful and responsible depiction of sexual violence and its consequences. Past Me did that once, after all; the short story ‘Godheads’ (in the anthology of the same name) includes sexual violence, although it’s in the past and mentioned only obliquely without being described. But I don’t see it happening for a good long time, and if it does I’ll try my hardest to explore it sensitively – and if I find I can’t, I’ll change my idea into something that works better.)

To summarise:

Can rape be used as a worthwhile plot point in a strong narrative? Absolutely.

Could I use rape as a worthwhile plot point in a strong narrative? Possibly.

Am I going to use rape in my books? No, because I don’t fucking want to. And I think that’s a reasonable desire for myself or for any other writer.

(Yes, this is the point of the whole post. Because why use 40 words when I can use nearly 2000?)

None of that makes me Internet Writing Jesus or the most sensitive and loveable of all dudes, of course. Saying ‘hey, I don’t plan on writing about rape’ only clears the bar of Things Worth Saying because that bar is set so goddamn fucking low that even snails have to hump their amorphous butts over it. But yet some trails of slime still manage to go under the bar, and we find awful toerags like Desborough at the other end, extruding shit from their keyboards, so there is at least a little bit of value in saying that.

Which is kind of sad in and of itself, to be honest.

5 replies on “The rape less travelled”

*applause* I agree with what you have written so much. I like how you have pointed out so many different ways of challenging female characters other than kidnapping them, raping them or getting them pregnant which seem to be the staples (and sometimes all thrown in together for extra excitement). I’ve become heartily sick with all the rape being slathered over games, tv shows and movies as an oh so neato drama point. As I’ve said elsewhere recently: I don’t get that people feel the need to throw rape into everything. Yes, it happens in the real world, but does it really need to be in everything just because ‘back in those days it would have happened’ or ‘in that situation it would have been a real possibility.’ Well ‘back in those days’ people were surely dying of syphilis and ‘in that situation’ dysentery could have been a real possibility too but strangely enough that’s not mentioned in books or shown on film or presented in games very often. There seems to be some idea that rape is funny or sexy in a taboo way whereas in fact it’s about as appealing and humorous as prostate cancer. As far as I’m concerned anyone who uses rape in their fiction should have a damn good reason for doing so or I’m not buying it, watching it, reading it, playing it. I have as much interest in having it shoved in my face all the time as I have in reading or watching something with child abuse in it. I don’t get that people don’t get it. I don’t get that people still think it’s ok to defend the level of misogyny that leads to rape threats and pass all this sexist crap off as humour. So much anger. Sorry for the vent but 0_0 how is this stuff still happening in 2012?

[…] The rape less travelled So everyone's talking a lot about rape lately. That's kind of a weird thing to kick off with, isn't it? But it's true, at least in gaming circles. Much as speculative fiction grappled with depictions of race and culture a few years ago in the RaceFail 09 debacle, gaming (video, RPG, whatever) seems to be hitting a period where parts of the fanbase are (quite justifiably)… […]

Thank you so much for the link and the kind words! I’m still proud of that post being counted in the chorus fighting back against stupid sentiment in video game design.

(Out of curiosity: did you ever finish Too Close to Miss? Curious what you thought, whether good or bad)

Hi John,

I’m shamefaced to admit that I haven’t, simply because I a) got distracted and b) it then got lost in all the dozens of other ebooks I’ve downloaded and not read yet.

But I’ll make reading it sooner rather than later a priority!

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