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Rape as a Fantasy Trope

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

Recently, urban fantasy writer Seanan McGuire—whom I interviewed a few weeks ago—posted an entry on her blog.  The gist of it was this: a reader asked her when one of her female characters was finally going to be raped.  She replied that they were not ever going to be raped, and the reader accused her of being unrealistic and not having respect for her work.

The blog entry troubled me quite a bit.  It got me thinking about the books I’ve read.  Fantasy—urban fantasy in particular—does include rape quite a bit.  Most often, it’s the rape of a strong, self-assured female protagonist.  For instance: one of the first urban fantasy series I fell in love with were the Mercy Thompson books by Patricia Briggs.  Mercy is a walker, a preternatural creature who can shape-shift into a coyote.  She is also an incredibly strong, self-reliant character.  In the third book, Iron Kissed, Mercy is drugged and brutally raped.  In the series, Mercy frequently holds her own against werewolves, vampires, and fae, yet the man who rapes her is a mere human.

In Briggs’ other popular paranormal romance/urban fantasy crossover, the Alpha and Omega series, the heroine, Anna, was brutally and repeatedly raped by her werewolf pack mates prior to being rescued by alpha werewolf (and her future mate) Charles Cornick.

Both series dealt with the ramifications of these events for several books, and they changed the characters significantly.  But they troubled me, especially in the Mercy books.  I couldn’t understand why it was necessary for a woman who had battled all manners of supernatural creatures to be raped, only to be rescued by her werewolf boyfriend.  And in the Alpha and Omega series, Charles’s destruction of Anna’s pack has the same effect, rescuing her from those who violated her.  It’s almost as if Briggs is saying that women can be strong, but not as strong as the men who would brutalize them.

In Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series—which I am rereading now in anticipation of the release of Iced on October 30—is another example.  Heroine Mac spends three books turning from a shallow, self-absorbed 20-something to a strong, self-assured young woman—and is then turned pri-ya (a mindless sex addict) by the Unseelie princes and is repeatedly raped.  She is then rescued by the hero, Barrons, who then…well, er, uh…screws her back to sanity.  Nope, I’m not kidding.  In all fairness, in the world Moning has established, it makes sense: the pri-ya need sex, and Barrons gives Mac what she needs while surrounding her with stimuli from her former life, trying to unlock the memories that will reclaim her sanity.  Barrons brings Mac back in the only way he can—even knowing this will likely cost him Mac’s trust and respect.  Really, it’s sort of noble.  It’s also really, really unsettling.  A woman who has just been gang raped only recovers, and becomes better and stronger, with the power of the hero’s magical penis?  Wait, what?

Even venturing over into the high fantasy world, rape or near-rape still seems to be a recurring plot point.  Take Game of Thrones, for example.  (For the record, I’ll admit that I’m much more familiar with the TV show than the book series.)  Daenerys Targaryen is forced into marriage to Khal Drogo, a cruel warlord who doesn’t even speak her language.  What happens?  Well, I think this scene pretty much speaks for itself:

Dany ultimately comes to love Drogo—after she forces him to have sex with her face-to-face so he’ll see her as a human being rather than an object.  Dany grows to become one of the strongest female characters in the series, but the above scene never fails to give me the willies.  What’s worse: from what I understand about the book series, Dany is much younger (around 14) when she marries Drogo.

When I look at the other fantasy books I’ve read, the rape of female characters seems to occur quite frequently.  Sometimes it happens on-screen, and other times it happens at some point before the stories start, being cited as background information establishing why this woman is the way she is.

I’m not sure what argument I want to make here.  I’m not going to say that fantasy writers should stop writing about female characters being raped.  After all, often fantasy stories depict violent, brutal worlds, and why should rape be off limits when other forms of violence are not?  But what bothered me about the conversation McGuire had with her reader is that it was expected that her protagonists would get raped.  The question was not posed as “if,” but “when.”

And the more I’ve thought about the stories I’ve read, the more I’m struck by 1) how often strong, capable female characters are raped in fantasy fiction, 2) how often the male characters rescue the females in those situations, and 3) how often rape is used to show how said female became stronger and better, how she overcame her former weakness.  It’s like we can’t have a female character who just happens to be strong and kick-ass on her own.  She has to be raped first.

We live in a society where rape is continually minimalized, where the difference between date rape and “forcible rape” is drilled into us over and over again, where female victims are often looked upon with derision and suspicion.  I honestly don’t know whether the prevalence of rape in fiction is a symptom of this, a cause, or entirely unrelated.  I’ll leave that up to greater minds than mine to figure out.

But what I know is that it’s something I have to think about as a writer of fantasy fiction.  I’m currently working on an urban fantasy novel featuring a female protagonist.  Her best friend is date raped, setting my protagonist on a path that continues until the novel begins.  The rape happens 10 years before the story begins, the best friend is not a character in the story, and I have no intention of featuring a rape as a plot point again in the series.  Still, after reading McGuire’s blog entry and thinking about the other fantasies I’ve read, I considered about a lot of things—including whether I should include it at all.

I haven’t decided yet.  However, I know that I don’t want to have any part in perpetuating the females-as-victim, males-as-predators stereotypes that are still all-too-prevalent in fiction.

Author: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

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