Rape culture. Our society is run rampant with it.
It infests nearly everything like the morning glory in my garden. It’s in every one of my flower beds, wrapping itself insidiously, tightly around every last flower with it’s little innocent looking white flowers. Nearly impossible to kill, it drops four fresh seeds from each blossom daily that can germinate up to 50 years later, it snakes its way underground. Perhaps with daily application of serious poison I might be able to kill off the root system, but unless I use surgical precision my extensive and diverse flower gardens will be killed off right along with it.
What an apt metaphor for the rape and violence against women that runs through our culture.
Much has been said, and far more eloquently than I am capable of, by others about what rape culture is, why it’s bad etc, so that is not where I’m going. Let’s talk books.
I am a voracious reader, mostly of fiction. My favorite genre is fantasy/sci-fi, and I’ll talk about why in a sec. I also enjoy a good mystery, love historical (and even only semi-historical) fiction, poetry and classics. Recently I’ve discovered more and more books written in past centuries and, much to my surprise, they can be just as engaging if not more so than some modern fiction (Montezuma’s Daughter – why has there never been a movie for this?!). Can being the key word; I thought Wurthering Heights was possibly the most boring book in the world. I love a good book.
What I’ve found I don’t like, that I’m always disappointed by, is the genre of contemporary fiction. Fiction that takes place in the here and now, in our real world. They are, for me, almost without fail, utterly depressing. Usually they’re very tragic without any sort of positive balance to make the experience enjoyable. Take My Sister’s Keeper for example. It’s the story of a family pulled apart by the illness of one of the children and results in the death of one of the children. It’s terrible and tragic and we hear about that stuff in the news, we see it in our family or neighbors, we experience that awfulness of families being torn about by selfishness, disease, stress etc all the time in real life. How is experiencing it more acutely in a book supposed to be something I will enjoy?
Personally I read books to escape, and contemporary fiction on anchors me more firmly to this decrepit society, usually dragging me through the worst of it. An experience I really don’t enjoy.
But more than that, I prefer sci-fi/fantasy over contemporary fiction because for some reason it’s the genre with the least amount of rape and general violence against women. Why is it that modern fiction feels this desperate need to include a rape in every book? Why is the fantasy genre the only one that understands that a book doesn’t need to include a rape in it to be an engaging book full of meaning? Have we really narrowed our perceptions so far that there’s nothing more to our human experience than fighting the urge to have non-consentual sex/overcoming the trauma of said event? We’re talking about just books here, we’re not even going to get in to TV, movies, videogames, etc. Just books. And I’ll try to stay out of the murders our culture loves to portray in every media, though I think that is inextricably bound to the rape culture.
I read a book yesterday that was by a relatively new author (and thus wasn’t very good, though it could have been given a few more rounds of editing and some better filling out of the characters) but it featured at least 2 women who’d been raped, one who during the climactic finale was nearly raped and 4 generations of violence against women. In fact every last woman in this book (excepting a minor character who existed to tell a backstory and whose gender didn’t matter) experienced violence against her at the hands of a male who should have protected her. Now, you’d think given this description that this book might have been a commentary about rape culture and/or violence against women.
But it wasn’t.
Nope, it was a story about the history of a (fictional) lighthouse and one guy’s path to redemption (said male having never hurt a woman to begin with, he thought he’d killed his brother). There was a minor, secondary line of story about a girl dealing with having been raped, but her resolution felt… unrealistic. It was just a tool to make her antagonistic to the main character. In this book rape and violence against women was just a backdrop casually used to tell a tale.
Which reminds me of another contemporary fiction I read. In it the woman runs from a bad marriage with her child. She goes on and on about how traumatized she is from her abusive husband. Ok, no problem there so far, to the point where she shies away from the touch of an old male friend who’s been in love with her since high school. Ok, nice beginning. But then, almost without noticing she throws herself at him. Wait, what about all the issues you spent the first half of the book saying she had? She just suddenly forgot about them? No, in this case, again, the abusive backdrop was just a tool to keep her from falling in love with the right guy until x point in the story. Then everything is suddenly ok. Now, while I have been fortunate to not have ever been the victim of violence I know people who have. Who’ve had bad marriages, bad experiences, traumatizing events. For them, the effects linger. For them healing takes time. More than a day, a month. More than the right moment in the tale.
These books… across all the genres, really, more and more are using rape as a plot device while ignoring the ramifications of such a very traumatic thing. There are some who do manage to give these things the thought they should have – they tend to be the authors who make money because they’re actually good at what they do. But that’s not the point. We’ve fallen back on this as if it’s an ok thing. I want my character to be afraid of dark spaces. What are the options? could have been mugged, attacked by a bear, seen a ghost, had a sibling who was attacked by a bear, watched a bear come out of nowhere while they were camping and she had gotten lost in the dark and seen it knock a head off a dear and suddenly felt her own frail mortality. Sheesh! the possibilities are endless, but what is most likely to be used? She was raped.
I guess my problem is that we’re allowing something that is truly a big deal, truly damaging, truly real to become a cliche. Can’t think of a reason to make two characters meet and fall in love? let’s make both their dads have the exact same characteristics of yelling all the time, beating their moms and being general dicks. Is it feasible in real life? Absolutely. But a good author isn’t so lazy as to make both worthless men exactly the same, at least not without so dialogue between the offspring about it to explain to the reader why the author couldn’t have made one angry about x and the other because of y. Unless there was a good reason for them to react exactly the same for exactly the same reason. Otherwise, once again, you’re using a terrible thing as a cliche because an author can’t think of something better. Really, a good story can be told without using rape and violence against women as a crutch. Use it for a subject, but not a stepping stone!
Rape culture and acceptance of violence against women perpetuate because we let it. In this case because we willingly read books that use it as a cliched backdrop to tell a tale that could be told just as well, if not better, without it. Books are just one corner of the beautiful flowerbed and we’re letting this voracious, twisting, murderous weed twine ever tighter through them.
Let’s stop supporting the spread of this weed before it is all that is left in what was once a verdant and diverse garden.