Okay, let’s talk about rape.
If you don’t want to, that’s fine, but I need to discuss some elements of this issue. It’s been bothering me.
I want to talk about rape as a storytelling and literary device, but I recognize it’s impossible to remove it from its real world context as something that has, odds are, actually happened to someone you know (the statistics are rather appalling in this regard.) Rape is very personal and very, very charged, and for this reason, more and more I’m seeing writers talk about rape as an edgy literary trope they can use to push boundaries and emphasize just how evil their villains are. Rape or the threat of rape is still a very common theme in movies, books and comics.
Note that I’m saying ‘writers’ and not ‘male writers’ because I’ve seen both men and women use rape this way (I’ve seen plenty of self-identified feminist writers use rape to emphasize how evil the menfolk are.) Take any random guy, have him rape the hero or their significant other, and you have instant villainy!
Yeah…so here I am to say: really think about that before you do it. Then think about it again. Then go ahead and give it a third pass, because the consequences of your decision may not have the effect you’re intending.
The duh comment: rape depowers the person being raped. That’s taken as granted and I’ve heard very few people try to argue otherwise, even if they’re arguing that it’s no worse than say, blowing someone’s head off. It’s an aggressive, hateful act of dominance, which is why so many otherwise self-identifying straight men rape other men (and why those men then don’t report it.) Rape is gender indifferent, despite the fact that the threat of rape is almost exclusively leveled as a silencer against women.
But here’s the thing: rape doesn’t just diminish the victim. In my opinion, the act of rape diminishes all parties.
What I’m saying is: I don’t think rapists make for really good lead villains. Let me explain why.
When I’m reading a story and a character within it demonstrates that he (it could be she, but this typically rarer, so I’ll use ‘he’) is a rapist, I immediately objectify that character. He stops being an interesting real human being with personality and depth. He only becomes a goal, a milestone, and obstacle for someone to kill, arrest or eliminate. He is reduced to something other than human, a phallic monster-beast that exists to be destroyed. He certainly loses any credibility as any kind of proper villain. He turns into an object of revulsion, something which is not worthy of hate anymore more than stepping in excrement is worthy of enmity: you wipe the junk off your shoe and move on.
(In the interest of full disclosure, let me say I’ve read two character depictions that managed to make me like the character even though he was a rapist: Alex from A Clockwork Orange and Karsa Orlong from the Malazan Books of the Fallen. So rules are made to be broken. Still, both of these characters are arguably anti-heroes, not villains, and the rapes were at the beginning of growth arcs that eventually saw some form of redemption — so that may be something to consider.)
I can vividly remember the very first time I ever read about someone being raped. I was eleven-years-old and, as was my custom at the time, I was sneaking into the Old Town Livery bookstore (which was only a few blocks from my apartment) after school to read books. There was a closer public library, but the Old Town Livery books were more interesting. I started reading Lord Foul’s Bane, by Stephen Donaldson (who was, in fact, friends with the store owner, and lived in the next town over.) It’s not too hard to figure out where I stopped reading. If I had owned the book, I’d have thrown it across the room. As it was, I felt physically sick.
Ah, you can argue, but that kind of emotional impact is what a good author strives for!
True, but I didn’t finish the book. Or any of his books, ever again. If his only goal was to engender such a feeling of disgust and loathing, he could have stopped writing the series right there. I was totally done with him by chapter 3.
So what brought this on, by the way, was the movie Elysium, which I saw a few weeks back, and the character of Kruger. Without getting into spoilers, a fairly major plot motivator for the movie is the fact that Kruger is nuts, a rapist, and is impulsive as fuck. In fact, some fairly large plot points hinge on this and the movie could not have existed in its theatrical form without it. When I expressed my displeasure with this fact, and called it sloppy writing, a friend pointed out that Kruger needed to engage in this behavior in order to motivate the hero to do what happens next.
And my friends, whenever someone tells you ‘but this has to happen, or the hero won’t do X’ just stop. That’s a warning sign. Pay attention.
That means there’s a danger that the action only exists as part of the hero’s story arc, to justify the advancement of the plot in the desired direction, and I would put forward that every character should have their own arc, their own reason for what they’re doing that should be consistent within their own motivations. The villain had to do X or he was going to miss his chance to steal the money is valid. The villain had to do X or the hero won’t have any motivation? Lazy. Were Kruger’s actions internally consistent? Yes, but only because his motivation was: impulsive rapist with anger management issues.
While I’m tempted to derail this discussion to those times when Anita Sarkeesian might have a really good point, I’ll instead say how disappointed I was to find the character of Kruger diminished in this way. By making him a rapist (would-be rapist) he lost his nobility, and the previews really did make it seem like he had the potential to be a truly awesome villain. I was looking forward to meeting this utterly kick-ass samurai of the wasteland, who served his distant masters before (hopefully) either dying in the fulfillment of a flawed duty or turning against those same masters, swayed by Max’s willingness to sacrifice everything for what was right. I was hoping to see a battle of wills between two men of strength and conviction, who found themselves on opposite sides of a no-win situation in a grey moral landscape where a lack of resources guarantees that nirvana could not be shared by all.
Instead I got…that.
My disappointment is a bitter pill. Lazy, very nearly unforgivable writing. I left the movie a little dissatisfied, but having trouble articulating why: the insidious nature of my complaint took time to come to fruition. And of course it got me thinking about why we use rape as a literary and storytelling device. What does it accomplish? Does it accomplish what we think? I have a hard time imagining a Roy Batty or Darth Vader possessing the same level of gravitas if they had been portrayed as rapists. And yet, if rape is the ultimate act of evil, as Mark Miller might suggest, shouldn’t an ultimately evil bad guy rape folks constantly? Khan Noonian Singh’s rapes his way through all the green-skinned Star Trek babes, right?
Having a villain rape someone to show they are evil strikes me as the equivalent to having them kill a puppy — sure, it’s effective in triggering our revulsion, but it’s a lazy way to write EVUL across someone’s forehead in large neon letters. It’s a cheap shot — a easy, sensational and cop-out way to demonstrate someone’s lack of morals. I want a villain I can have mixed feelings about. I want a villain who is a hero in his own mind. I want a villain who’s cold, calculating machinations make me slack-jawed with admiration even as I’m wondering how the hero will ever defeat him.
Most of the time, rape as a plot device is just lazy, heavy-handed, and dare I say, cliche.
Don’t be lazy: give me another reason to hate the villain, or better yet, give me a reason to be torn on just who it is I should be rooting for.
Seeing EEEEEVIL rapists everywhere in fiction I typed “rapist villains cheap” on Google and found your article.
As you wrote, in the way it has been used it is just a way for us to feel morally superior and being total bastards when the rapist is caught.
There are not many works that use that element in a cliche way.