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Female Characters and Victimization - The Wordsmith's Forge — LiveJournal
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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ysabetwordsmith
Female Characters and Victimization
Here's a discussion about female characters and victimization.

It started when a male fan asked when one of the female characters would get raped.  Not if, but when.  Okay, that's creepy.  Author said never.  That's her option.  It was pointed out that this is unrealistic.  That's really creepy.  It is also true.  If you write an analog of modern America, and you have more than 3 female characters, then statistically speaking one of them has experienced sexual violence.  For military women or Native American women it's 1 in 3.  If you have a whole story full of women who've never had that problem, okay great, they're empowered.  They're also kind of eclipsing the really huge fucked up mess of sexuality that is what modern American women have to deal with.  A majority of fantasy settings are patriarchal, just because it's what most writers are familiar with, consciously or not.  The numbers elseworld are rarely going to be more than a stone's throw away from the local ones, unless the author deliberately changes them.

Sometimes, there is no right, safe, easy, polite way to write that harms nobody.  Maybe sexual trauma isn't your thing to write about, maybe you think writing about it makes it worse.  But not talking about problems almost never leads to solutions, and it can make people who do have those problems feel excluded or erased.

Me, I'm a representational writer.  There are things I write less, or not at all, because they're just not my territory.  But for the most part I write life, I write experiences, I hike through the light and the shadow alike.  I look at what breaks characters, and what somebody thought would break them but doesn't.  So I include a lot of stuff that many people won't touch, as faithfully as I can.  Sometimes it upsets people; that's why I use warning labels when necessary.  

I have characters, female and male, who have survived various sexual attacks.  (For males, the percentage is about 1 in 9.)  I also have characters, including some very strong women, who don't have that experience.  I've even written cultures where it pretty much doesn't happen.  (All crimes have a spectrum, they're worse in some cultures than others; and the low can approach zero.)  There is variety.

The one thing I won't do is railroad my protagonists, because a protagonist needs agency.  Bit characters and villains don't always get this protection; I'm not above arbitrarily belting a bad guy over the head now and then, for plot or personal gratification.

When we write, we tell stories about how the world is, or could be, or should never have been; our hopes and our hates are all in there.  It reveals what we choose to see, or not to see, to uphold or wipe away.  And how  we write it matters too.  I won't tell you what to choose, to write or to read.  I will tell you to choose mindfully.  I will tell you that your choices matter, sometimes in ways you may not even realize.

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Comments
meridian_rose From: meridian_rose Date: October 2nd, 2012 11:09 am (UTC) (Link)
I wouldn't have been so nice to the fan if he'd demanded one of my characters get raped "because realism". Rape can be tackled sensitively, but if the author doesn't want to address it for whatever reason, then they shouldn't feel obligated to - as you say, this is a choice they're making. (Also, "realism" in high fantasy and science fiction settings such as McGuire's, and many of the worlds I write in both my own creation and fannish, isn't the same "real" as our world.)
Sometimes it's nice to be able to read or watch something and not see the woman become a victim. We know how to be victims. We know how to be submissive. We know how we're "weaker" than men. We're told this over and over, have it socialised into us, indoctrinated into us subconsciously by our culture. Sometimes it's nice to see what it could be like if this were not the case. Many commentators said they were relieved to have MacGuire's books as something they could read without being triggered. They don't need reminding that rape exists because they've lived through it, and what they want is to be entertained and to read about women having adventures without the threat of sexual assault.

If I want to write something troubling (eg domestic violence, suicidal ideation) I will, and I'll warn. But I think there are enough female victim stories in the mainstream media and, for example, I prefer not to write hurt/comfort with a physically hurt or sexually assaulted female character.
I also want to write characters who are asexual, bisexual, childfree, polyamorous, and other things that are outside the 'norm' and suffer from under representation. I don't really care if people want to decry multiple occurrences of those things in my work as "unrealistic" either. Compared to all the works erasing these experiences my output is one drop in a vast ocean.

Finally, context matters. There are writers I trust to tackle sensitive subjects and others I don't. I loved the "Legend of the Seeker" tv show and its strong female characters but I refuse to read the books they're based on after hearing about the constant rape scenes thrown in, apparently, not for real plot reasons but for the (male) author's titillation. As you say, "how" we write something and "why".
catsittingstill From: catsittingstill Date: October 2nd, 2012 12:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Actually, even supposing the number is 1 in 3 (I've heard between 1 in 4 and 1 in 6 myself) that means 2 in 3 are never raped.

