Illuminating conversation on Twitter yesterday about sexual violence in epic fantasy and the narrative choices around it. Also, CG of Black Girl in Media poses a question of whether there’s been an increase of violence against women in media depictions in part due to backlash over feminism, and if in part it rests against a need to punish the “strong female character” trope.
I’m interested in how these two ideas may intersect, and ponder how much gratuitous depictions of sexual violence in epic fantasy are used not just to titillate but to punish female characters for being too strong, too powerful, too subversive. It’s pretty familiar territory and there’s a lot of conversation around it, so I shall piggyback with A Song of Ice and Fire and some deeply problematic ways in which it portrays sexual violence (apart from: a lot).
These thoughts are kind of messy, so I’m going to break them into bullet points.
- Sansa Stark, who I usually start with in terms of how this series treats women as she’s its primary perv-magnet, is subject to constant sexual peril from virtually every man she encounters that isn’t a family member; the narrative uses will Sansa be raped or not? as a device for dramatic tension constantly, though despite her frequent brushes with it, she has to this date not been raped.
- Tyrion Lannister, who chooses not to rape Sansa when they’re married, also strangles his lover (and is depicted sympathetically by the narrative for both to boot). Petyr Baelish, who is later in charge of Sansa’s keep and is in total control of her, also murders his lover; yet somehow Sansa is safe from all but mild relatively creeping from him. This treatment of female characters feeds into a dangerous myth of rape culture: that if women just give enough fucks they’ll be protected from misogynistic violence.
- By contrast, villain Cersei Lannister is sexually assaulted both by individual men and by the system in which the world rests — which feeds into the other side of the same myth; that we should only care about sexual violence when it happens to the “good” ones. And this distinction is further echoed by the different ways the narrative presents Joffrey and Robert Baratheon; both are unrepentant domestic abusers, and the first is loathed, the second is loved.
- That the narrative treats the latter as if he would have not raped and beaten his deceased fiancee Lyanna Stark because he really loved her or something is so gross I can’t touch it. Men aren’t serially violent towards women because they aren’t that into them, but because they enjoy violating women.
- It’s been pointed out before how unrealistic it is that sexual violence in A Song of Ice and Fire is presented as a threat virtually entirely only to women, especially given the nature of the plot (warfare, hostage taking, etc.). But the only rapist that’s depicted entirely unsympathetically — Ramsay Snow, who brutally violates Theon Greyjoy — is also the only rapist who rapes a man.
- Ergo: men who rape men are monsters, and men who rape women are protagonists. Women without agency are safe; women with agency are not.
Do these deeply harmful patterns occur in other dudebro epic fantasy novels? Do these cycles self-perpetuate in our narratives? Is it recursive with real world violence against women in geek culture — e.g., is threatening women with rape online when they get too uppity and have opinions and stuff a learned behavior that’s inspired in part by our problematic narratives around sexual violence?
I suspect the answer to the last two questions is at least a partial yes. As to the first, I’m basically allergic to nerdbro epic fantasy, so I don’t know. But I will mention a palate cleanser; the plot of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death includes a substantial amount of violence against women, both individual and systemic, and does pretty much the exact opposite of all this bullshit.
And maybe that’s the solution, ultimately — to promote the fuck out of women creators, who are substantially less likely to perpetuate this; and to promote the fuck out of women-centered narratives to engender empathy towards women in the real world. Maybe it’s not just about representation, but an ethical obligation.