I’ve just started watching HBO’s Westworld and one episode in, I’m already unnerved by the casual violence against the non-humanoid, female characters in the titular, interactive park where men (and women) can enact their fantasies.
That’s the point, of course. The show intends to provoke, and has deployed the usual defenses in the wake of criticism: violence is a part of human nature, and we’re exploring how humans would behave in a situation where they could act out their worst premises on a sub-caste of robots, made to be as human as possible. It’s a great and interesting premise, but as with many shows with interesting premises, I keep questioning the intent of the creators – are they really trying to make viewers self-reflect on the normalization of gendered violence? Or are the sexualized beatings and rapes there to pander to the worst impulses of viewers? To shock and even titillate? (The likely answer, I think, is a little bit of both.)
I wrestled with this question on my own first novel. In the middle of the story, a group of young women experience a horrific, terrifying act of violence at the hands of a futuristic religious cult. It makes sense in the context of the world I created. It gave important insight into a character’s behavior and motivations. But I agonized over the scene, and how I wrote it, many times over, asking if it had to be there.
I kept it, but in the process of finishing my novel (and reading countless rape and torture scenes in other works of fiction), I’ve come up with a list of questions I ask myself when violence of any kind creeps into my stories.
(Note: I’m focusing on sexualized violence against women in particular, but my comments can be applied to any kind of violence in fiction.)
(Second note: If you watch Game of Thrones, House of Cards spoilers are coming!)
1. Does the rape/act of violence tell us something we don’t already know?
This was my main problem with Sansa’s rape in Game of Thrones (yes, we’re already on Game of Thrones) , and why I suspect it upset so many other viewers. We know that Westeros is a violent, cruel place where women are chattel, to be used and abused by men as property. We know that Ramsay Bolton, Sansa’s rapist, is a violent psychopath. We know that Sansa has suffered and accumulated plenty of motivation for revenge when her opportunity strikes. Her rape, as a result, tells us nothing we don’t already know about this world or the people in it. It feels gratuitous, an ending scene designed to shock and trigger the “can-you-believe-what-happened” conversations at the water cooler the next day.
The only thing it potentially changes is giving another character, Theon Greyjoy, a reason to take a stand against Ramsay. But that in itself left a bad taste in my mouth. The camera pans away from Sansa as her new husband is raping her to a close-up of Theon’s horrified, tearful face: a woman’s suffering triggers a man’s redemption arc. Something that could have been done a hundred other ways.
Compare that approach to Mad Max: Fury Road, a movie that was rightfully credited as being a great feminist action movie. The plot has a runaway general helping a group of sex slaves escape from bondage. It would have been INCREDIBLY easy for George Miller to throw in a rape scene in a flashback. Play to our emotions and make us see what the women went through.
But he didn’t. We see evidence of their escape. We see their elderly female caregiver killed when Immortan Joe discovers the loss of his ‘property’ (illustrating how patriarchy classifies women as ‘rapeable’ and ‘disposable’). We see the women discard their chains, that one of them is pregnant. We get the idea. The movie establishes the stakes, then moves on into the business of the plot. George Miller may have done this for pacing reasons rather than feminist ones – at the end of the day, he’s an action director trying to move the action forward – but the result is a better movie. If the Game of Thrones creators had directed it, we probably would have been treated to a protracted, graphic mass rape, like the equally unnecessary scene in Craster’s Keep.
2. Is the act of violence being used to give a character motivation or depth? Does it have to?
In many cases, I believe that sexual assaults and torture scenes get thrown into narratives due to lazy or inexperienced writing. Violence is an easy way to give a character a troubled past and a motive.
There’s the “women in refrigerator” trope, where a male character is galvanized into action when a woman he cares about is raped or killed. This has been a staple in superhero stories and television for years (see: Lost, the Marvel universe). Alternately, there’s the “empowered” woman character who first must be taken down a notch by a horrific event before regaining control. A good example of the latter is House of Cards, when the powerful, unflappable Claire Underwood comes face to face with a man who raped her in college. The reveal seems to have two purposes: to show a vulnerable side to Claire and also to create a decision-point for her husband, President Frank Underwood, to determine whether to prioritize his relationship or his politicking.
I’m not saying it’s always a bad idea or sexist to have an assault happen in a story. Depending on the type of story it is, it may be necessary and powerful to show the impact of sexual violence on a character. But consider why it is there. Is there another, more creative way to give a character motivation or a compelling backstory? Is it there because it’s shocking, dramatic and convenient?
3. Are there any downstream ramifications, or is it a one-off event that never gets brought up again?
Another sign that there are better ways to develop a character: the rape/assault happens but has no long-term ramifications for the character arc or narrative. Game of Thrones is an obvious, repeat offender here – Cersei is raped by her own brother and the incident is not only never brought up again, it seems to have no bearing on their future interactions.
In contrast, British shows such as Happy Valley and Broadchurch have centered storylines around a single rape, but in a thoughtful, nuanced way. The actual assaults are not shown in a way that could be sexualized - they are off-camera and unambiguously horrifying. The ramifications are felt throughout the show and the long-term effects on the victims, their relationships and lives, are shown.
The common defense I hear from people I discuss this with in real life, and see often in the comments section of any article that touches the issue, is that these shows are just trying to be “realistic.” That’s how things were back then, I hear in defense of Game of Thrones (and the originating A Song of Ice and Fire series), a fantasy world with dragons and ice zombies, albeit one with a clear European medieval influence. We’re being uptight or living in a fantasy, the implication goes, if we have a problem with ubiquitous violence against women in our books, on our screens and in the theater.
But if you’re going to justify rape for realism’s sake, the other side of the coin better be present – a realistic depiction of the after-effects, and how it drives characters and subsequent events in the story. And it had better serve the story in a meaningful way, not as a crutch to elicit easy emotions from a reader or shock them into engagement.