I know it’s a little late now since the horse is probably officially dead, but Game of Thrones stirred up some controversy a couple of weeks back with yet another rape scene, which has become something of a hallmark of an otherwise great TV series (and great literary series as well). Chuck Wendig actually did a wonderful job dissecting the scene and its problems, not once, but twice, so I won’t get into the specifics of that here, but I think the reason this particular scene resonated with so many (and not in a good way) has been the greater overall awareness and concern over rape as a plot point; in fact, the increasing prevalence of such female victimization as a literary short-hand for really bad stuff perpetrated by a really bad person.
And that’s the problem – it’s become too cliche, an easy way out for us story tellers. We can shoehorn some characterization, motivation, and emotional turmoil all in one scene by“blaming it on the rape” and moving on from there. And pretending that relentless sexual violence and abuse is really just the “damsel in distress” trope turned up to “11” for our grittier, modern times is another kind of a cop-out as well.
Of course, our arguments are legion. It’s critical to my story. The plot demands it. It’s what this character would do. It’s realistic for the time and place… All these are fair, and maybe even defensible in certain contexts. But I think we need to be ready to do that nowadays – to defend why such a portrayal is so important to our story, particularly if we find ourselves going back to that poisonous well again and again.
As the father of three girls, I try to be attuned to this issue in my own books. I really work hard to write complex, fully realized female characters that (for good or bad) are agents of their own fate, and not merely another kind of Macguffin – where the violence and brutality they suffer is simply another way to move the “real” protagonist from a physical or emotional Point A to Point B. That doesn’t mean bad things don’t happen to these characters, because they do – sometimes awful things. But I always think hard about it…I think consciously about it, knowing that someday I’ll have to defend these choices to the critics I’m most concerned about, my own girls.
I get it, we're all artists and many of us feel we should never have to defend our art. But I think the social media discussion that flared up around that GoT episode was incredibly useful and thought-provoking, for both creatives and critics alike. We’re all trying to do credible, meaningful work, and it’s important to remember that the work sometimes carries a meaning or message all of its own.
Maybe, in the end, we don't think we have a responsibility to do better, but I think we should always be responsive to the questions or concerns our work raises...
My two cents.
And as always, keep writing. JTS