Trigger warning for discussion of sexual violence, rape culture, and gendered violence in general.
Wednesday’s post was definitely among the ranty-pants variety. It’s worth noting that rage in women is greeted often with a sort of bafflement and head-scratching, but that it is a perfectly valid response to a system in which lived experiences are trivialised, minimised, and outright dismissed. Or, you know, greeted with more threats and violence, because that’s a thing.
Long before writing that post though, I had a bunch of thoughts swirling in my head about this idea that violence is just violence in shows where women are subjected to specific forms of violence (almost always sexual violence) and men are beat up a lot.
All violence is not created equal. Also all things have context.
My primary problem with any assertion that “men in x show are treated terribly too” is that it removes vital context and conflates forms of violence without any attempt to understand power dynamics, social structures, institutional biases, and how those things combine to form a particular type of world. Rape is not the same thing as getting stabbed in the gut. Both things are violent acts, but both of them carry different implications.
Those who identify as women living in the world with enormous statistical odds of facing gendered violence of any kind (this is not limited to sexual violence — domestic abuse and its entire spectrum as well as gendered hate crimes are also included) live within a particular societal context. This societal context is referred to as the patriarchy, which is a context in which those identifying as men own and control the bulk of social, economic, and political power.
A note on semantics: I personally dislike the word “problematic,” because to me it feels dismissive and too often fails to engage with whatever it’s trying to address. It’s a cloudlike word to me, something I can never quite catch a hold of because it’s just sort of blanketing the issue it wants to address. I will instead refer to instances by describing what it is about them that causes distress, the impact they have, and addressing the context in which they exist. That word makes me tune out a little — I understand it’s used often as a succinct way of expressing that something reflects ideas or biases that are unwelcome, but I prefer to go beyond that. From “this is problematic” to “this aspect of a created work was upsetting/triggering/poorly executed/etc. in that it did these specific things, which may have been simple thoughtlessness/intention/unconscious bias of the creator, and I want to look at what happened here more closely.” It’s longer, yes. And I definitely understand the usage of problematic as a blanket term when it’s hugely wearying to explain why over and over and over again. For my purposes, though, I’m going to do my best to avoid the word. Also, it’s worth noting that we’re all in this category sometimes. All of us.
So. Let’s talk about gendered violence.
We live in a world where women (using “women,” I am referring to all who identify as women) are at significantly higher risk for sexual violence, domestic abuse, discrimination, sex trafficking, objectification, and a lot more. The onus of responsibility for avoiding these things falls on women, yet still women bear the brunt of societal blame when they occur. If you know more than two women, you know someone who has been abused, beaten, or raped.
These kinds of things cause trauma, and that trauma is often compounded by existing daily within a culture where that trauma is dismissed, but simultaneously victims are blamed for it, then called oversensitive or overreactive when they do speak out. This extends to all survivors of abuse, regardless of gender identity. Trauma causes ripples, and about 50% of survivors of sexual violence live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (that’s much higher than the rate for war veterans, which is around 30%), whether diagnosed or not. That’s millions and millions of people, which doesn’t do much justice in terms of quantifying. Going with the generally accepted statistic that 1 in 5 women will be sexually assaulted by university age, that’s 700 million women. 50% of them suffering from PTSD is 350 million people, so let’s say the population of say, the United States. Think about that for a second. The equivalent of the US population lives daily with PTSD.
PTSD isn’t simply getting upset at things, and I wonder often that the compassion extended to veterans of war stops shortly at survivors of sexual violence, who experience the symptoms and clinical effects of the disorder at higher rates and are significantly higher in numbers. PTSD is a life-changing mental illness that causes intense psychological distress, flashbacks (with both emotional and physical manifestations of distress) to the traumatic event, and can also include major depression, anxiety, and more. The trivialisation of being “triggered” intensifies the stigma already associated with survivors, and a widespread lack of understanding about the psychosocial, clinical, and behavioural effects of PTSD triggers compounds them. It’s not getting mad in traffic; it’s feeling — repeatedly — the physical and emotional sensation of a monster truck barreling toward you and knowing you can’t stop it.
So that’s the context in which all popular culture exists. This is the world in which we live. One in ten people you make eye contact with have PTSD, and when you account in war vets and the fact that the whole 1 in 5 figure is women reporting between the ages of 18-22 and not counting the rest of women’s lives, that number is likely higher. Context. It’s important.
Fiction is powerful. Comics, films, books, music — the culture we create is both a product of the society within which we live and feeds back into that same society. This artistic cultural reciprocity is an ongoing cycle. We internalise the culture that exists, even as it’s born from us. Art is capable of changing culture. It’s also capable of reinforcing aspects of culture that damage vulnerable people, specifically minorities.
Mainstream culture is a product of the demographic in power. In Hollywood, gender disparity is rampant. In publishing as well — there may be more women authors in some genres and the majority of agents may be women by the numbers, but when it comes to the upper eschelons, those who make the big decisions are men. (This is also an intersectional issue, as people of colour, people with disabilities, GLBTQIA people, and other groups are also severely underrepresented in decision-making capacities.) In specific genres in publishing, those disparities and cultural inequities are even more pronounced (for instance, my own genre of science fiction and fantasy keeps making the rounds as a swamp of harassment, misogyny, and all that fun stuff about the Hugos this year, whee — never mind that SFF literally is about the imagining of entire new worlds where we have the ability to explore EVERYTHING).
