From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Taboos and Tropes: Part II “Rhetoric and Writing about Rape”

As discussed in “T&T: Part I,” taboo tropes are risky endeavors for any story; however, if a story does necessitate one, it must address, with added attention, balance and thematic sincerity. Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is the key to addressing these elements. In Part II, we’ll look at how rhetoric can improve readers’ reactions to the taboo trope, rape, and how research can improve the accuracy of the issue. Be aware that to write about such a graphic thing, I’m asking you to experience some graphic details and language first.

Rape Scenes in Literature
[Gender Disclaimer: The following gender attributions will follow the universal, default male, as it relates to statistical reports. Rape perpetrators are most often reported as males; however, females perpetrate rape, too.]

Taboo tropes — child abuse, rape, racism, etc. — have secondary associations and should be used carefully, if at all. Such secondary associations can often include readers’ personal experiences, and strong, sometimes unconscious, responses from readers can follow the involved characters throughout the length of the story.

If the story requires a taboo trope, these rhetorical tools may help shape the connection between a reader and the trope.

  • Link the taboo trope with an emotional viewpoint, using words and pacing reflective of the trauma;
  • Include the gritty details. Don’t overlook the possible emotional resonances for the reader and make a cartoon of something in a way that will offend;
  • Flesh out the protagonist and antagonist, the victim, and the perpetrator. This can be the toughest part for many readers and writers.

To create a rhetorical connection, know the response. Victim descriptions will stimulate sympathy. Most readers will detest rapists. Let them, but avoid creating the “evil perpetrator.” We’ll explore the perpetrator more below, but first, let’s look at the victim.

Creating the Taboo Trope, Rape Victim
In real life, rape victims are involved in the rape experience for years after the episode. Hospitalization, bruises, cuts, broken limbs, and therapy. Often the labia rips, rectum, and/or canal walls tear. The victim may suffer a communicable disease. Are you uncomfortable yet? Good. Rape is a traumatic incident for the victim and will be for your character; therefore, it should be traumatic for your reader.

Note: If you’re having difficulty with the reality of rape, think hard on whether you’re ready to research it. Yes, research. This means you, too, girls. Rape is not gender intuitive.

Writing Rape: Response Activity
Watch the following dramatization clip from Derailed then complete the writing prompt. (Warning: the dramatization is violent and graphic.)

In the above dramatization, what stands out? What is the overall tone? What are the woman’s emotions? Those of her partner on the floor? The rapist? Forget the bed, the walls, etc. Is the victim or the rapist concerned with the comforter’s pattern or color in this scene? No. The victim is on her back. The perp has thrown her to the bed, gun in her face.

Note: If you read any of the comments below the video clip on Metacafe, you’ll notice a wide range of reactions. It should be stated that if any element of the rape scene excites or stimulates, you’d better take a close look at your motivations for writing the rape scene. Rape scenes are NOT literary tools for arousal.

For all intensive purposes, the above dramatization is a real and emotional tension point. Writing it should communicate this tension through sentencing, pacing, description, scene arc, and remember, consider all sides of the experience. Yes, you must profile the rapist.

For the perpetrator, rape is power, anger, control, and weaponry. The perpetrator’s history and circumstances have somehow led to this event. The scene must go for the throat. Writing it lightly is not an option unless you are prepared to shock. Even a satirist, who might stylize such a scene with understatement, would seek a gut-blowing effect.

The “Light” Rape Scene and Stereotypes
Light rape scenes risk projecting sweep it under social dogmas — a habit of minimizing the unmentionables. Light rape scenes can also perpetuate victim and perpetrator stereotypes. To write a comic rape scene lacks rhetorical depth. It dismisses reader response and undermines the power of the scene.

Bill Kovach addressed rape and the media in his New York Times article, “Writing About Rape.” He quoted Helen Benedict’s Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes, focusing on social myths surrounding rape victim appropriations.