It's actually *likely that character X takes the 66% path instead of the 33% path.

Furthermore characters *are* unlikely, and we have no problem with it; that's what we paid for, after all. We have characters that can teleport or turn into foxes or seals, we have roses that unroot themselves and move into your house and squabble with your cats because you gave them a name, we have tree-sprites only look it's a directory tree--but what's really unrealistic is that the main characters aren't raped. Wait--what?

What I saw from those people in the comments who had been raped was "Thank you for giving me a safe place to go" not "how dare you erase my suffering." If rape victims *want* to read about proud strong women humbled by the mighty rapist, that kind of trope is widely available. I can recommend a few authors.

I don't see anything wrong with one author saying "I'm going to focus on things that aren't this issue. If you don't like that, you won't care for my stuff, but at least now you know and won't waste your time."

And frankly--asking a female author something like that? Ewww....
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 4th, 2012 10:39 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>>It's actually *likely that character X takes the 66% path instead of the 33% path.<<

That's true for a single character, but I'm not talking about single characters. I'm talking about a mass in which the representation is 0 instead of 25% or even 1 example.

>>Furthermore characters *are* unlikely, and we have no problem with it; that's what we paid for, after all.<<

There's a difference between having an extra ability, and leaving out a major cultural paradigm. It's like having no black people, it's damn distracting under certain circumstances. Not every story, not every time, but it can be a chuckhole that jolts readers out of the setting by reason of implausibility.

>>What I saw from those people in the comments who had been raped was "Thank you for giving me a safe place to go"<<

If an author has deliberately decided not to write about that, ever, then advertising the fact may be attractive to those readers. I have indicated The Adventures of Aldornia and Zenobia as happy lesbians who stay alive.

>>If rape victims *want* to read about proud strong women humbled by the mighty rapist, that kind of trope is widely available.<<

Writing about rape does not -- and should not -- predispose a specific type of portrayal. There are many different approaches. It is unfortunate that the destructive one is so common. I think what we need are stories about characters who aren't "humbled" by it.

>>And frankly--asking a female author something like that? Ewww....<<

Well, yes, the guy who started it sounded like an utter creep.
bodhifox From: bodhifox Date: October 2nd, 2012 01:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
I don't write sexual encounters in general.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 2nd, 2012 05:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

Well...

That's fair. If you've entirely ruled out covering a topic, then its internal variations don't matter within that context.

Come to think of it, there are entire genres where sexual violence is usually or always off-topic. Gentle fiction, for instance, contains no sex, violence, or vulgarity by definition. So there's a place for folks to go if they want to write/read maximally safe, relaxing, cheerful material. That's a really good thing to have. I've also found it very challenging to write because a majority of plot twists involve either sexual tension, or someone getting hurt accidentally or on purpose. People may dismiss it as fluff, but the really good examples most definitely are not.
dulcinbradbury From: dulcinbradbury Date: October 2nd, 2012 06:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I could make the argument that sex & rape are two very different things.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 4th, 2012 06:24 am (UTC) (Link)

Well...

Rape and lovemaking are different things. Rape is violence expressed in a sexual manner. It makes kind of a Venn diagram pattern.

For the purposes of gentle fiction, rape is a double strikeout because it contains sexual and violent activity.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 4th, 2012 07:34 am (UTC) (Link)

Well...

Some people don't, and that's okay; not everyone has to. It's better to do that as a conscious choice than a subconsious one, though. If you know enough to state it as such, presumably you've given it thought.
houseboatonstyx From: houseboatonstyx Date: October 2nd, 2012 01:56 pm (UTC) (Link)
Otoh, wouldn't that be contributing to an unhealthy trope? And to 'rape culture' in general?

What effect would an author want such a scene to have, on what kind of reader?

In real life, the 1 in X woman's assault happens some time within her lifespan. But most stories cover a shorter period, so the odds within that story-period would be much less (unless the story involves some specially dangerous situation). Also, 1 in X-N women has a broken bone sometime in their life, but we're not obligated to write a story covering the time it does happen.

