Have been reading Requires Only That You Hate’s response to Nerine Dorman’s review of Prince of Thorns. Dorman’s review argues that the rape scenes in Prince of Thorns are OK because “Um. Hello. This is WAR.” Dorman’s review sparked my response, because it’s pick-and-choose realism (pick-and-choose realism that’s all for more rape in books, which is even more ridiculous). Not that rape doesn’t happen during war, but that in these books rape—a tool of physical terror—suddenly “turns off” when confronted by our special protagonist. A group of hardened rapist mercenaries wouldn’t submit to the personal leadership of a thirteen-year-old boy due to his charisma or intelligence or shininess or whatever. They’d probably just rape him, too, and go off on their merry way. (“But that would be gay!” Guess what, in total war, sexual taboos tend to go by the wayside. All of them. Get used to reality, weakling.)
But the post also got me thinking—so how does rape work in the grimdark universe? I’ve come up with four ways. You may have more!
1. Rape as threat. This is the most popular use of the rape trope. Rape is the Worst Thing That Can Happen To a Woman*, so while a male character will face threats to his body in general, his reputation, his family, his property, and so on, a female character will face threats to her vagina. Because Rape is the Worst Thing That Can Happen to a Woman, though, the rape never actually occurs—the threat of it just hovers around the character at all times.** The flip side of this device? A female character can go through all sorts of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, but as long as rape (of the penis-in-vagina definition) doesn’t occur then nothing “bad” has happened. This device is particularly common if the character’s a virgin, because a virgin’s hymen has some sort of intrinsic value, unlike her mind or all the non-hymen parts of her body. Sansa’s storyline in Song of Ice and Fire fits—George R.R. Martin constantly puts her in situations where her particular peril is that a male character may force his penis into her untouched vagina. By the end of the fourth book, Sansa has been stripped naked and beaten in public by the sexually sadistic Joffrey, married against her will, and then kidnapped and forced to change her identity. As far as she knows all her family have died in horrible ways, sometimes as the result of trying to kill Sansa herself. But, yeah. Rape. That would be the worst.
Brienne is another character from Song of Ice and Fire that is put in the exact same situation of rape-as-ultimate-terror, even though her maturity and physical abilities should put her in a completely different situation than the victimized Sansa. Brienne can win a tournament against a group of her world’s most elite warriors, but later in the plot she’s overcome by thugs who—guess what—want to rape her. Of course, it doesn’t happen, because Brienne is a viewpoint character, but also because her hymen needs to survive to redeem another character. Which brings us to Point Number Two.
2. Reacting to rape as a sign of good character. This is a device for the menfolk—it’s meant to indicate that a male character is decent folks or, if he’s done bad things in the past, that he’s redeemable. Again, Martin comes to mind—Jaime Lannister’s moral turning point comes when he saves Brienne from being raped by the aforementioned thugs. This proves that he is a good person, despite the fact that he tried to murder a child. Tyrion Lannister is also a good person because he doesn’t force himself on Sansa. He also kills his mistress, but he didn’t stick his dick in her beforehand, so it’s really not that bad. Not raping somebody or stopping a rape or avenging a rape automatically means that a male character is one of the good ones, whatever he’s done in the past (including, weirdly enough, rape). Because, remember, Rape is The Worst Thing in the World. Except when it’s a backdrop. Which brings us to Point Number Three.
3. Rape as scenery. This happens to non-viewpoint female characters to show that some bad shit is going down! Martin again—there’s a scene where a riot breaks out in Kings’ Landing and one of the girls accompanying Sansa is gang-raped to show that yes, riots are dangerous. (Sansa is almost raped, but she’s saved just in time, by a man who later breaks into her bedroom and… poor Sansa, can’t she just be raped already so The Worst Thing can happen and she can go on to live a peaceful life?) And there’s the scene where Daenerys accompanies the Dothraki through the sacked village in Game of Thrones. Oh, and I forgot the part where Jeyne Poole is raped by a dog. I’m sure this device is in a ton of books not written by George R.R. Martin but unfortunately I don’t have the time to fully explore the exciting world of wallpaper rape.
4. Rape of major female character. This seems comparatively rare. Maybe I’m not reading enough rapey books—the only ones I can remember where this actually occurs are Mary Gentle’s 1610: Sundial in a Grave and Sarah Micklem’s Firethorn. The rape plot turned me off Sundial, possibly unjustly, but I felt that I had been promised a fun, sexy, gender-bendy thriller that suddenly turned into a revenge story that punished its awesome female character. Firethorn is interesting in that it starts off with the rape of the main character, which automatically destroys the idea that what happens to a woman’s hymen is the most interesting part of her story. There’s a hell of a lot of other rape threats in that book, but the rape threats aren’t there to prove how awesome a male character is for not being a rapist—Firethorn is saved by female friends, male acquaintances who aren’t special heroes, and, in the end, by herself (she sneaks up on the wannabe rapist and poisons him). The poisoning scene pretty much sold me on the rest of the thing, what can I say. I read that book a long time ago, and I’m afraid to go back to it because I remember it as being so great and what if it isn’t? (The sequel, Wildfire, devolves into a love-triangle mess but I’ll always have you, Firethorn.)
* Rape in the grimdark world does not work against men, except in the most exceptionally grimdark of situations, and it cannot be depicted “onscreen.”
** The constant rape threat isn’t only misogynistic, it’s a crutch for the lazy writer, because it makes for a premade story arc—you got a female character, you throw threatening penises at her until the right penis finally hits the target and then you’re done. No need to create motivation, build character, or do any of that other heavy lifting.