“As a result of the rape myths,” Ms. Benedict writes, “a sex crime victim tends to be squeezed into one of two images — she is either pure and innocent, a true victim attacked by monsters — the ‘virgin’ of my title — or she is a wanton female who provoked the assailant with her sexuality — the ‘vamp.’ The result, [Benedict] writes, is coverage that falls in one of the two frameworks: “The woman, by her looks, behavior or generally loose morality, drove the man to such extremes of lust that he was compelled to commit the crime,” or “the man, a depraved and perverted monster, sullied the innocent victim, who is now a martyr to the flaws of society.” 

Benedict’s research indicates a social fallacy: victims are either heathens or martyrs. Is anyone this absolute? Is a flawed victim less a victim?

Women Against Violence Against Women (WAVAW), lists the common “Rape Myths,”  warning readers that “Rape myths are widely held, inaccurate beliefs about rape. Myths of rape give people a false sense of security by legitimizing sexual assault or denying that it even occurs.” A victim is a victim no matter the demographic, and so is the perpetrator.

Benedict’s call for accurate portrayal of victims and perpetrators, emphasizes the importance of writing characters as real people, not convenient, categorized cutouts of what is stereotypical or most socially acceptable. Rape awareness groups, such as WAVAW, confirm the social responsibility inherent in writing real victims and perpetrators.

Are Taboo Tropes Worth the Effort?
When deciding whether or not to write about rape, first ask if the readers’ responses to the stimulus of the scene will mesh organically with the overall plot. A recent post at NaNoWriMo, explored the issue of rape, victim, perpetrator, and reader response to “social forgiveness.”

My [rapist] character [is] not really mentally ill beyond [the] point of severe depression and resentment, but he definitely wasn’t thinking straight.

The poster further described the rapist, within the confines of the manuscript, as feeling remorse. The character felt bad for what he’d done. Another commentator wisely suggested that, in the confines of the manuscript, it is dangerous to award the perpetrator “social forgiveness,” simply because the rapist felt “bad” about not “thinking straight.” Remember, in “Taboos and Tropes: Part I,” we discussed that it took Stephen Donaldson six books to bring closure to his rapist protagonist and even then, many readers question the effectiveness of this closure. Stephen Donaldson addresses this question of “Why rape?” in the following excerpt from StephenDonaldson.com.

Wrathex: I would like to know why Covenant had to rape? . . . The rape scene has disturbed me continually on a very personal level. I don’t want to feel sorry for the rapist. I do not want to forgive a rapist . . . 

Donaldson: <sigh> [H]ow have I falied to demonstrate a) the thematic relevance (even the thematic necessity) of Covenant’s crime? and b) the enduring consequences of such violence? . . . think of rape as a metaphor for all forms of violations and betrayal, emotional, psychological, and spiritual as well as physical . . . Covenant starts out as a pure Victim. But I happen to think that being a Victim (or even thinking of oneself as a Victim) naturally inclines a person to become a Victimizer. Being cast in the role of Victim is morally damaging; and that damage tends to breed a desire to impose Victim-hood on someone else. Hence the rape of Lena. 

Donaldson’s response to the question of “Why rape?” reflects his personal belief that “Victim-hood” is a debilitating condition to one’s morals. He further describes in this response that “Victim-hood” is a common theme or motif used throughout many of his works. Whether Donaldson’s rapist protagonist sufficiently completes his character journey in the eyes of readers, it can be suggested that Donaldson actively chose this conflict and journey for his protagonist. Rape was not a secondary plot device, but a central theme.

Donaldson: Another way to look at this whole question is to think of “rape” as a metaphor for all forms of violation and betrayal, emotional, psychological, and spiritual as well as physical. And in those terms, I don’t know anyone who isn’t guilty of “rape.” Speaking purely for myself, I’ve been on the receiving end of metaphorical “rapes” many times. Sometimes I’ve engaged in such actions myself, with or without provocation. Sometimes I’ve responded to the “rape” by holding myself to a higher standard of conduct — but I’ve done so entirely without forgiving the “rapist.” And sometimes, just sometimes, I’ve both held myself to a higher standard of conduct *and* learned how to forgive my “rapist.” (Which is, of course, the only road that leads to the place where I might be able to forgive myself.) Considering my own actions, I can only hope that the people I’ve “raped” (deliberately or inadvertently) will find it in their hearts to forgive *me*.  