If the author is concerned that her story world match our real world statistically, then she might have this be something that happened years before the story and is not dwelt on. (Though in that case it might be 1 in X/2, since it may happen years after the story instead of years before.)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 4th, 2012 07:13 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>>Otoh, wouldn't that be contributing to an unhealthy trope? And to 'rape culture' in general?

What effect would an author want such a scene to have, on what kind of reader?<<

These things are inextricable. First, there's no easy answer. If nobody talks about rape, then it continues in hiding, which adds to the problem. If people talk about it, that draws attention and can add to the problem that way. What makes the difference (and opens the potential to talk about it without causing a problem, or perhaps less of one, or at least get some good out of it) is how the writer renders the topic. Anything can be described in a positive or negative way. So to do it justice, the writer needs to understand the topic well and portray it accurately, meaningfully, respectfully.

>>In real life, the 1 in X woman's assault happens some time within her lifespan.<<

I'm primarily thinking on a mass scale: a writer's total work, or what everyone altogether is writing, where there are numerous characters of all different ages. Not everybody will handle every motif, and they don't have to. But it's something to think about, what you choose to write or never to write. If you're making omissions by accident, especially if it's something common, that can get into all kinds of awkward social dynamics because a lot of oppressions function on a subconscious scale.

lb_lee From: lb_lee Date: October 2nd, 2012 08:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
I admit, I cover sexual violence often in my work, but that's because I have personal experience with it, and in both worlds I write in, it's either as likely as our world, or even more so. Though oddly, I've only written it actually occurring to male characters, maybe because I never read it happening and it gave me a lot of frustration, making me feel like I was the only one in the world even though I knew, objectively, that I wasn't.

Then again, I tend to put my characters through hell. It's not the horror that matters to me so much as their strength in surviving or overcoming it. (Or, less often, the tragedy of them being unable.)

--Rogan
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 4th, 2012 06:03 am (UTC) (Link)

Thoughts

>>I admit, I cover sexual violence often in my work, but that's because I have personal experience with it, and in both worlds I write in, it's either as likely as our world, or even more so.<<

See now, that's a good thing. You understand the topic, so that helps do it justice. You paid attention to the frequency in your settings. And you're still able to write it, which isn't true of many people with personal or tangent experience.

>>Though oddly, I've only written it actually occurring to male characters, maybe because I never read it happening and it gave me a lot of frustration, making me feel like I was the only one in the world even though I knew, objectively, that I wasn't.<<

That's a key reason why I write it too, because erasure is a serious problem for male survivors. It's all but invisible, and female survivors can be downright vicious to them. (That blew up a few times in some feminist classes I took. And then people bitched because I went to see if the guys were okay, which wasn't anybody else going to do.) I haven't done a whole lot, but some. It's challenging because the some things are the same and some things are really different, between male and female survivors.

>>Then again, I tend to put my characters through hell. It's not the horror that matters to me so much as their strength in surviving or overcoming it. (Or, less often, the tragedy of them being unable.)<<

I like the intensity, myself. I like to see what people are made of, and melting them down is a good way to do that. But it's like sculpting, too; you can't just hit a rock with a hammer. You have to hit the right place. That's what a lot of authors miss. They use the same technique, the same target, over and over on different characters. But no, they're all different people; they will break in different ways for different reasons. Or not break, as the case may be. That's what makes it interesting, the differences.

*chuckle* I was still in high school when one of my characters said to me, "May I have my soul back now? I see you're finished with the wringer."
lb_lee From: lb_lee Date: October 4th, 2012 06:28 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thoughts

And you're still able to write it, which isn't true of many people with personal or tangent experience.

In some ways, because of that, I feel almost obligated to write about it. This isn't meant to be a negative; I do a lot of what I do because, "GODDAMMIT I COULD DO BETTER THAN THIS TURNIP-HEAD!" And I swear to god, every time I read some poor innocent little rape victim being healed by a good deep dicking afterward by her love interest because his cock is just that magical, or turning from Madonna to whore just because the author has no better conception of how women work... arghlebarghle. PUT SOME EFFORT INTO IT JESUS.

I like to see what people are made of, and melting them down is a good way to do that. But it's like sculpting, too; you can't just hit a rock with a hammer. You have to hit the right place. That's what a lot of authors miss. They use the same technique, the same target, over and over on different characters.

YES. YES! And it drives me nuts too, because that's just sloppy. Everyone responds in different ways; that's what makes them INTERESTING!

