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Rape and Gender in Fantasy Literature

On her blog, Tansy Rayner Roberts is talking about the gender roles of men and women in fantasy, in particular George RR Martin's The Song of Ice and Fire, with occasional references to the TV show. It has a lot of spoilers, as it would.

It is an interesting read, but the part that struck me was when Tansy wrote that "main characters who are women are threatened with rape on a near-constant basis, while men almost never are – there are a few instances, but such a tiny number in comparison to the massive weight of female rape & rape threats that they are statistically insignificant. Physical humiliation and degradation are heaped on male characters, don’t get me wrong, but like most literature ever, A Song of Ice and Fire exists in a reality bubble where no one is willing to acknowledge how common male-male rape is in situations involving war, slavery and well, history."

Sadly, I think Tansy missed a more telling, and more awful point: that the rape of women in fantasy literature is more acceptable and readable than the rape of men, performed either by women or by men (as equal problem in the rape narrative of women always being the victim is that men are always the perpetrator--all doors of victimisation swing both ways, sadly).

It is a terrible thing to accept, or even to agree with, and perhaps people will disagree with me, but that has always how I've interpreted the situation. It's ugly, there's no doubt about it. It's not right, either. I actually don't like that it exists, and I find, personally, that it is one of the things I actively strive against in my own work. I am not against rape events in literature--I am not against any narrative event, unlike the real world, where I am against all forms of rape--but you cannot have such a narrative event in your work and not be aware of the larger ramifications of it in your field, your world, etc. For fantasy literature, I find myself aware of the fact that the rape of women by men is an acceptable event in the work, not because it is pleasurable to read--though we can make the argument that it is readable, which in itself opens up a whole new set of ugly conclusions--but because the genre has made it an acceptable form of degradation against female characters.

Ugly, like I said.


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May. 23rd, 2013 02:50 am (UTC)
cool piece, ta.

i thought the better torture of bond was in CASINO ROYALE, where his genitals were attacked, but this could be because i hated SKYFALL with a passion.
May. 23rd, 2013 02:51 am (UTC)
That Casino Royale scene is rather unforgettable.
May. 23rd, 2013 02:43 am (UTC)
This is absolutely true.

I don't have the link right now, but Seanan McGuire went one further a while back, pointing out that she had received 'fan' mail suggesting it was unrealistic for her (super-powered) female protagonists not to be raped at some point.

So it's not even that male-female rape is seen are more acceptable in fiction, but that situations are felt to be UNREALISTIC in not including them, while male-male rape can be ignored or left out, unless it is being used as a 'humorous' threat.

I find it particularly fascinating as an ongoing trend in fantasy works like GRRM's epic, which devotes significant time, attention and effort to storylines which are all about degrading, persecution and tormenting male characters. But leaves that particular "narrative device" in the pink, flowery writer's toolbox that's only to be used against lady characters.

May. 23rd, 2013 02:55 am (UTC)
what i found fascinating (and sad, to be honest) is the implied readability of it. the article cat links deals with the concept of realism as well, quite well, actually. but the thing i find most people aren't discussing is how readable it is.

there are a lot of awful, readable things in fiction. our heroes are often mass murderers, our wars full of genocide and violations of all sorts of conventions... and we'll read it, y'know? under the guise of it being fiction and it being cool and fun and part of the genre.
May. 24th, 2013 02:42 am (UTC)
I'd class it under what I've come to term "retrosexism" … which is pretty much the choice to set fiction in a historic milieu so that violence in general, and violence against women is easy enough to normalise and even to take credit for as "realism".

I'd suggest the resurgence of this form we're seeing at the moment is partly a result of the increasingly uncensored depiction of violence in TV and film in the 70s and 80s—a depiction which finds its way into all kinds of strands of genre, from the "grimdark" in fantasy, to the popularisation of grisly procedurals in crime fiction, to revisionist westerns, and finally to its apogee in the current HBO and AMC series.

Typically the works in question feature violence (as all pulp always has, more or less) but also prevalently rape and sexual violence, and justify it by saying "well, that's what it was like [back then]". Frequently they will embed a critique of the sexual politics depicted, which draws critics away from the main point of the work as a vehicle for dwelling on violence and rape.

Rape certainly occurs off stage in older pulp works, from the likes of Vance to George Macdonald Fraser, but isn't usually so common or so central. I think basically what we see now is rape becoming a part of pulp repertoire as essential as violence itself.

Edited at 2013-05-24 02:43 am (UTC)
May. 24th, 2013 03:10 am (UTC)

i don't disagree and i certainly haven't got a reply or anything intelligent to say, except, of course, that it is interesting.
May. 24th, 2013 03:16 am (UTC)
I'm just saying, I've got a feeling I haven't read a new male-oriented genre/pulp descended work of any length, which didn't include a rape or sexual violence, for what seems like years now.

That's what I mean by repertoire—and probably what leads to the accusations of a lack of "realism" against McGuire that cassiphone mentions above (readers confusing convention with realism).
May. 24th, 2013 03:24 am (UTC)
my experience is pretty limited, but i'm struggling to think of one that isn't, as you said. in fact, mostly, i can think of books that did... and it puts me in mind of PRINCE OF THORNS and the rape in that (though i haven't read the book, just heard the story).

i avoided it in IMMOLATION, though. as i said in the original post, i'll put it in if required, but by and large, i find it unnecessary and i definately don't think you need it to create dark heroic fantasy and the like. there are plenty of other tools to use.
May. 24th, 2013 03:53 am (UTC)
As you said in the OP, I don't think there's anything wrong with including rape in a narrative—I just think it's worth carefully avoiding the tropes of the retrosexist, up to and including a weak sort of apologetics within the work itself.

If you include rape, but treat it realistically, divest it completely of titillation, try to describe it as it is, or must be, that's where reader discomfort arrives.

As you point out, it's the "readability" of women being raped (corresponding to its becoming convention in pulp and pornography, and a regularised part of male sexual fantasy) that is worrying, not its mere frequency of occurrence.

Edited at 2013-05-24 03:54 am (UTC)
May. 24th, 2013 05:17 pm (UTC)
I think part of the problem is that sexual violence has almost become shorthand for "these are the bad guys" - it's become a cheap and thoughtless way of delineating between acceptable and non-acceptable violence in a fantasy novel.

There's probably an argument in there somewhere that sexual violence is replacing racial description as shorthand for who the bad guys are.

Some books do it more obviously than others, but there are some clear cut cases about - I stopped reading Peter V Brett's second book because of the constant parade of sexual violence (against men and women) - the first book had some, but it was mostly skippable, but the second book was prefty much unreadable (Although it's worth noting he's pretty shithouse on racial issues as well, to be fair).

May. 25th, 2013 09:06 am (UTC)
my girlfriend and i were talking about this today, actually. how that rape as shorthand for bad guys is in a lot of things, not just fantasy books (though i haven't read the brett stuff).
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