The furor over the recent Game of Thrones rape scene has me thinking—much more than I care to—about when and whether we can include this kind of violence in our work.
Within the span of a single day, I read several different articles that address this issue, though not all in the same way. The first was at The Mary Sue, where they were highly critical of the episode.
Using rape as the impetus for character motivations is one of the most problematic tropes in fiction. Rarely is it ever afforded the careful consideration it deserves. Was there more gravity given to the act on Game of Thrones than in the past on the series? I would say yes; however, it took Sansa from her growing place of power, cut her off at the knees, and put the focus on Theon’s ordeal, instead.—Jill Pantozzi, at The Mary Sue
One of the points Pantozzi makes is this: “Rape is not a necessary plot device. Really think about that before shouting ‘creative freedom’ in our direction, please.”
Meanwhile, at his blog Whatever, John Scalzi opened up a huge discussion on the topic with a post in which he recounts how he was discussing a story idea with a female mentor, and the story included a rape—“at which point Pamela immediately went from interested to disgusted, threw up her hands, and had them make motions that I immediately interpreted as oh God Oh God this horrible idea of yours get it off me right now.”
“Aaaaand that was really the last time I ever considered rape as an interesting character note or plot device,” Scalzi writes.
The comments at Scalzi’s blog are perhaps even more informative than the post. Most notable is this comment from Skiriki:
To put it bluntly, and to focus on whom the violence is actually committed upon—I, a survivor of sexual violence get to live with what happened, every day…If, however, I’m murdered, I, the victim, stop living, and no longer feel anything…there are no “murder survivors” as there are “rape survivors.” Attempted murder survivors for sure, yes.—Skiriki, commenting at Whatever
I’m struggling with this as a writer because I have in fact written some pretty disturbing stuff, some of it quite recently. Alara’s Call has two attempted rapes in it, thwarted in different ways for different reasons. Book Two, because of its setting, has none. Book Three is a nightmare.
The story is set in a war zone, and part of the backstory is that the members of the villains’ religion have a Viking-like history of raping and pillaging. Their religion places little value on life and debases women. Part of the purpose of my story is to examine how good people respond in the face of atrocity. None of my viewpoint characters are rape victims. I didn’t feel I could go there because, thanks be to God, I don’t have the experience to write that story. My viewpoint characters are the ones who rescue and treat the rape victims.
I don’t tackle this subject lightly. But if I take it out, I feel I run the risk of whitewashing warfare. Of making it less horrible than it really is. The circumstances of the backstory are based in reality—on the rape of Nanking and the way Russian soldiers treated German women at the end of World War II, on the Viking raiders in Britain in the Middle Ages and on what Boko Haram and ISIS are doing right now.
These atrocities happen, and I don’t think we as artists do anyone any favors if we pretend they don’t. But if I include these things in my story, am I ignoring Pantozzi and Scalzi’s advice against using rape as a plot device? Does it matter that the rapes are not shown, only the effects?
And what about other violent crimes? It’s often noted that even in Christian fiction we have a high tolerance for violence, more so than for foul language or sex crimes. Is there a different standard for rape because, as Skiriki said, there are survivors? What about torture? There are torture survivors too.
Are we to take all story elements off the table if they risk offending a reader who’s been in that situation?
Let me get vulnerable for a minute. I hate—hate with a passion—stories in which people commit adultery. Doubly so if they do so without consequence. These stories enrage me because my first husband committed adultery.
But I would never, ever, tell a writer not to use adultery as a plot device. It’s a terrible thing. It changes people and relationships. And isn’t change what storytelling is about? I don’t want to read those stories. But I won’t stop another writer from writing them.
As novelists, we have the ability to look at horrific topics and shine light on them. Robert Jackson Bennett, in his excellent albeit foul-mouthed post “Why are you writing a rape scene?” asks us to consider whether such a scene would be as integral to the plot if it featured a child instead of a buxom woman.
And you know what? In the case of my nightmarish Book Three—a book I almost don’t want to write—I’d have to say yes.
Because my bad guys are modeled after monsters like Boko Haram and ISIS, who are doing exactly that sort of thing.
Which brings me to the last article that strikes this topic. It’s from Ann Voskamp, writing about a trip to Iraq where she met with victims of ISIS.
You can walk into any mall and buy a pair of Nike running shoes for what they are buying a Christian or Yezidi girl from 1–9 years of age—$172 dollars. And she’s yours. For whatever you want, for as long as you want, to make do whatever you want. Sit with that. Yeah, we’re all done living in a world where a pair of shoes can last longer, have more worth, be treated with more value, than a fondled, raped and discarded 9-year-old-girl.—Ann Voskamp at A Holy Experience
What our proper response should be to ISIS, either as individuals or as a nation, I don’t know. I’m still wrestling with that problem. And even what my response as an artist should be—I’m ambivalent.
Part of me wants to whitewash my story so I don’t have to look at this filth anymore.
And part of me wants to shine a light on this filth and show what we might be able to do about it.