But no, they're all different people; they will break in different ways for different reasons. Or not break, as the case may be. That's what makes it interesting, the differences.

And that might be partly why most of my female characters haven't had it hit as strong as in my male characters; it just wouldn't have the effect I'm looking for. The two biggies, it would just make them even ANGRIER and more vicious, which is not the direction I want those characters to go. (Just the opposite, in fact; one I'm constantly working to keep her from spinning off into the morality abyss.) Their breaking points are located in completely other places. It'd be totally worthless to the story for them to face that kind of trauma!
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 4th, 2012 07:32 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thoughts

>>In some ways, because of that, I feel almost obligated to write about it.<<

That's a common feeling.

>> This isn't meant to be a negative; I do a lot of what I do because, "GODDAMMIT I COULD DO BETTER THAN THIS TURNIP-HEAD!" <<

Me too. I was really quite startled the first time I was watching a movie and wanted to take an orange wax-pencil to the film. The King Kong remake, with all those scenes of the engine running. My editorial ability had expanded enough to start reacting to a new medium, not just the usual, "No! Don't open that door!" but "Oh gods, not ANOTHER engine sequence, CUT!"

I've written a lot of things because somebody else did it badly -- or in the case of Star Trek, stepped right up to the interesting part but then stopped short of the followthrough, which in my reckoning leaves the best stuff fair game for somebody else.

>>And I swear to god, every time I read some poor innocent little rape victim being healed by a good deep dicking afterward by her love interest because his cock is just that magical, or turning from Madonna to whore just because the author has no better conception of how women work... arghlebarghle. PUT SOME EFFORT INTO IT JESUS.<<

Magical Healing Cock/Cunt and Virgin/Whore are tropes in their own right. "Be mindful of your trope stack" is good advice for writers. The more you cram together, the less original your story is and the more likely you are to get into trouble playing broken records on your sociology player.

>>And that might be partly why most of my female characters haven't had it hit as strong as in my male characters<<

Another factor is that most women are aware of rape as a possibility and that they are favored prey. Many men aren't; they are thus more likely to be completely blindsided by it. No awareness, no strategy for responding in action, no idea of what to do afterwards or how to find help if they want it.

A person's awareness and responsiveness to a situation plays a huge role in how it affects them; there are actually studies showing that a woman who fights back -- even if she loses, even if she's severely injured -- tends to recover better than one who does not. Thinking about dangerous situations ahead of time makes it more possible to keep one's head and form a battle plan. But if you're caught by a completely unexpected situation, you've got only your generic planning capacity to fall back on, and the shock can take that out of order.
lb_lee From: lb_lee Date: October 4th, 2012 08:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thoughts

Me too. I was really quite startled the first time I was watching a movie and wanted to take an orange wax-pencil to the film.

Film is SO not my medium, but I get that sometimes. It's definitely stronger in comics and such. ("AUGH BACKGROUNDS. YOUR CHARACTERS HAVE AN ENVIRONMENT. GIVE IT TO ME.")

"Be mindful of your trope stack" is good advice for writers. The more you cram together, the less original your story is and the more likely you are to get into trouble playing broken records on your sociology player.

I agree completely. Knowing the things you do over and over keeps you mindful of what you're not so good at and such. I will never forget a moment in my teen years where I was drawing my characters, and my little brother came over and said, "Have you ever noticed you only draw skinny or average people?" At the time, I wasn't happy to hear it, but then I realized good god, HE WAS RIGHT. And I immediately set to rectify that.

Another factor is that most women are aware of rape as a possibility and that they are favored prey.

True facts. One of my primary female characters is a young girl of the royal family, in that rapier world I mentioned. For her, rape wouldn't be a surprise; it'd be the equivalent of a car accident--sure, it sucks, but it happens to everybody and aren't you glad nobody was seriously injured? Which is its own special kind of horrible.

A person's awareness and responsiveness to a situation plays a huge role in how it affects them; there are actually studies showing that a woman who fights back -- even if she loses, even if she's severely injured -- tends to recover better than one who does not.

I'm not surprised about this, and really wish people had TOLD me this as a child. As a kid, I was always told fighting back would "encourage" my attacker, but it just trained me to act helpless when I wasn't. Urgh.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 5th, 2012 07:36 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thoughts

>>It's definitely stronger in comics and such.<<

Yeah, I've always enjoyed reading comics, but more recently I've gotten interested in writing that kind of material. So then the editing comes along for the ride ...