In asking the question — are taboo tropes worth the effort? — first address whether or not the taboo trope, such as rape, is the strongest conflict. Is the taboo trope the strongest characterization for the antagonist? If so, kudos. Issues, such as rape, deserve responsible media attention, both in fiction and nonfiction, but keep in mind that when taboo tropes are handled poorly, readers will be quick to respond, as in the following excerpt from Fantasy Magazine‘s column, “Opposing Viewpoints.” 

I’ve continued to watch Dollhouse because writers and actors that I enjoy work on it. But week to week I am increasingly dissapointed in the shallow conceit of passing rape, submission and torture off as escapist fun because it’s housed in a hermetically sealed designer showcase. (Chapman)

If a taboo trope is necessary, balanced, and thematically sincere, it can engage, inform, and motivate readers, but it is a big risk in both crafting and marketing. The taboo trope takes center stage, and too often pigeonholes the antagonist. When used irresponsibly, the taboo trope will, at best, present as gratuitous and poorly crafted, at its worst, it will perpetuate negative myths. For all these reasons, writers and readers alike should approach taboo tropes with critical eyes.

References (Parts I and II)
Benedict, Helen. Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes. Oxford University Press: New York. 1993.

Bradford, Tempest K. “Dear Genre Fiction Writers: Quit This Sh*t.” Ecstatic Days. Jeff Vandermeer: http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2008/12/10/dear-genre-fiction-writers-quit-this-sht/. December 10, 2008.

Chadwick, Whitney. Women, Art, and Society: Fourth Edition. London: Thames & Hudson. 2007.

Chandler, Daniel. “Rhetorical Tropes.” Semiotics for Beginners. Aberystwyth University: http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/S4B/sem07.html. November 5, 2001.

Donaldson, Stephen R. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Lord Foul’s Bane. Ballantine Books: New York, 1977.

Chapman, Samantha and Genevieve Valentine. “Opposing Viewpoints: Dollhouse.” Fantasy Magazine. http://www.darkfantasy.org/fantasy/?p=1637. February 14, 2009.

Harmon, William and Hugh Holman. A Handbook to Literature: Ninth Edition. Prentice Hall: New Jersey, 2003.

Kovach, Bill. “Writing About Rape.” The New York Times. New York: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9E0CE4DA1E3DF931A15752C1A964958260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=1. November 22, 1992.

Metacafe.com. “Jennifer Aniston Hard Rape Scene.” http://www.metacafe.com/watch/1324498/jennifer_aniston_hard_rape_scene/ May 19, 2008.

National Novel Writing Month. “Is Rape [Too] Heavy a Topic to Deal With?” http://www.nanowrimo.org/eng/node/3144385. December 1, 2008.

Swift, Jonathan, Dr. “A Modest Proposal.” 1729. Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1080. July 27, 2008.

Wikipedia. “Stephen R. Donaldson.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_R._Donaldson.

Women Against Violence Against Women. http://www.wavaw.ca/index.cfm?page_id=21.

Rae Bryant is a short story author, poet, columnist, Assistant Editor for Fantasy Magazine, on staff with Weird Tales, and a reviewer for The Fix. She is the July 2008 recipient of the Whidbey Writers’ Prize. Her works have appeared or will soon be appearing in Weird Tales, Literary Traveler, and Southern Fried Weirdness, among others. Rae is currently a graduate student at Johns Hopkins finishing an M.A. in Writing. She’s also writing a novel and lives in a little valley just outside Washington D.C. Read more about Rae at RaeBryant.com or visit her at RaeBryant.LiveJournal.com.

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