Non-diverse media is erasure media — it not only excludes minorities from being depicted on screen or in books, but what does it say when these are the fantasy worlds we create? Where only one subgroup of the population (usually heterosexual white men) is given the overwhelming majority of exposure? When only they are allowed a diversity of experience, to be more than one stereotypical caricature? It sends the message that this is the fantasy — that the rest of us will simply go away. It’s not only painful exclusion, but it’s factually ridiculous. That’s not what the world looks like. At all.
This isn’t to say that the only art that exists is what comes through New York or Hollywood — to the contrary, marginalised groups have long found ways to create and explore and subvert mainstream cultural norms — but they lack the reach and acceptance and normalising privilege of being part of the wider conversation.
Where Gendered Violence Fits In
In the context of the world we live in and acknowledging the interchange of power between cultural expression and society, here’s the thing about gendered violence.
Showing a man beating up a woman on screen carries with it the weight of our lived cultural context. It carries with it the connotation of domestic abuse, abuse in general, and the power dynamics of a world where men have more social, economic, and political power and are using it against someone who does not. It is from the first punch, an unequal exchange. (Commonly referred to as punching down. Pun not intended, but appropriate.)
Utilising sexual violence as a plot device is the same thing, especially in fiction where the enjoyment of entertainment is often meant for escapism. It sends the message that no, you don’t get to escape from a world that treats your body’s violation as an inevitability. It sends the message that escapism is only for the dominant demographics, another aspect of this world afforded to them and not to the rest of us. Not only do we face these things constantly in real life, but they are made ubiquitous in fiction. Inescapable.
The question to ask in this is who has the power?
The inevitability of gendered violence and the normalisation of the same is internalised by consumers of media. Equality of violence is non-existent — you have to ask who has the power, and not just instance for instance. It’s not just moment-by-moment, where a member of an our-world marginalised group has a gun to the head of a non-minority demographic character. The question of who has the power means each case and systemic and institutional power. In our world, power dynamics are assumed until proven demonstrably otherwise. If it’s another world, we will project our familiar power dynamics upon it unless there are demonstrable cues showing us (not telling us) that there are different balances of systemic and institutional power.
For instance, one of my big issues with Firefly is that we’re told repeatedly that the position of Companion is one of respect and stature, but Mal calls Inara a whore and degrades her profession every time he gets a chance. (And he’s not the only one.) We are shown a conflicting reality to what we are told. Instead of subverting expected power dynamics, this reinforces them. Subverting it would have been even Mal acknowledging and supporting the position of Companion itself, while allowing for himself to feel jealousy (and even anger at her patrons), but not using it to place a value judgement on her.
By repeatedly playing into our-world power dynamics and exploiting the lived experience of already-marginalised people, making us passive objects of non-marginalised characters’ development, this continues to allow for the propagation of power imbalances. Too often, the use of gendered violence in particular focuses on the observer (the bereaved husband/boyfriend/brother/father) and not the victim. It uses the victim’s pain not to create meaningful growth in the victim, but to spur the observer to emotion or action. This consistently reinforces that the voices of survivors are not what matters in the conversation and further stimatises and silences those who have lived the experience of gendered violence.
Should It Be Avoided At All Costs?
Short answer, no.
I think very few people would argue that rape and gendered violence should be excluded from art entirely. To do so would create more silence around survivors who already get silenced by pretty much everything else. Writing within the existing power structure shouldn’t be taboo, but there are ways to do so without continuing to inflict pain and residual trauma on survivors for no other reason than gratuitous “I feel like it” reasons.
This is not censorship. Censorship is: “You may not create this thing. I will actively prevent you from creating and distributing this thing. I will seek out this thing in creation and distribution and destroy it. I will punish those in possession of this thing, and I have the power to do this.” Censorship is not: “I do not like this thing. It makes me angry. I would like to be treated like a human being in fiction.” Censorship is also not: “This is my space, and I intend it to be a safe one. You make make of your own spaces what you will.”
What I want, and what I think is behind the outcry over GoT (and the support of Mad Max) is for the perspective of survivors to not be minimised. For the allowance to speak for ourselves through fiction. To be the focus of these narratives, not the props in someone else’s. To not be used as shock value even though what happens to us and what we live with is and should be shocking.
What I want is for my experience to not be normalised to the point where people consider it an inevitability, for authors not to be asked when their female characters will get raped, where it’s not an expectation. Where rape and abuse are not synonymous with woman.
Survivors are more than the sum of our lived experiences, and treating those experiences like mere convenient plot devices reduces us to them. It’s worth asking why it’s necessary to show this violence onscreen; it’s possible to do this without being exploitative, but it’s seldom done that way. More often, the audience is made into a voyeur and the victim is objectified. Portraying this sort of thing with sensitivity is about paying attention to where the power is and what purpose the scene holds for the victim. If that question cannot be answered with definitive agency for the survivor of the attack, sexual or otherwise, chances are the scene will be neither sensitive nor subversive — it will fall into tropes and achieve nothing but making living survivors relive their own trauma and be dismissed yet again by uncaring creators who treat us as props.
We are not things.