>> I will never forget a moment in my teen years where I was drawing my characters, and my little brother came over and said, "Have you ever noticed you only draw skinny or average people?" At the time, I wasn't happy to hear it, but then I realized good god, HE WAS RIGHT. And I immediately set to rectify that.<<

Diversity is a good thing. I pretty much can't look at "Why don't people write X?" without mentally searching for X in my work. Then if I don't find any, it kind of goes into the cauldron for future reference.

>>For her, rape wouldn't be a surprise; it'd be the equivalent of a car accident--sure, it sucks, but it happens to everybody and aren't you glad nobody was seriously injured? Which is its own special kind of horrible.<<

Some cultures just have frigging creepy customs. I have one that's into kidnapping small children for ransom, routinely. Most kids think of it as a fun little adventure, but some of them really don't.

>>I'm not surprised about this, and really wish people had TOLD me this as a child. As a kid, I was always told fighting back would "encourage" my attacker, but it just trained me to act helpless when I wasn't. Urgh.<<

Which is rather the point. People are trained to be victims. I say, fuck that noise. You may not always win, but at least you can make the bastards work for it.
synnabar From: synnabar Date: October 3rd, 2012 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
meridian_rose said: "Sometimes it's nice to be able to read or watch something and not see the woman become a victim. We know how to be victims. We know how to be submissive. We know how we're "weaker" than men. We're told this over and over, have it socialised into us, indoctrinated into us subconsciously by our culture. Sometimes it's nice to see what it could be like if this were not the case."

*nods* Yes.

I felt the same way about a series I stumbled upon, with a very interesting (to me), strong, self-sufficient female character. I loved the fantasy-based series and couldn't get enough of it... until she was raped at the end of one of the books. That turned me off cold, for the reasons stated above. I know the author has every right to write what he or she wants, and I would never dream of telling anyone they couldn't, but still... I dropped the series and don't feel I want to continue it.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 4th, 2012 05:09 am (UTC) (Link)

Well...

>>I dropped the series and don't feel I want to continue it.<<

I can sympathize. I became an ex-Babylon 5 fan after seeing how badly the telepaths got screwed over, and it became increasingly clear that certain of the bad guys were never going to pay for their malfeasance.
houseboatonstyx From: houseboatonstyx Date: October 4th, 2012 05:14 am (UTC) (Link)
I would have dropped it, too. But if I'd liked several earlier books in the series, I'd want to make some kind of guess as to why the author did this.
lb_lee From: lb_lee Date: October 5th, 2012 04:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
Some cultures just have frigging creepy customs. I have one that's into kidnapping small children for ransom, routinely. Most kids think of it as a fun little adventure, but some of them really don't.

Oh god, that's its own brand of funny/horrible. Sometimes, I think good horror is what everyone just takes for GRANTED.

People are trained to be victims. I say, fuck that noise. You may not always win, but at least you can make the bastards work for it.

EXACTLY. Just... augh. If you don't resist, you KNOW you'll be victimized; if you do, you might not. Seems pretty obvious odds to me. (Though I can definitely understand why some don't, since some attackers DO take a vested interest in making sure all resistance is paid back brutally.)

--Rogan
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 5th, 2012 08:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

>>Oh god, that's its own brand of funny/horrible. Sometimes, I think good horror is what everyone just takes for GRANTED.<<

Often true for cultural purposes.

>>If you don't resist, you KNOW you'll be victimized; if you do, you might not. Seems pretty obvious odds to me.<<

Yes, and particularly if the attacker is trying to get the victim out of public view.

>>(Though I can definitely understand why some don't, since some attackers DO take a vested interest in making sure all resistance is paid back brutally.)<<

That does happen. But statistically speaking, a victim who puts up a fight has a better chance of surviving, because some attackers will kill. Fighting means maybe getting away, or attracting attention, or making the attacker think this is just too much trouble. Another vital point is using multiple tactics -- screaming, kicking, throwing things, etc. More chance that one of them will work.

What makes this especially relevant is that a vast majority of rapes are acquaintance rapes where the victim knows the attacker. That means a fair number are in near-public places, like a dorm room. Raising a fuss there has a good chance of either making the attacker quit or attracting an interruption.
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