Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The "Go-To Trauma" Part 2: Issue or Spectacle?

So, last week we established that though rape in literature raises a lot of questions, it's important that women's voices be heard on the issue and that books about rape continue to spread awareness and offer consolation to victims. But it seems to me that there are books about rape and violence, and then there are books that just have rape and violence in them. I recently read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (now’s the time for me to announce that there will be spoilers), and while I felt that Stieg Larsson wove a strong narrative and created compelling characters, especially in Lisbeth Salander, what I found myself thinking about most once I closed the book was the rape scene. Even a few months later, I’m not done thinking about it.

It just doesn’t seem necessary to me. True, it serves to develop Lisbeth’s character. We need to see her ability to carry out a coldly calculated act of violence before we reach the book’s ending, or her attack on Martin Vanger will seem to come out of nowhere. And for that to happen, Larsson needed to set up a situation for which Lisbeth is justified in getting revenge. Perhaps he chose rape because it’s so unforgivable that we’re certain to be on Lisbeth’s side, even as she reacts maliciously. And Larsson has established that Lisbeth reacts with particular violence towards those who violate her right to choose how she’s approached for sex, so the set-up is all in place for a scene like this.

But despite that—and despite the horrific crimes against women that Mikael Blomkvist discovers in his investigation, as well as the rape statistics that open every section of the book—this scene feels disconnected from the rest of the book. Larsson’s writing is subtle elsewhere, and his character development takes its time. Even the horrific murder scenes he later describes don’t have the same brutal feel that this one scene does. And it goes on for an awfully long time, in excruciating detail.

So I keep asking myself why Larsson wrote this scene in particular, when he could have written a shorter rape scene, or a different scene altogether. The scene made me painfully uncomfortable. That discomfort grew the longer the scene went on. And it stuck with me, because it made me wonder if maybe the scene didn’t end because Larsson was just a little too satisfied with it. I wonder if he found it a bit more thrilling to write than I’m happy accepting.

Missy Schwartz put it perfectly in her article questioning whether or not Stieg Larsson, professed feminist, had “an issue with women”:

The crimes are unspeakable—which you could argue is the point for an activist like Larsson: Bring it into the open, try to prevent it from happening again. Still, Larsson seems to want it both ways: to condemn such savagery while simultaneously exploiting it in graphic detail for titillating storytelling purposes.
That desire to have it both ways is what worries me.

It worries me not because of this one book or this one author, but because it’s a trend I see in a lot of writing, especially when the book is meant to be dark, and rape is used as that go-to tragedy. When I read certain rape scenes I have a hard time feeling that these scenes are about awareness, or that they’re therapeutic. Like the endless menagerie of horrific murders in your average slasher films, I feel like these rape scenes are as much if not more about a dark, voyeuristic pleasure that comes from watching something we can’t completely comprehend or experience with the character. When I read these scenes, there’s a part of me that feels like the writer is enacting a rape on a character. And I feel almost like the reader is enacting a rape on the character with each read, just to see what it feels like—and not from the victim’s point of view.

Perhaps this wouldn’t stick with me if I hadn’t had that feeling over and over again, both in my early writing workshops and as I read for classes or for pleasure. I have such conflicted feelings about this issue, but it’s also one of the closest to my heart.

So I’m asking you guys—what do you think? Is the increased visibility—any increased visibility—a good thing? Will that help teach our society to be sensitive to these issues, and to try to stop the epidemic of violence against women? Or could the epidemic actually be made worse by a culture full of books about rape that sensationalize it, or turn it into a spectacle?


  1. Rachel, my dear friend and former student from Memoirs class and other courses: please email me: www.johnnyturtle.com. I'd love to catch up with you. I adore your blog.

  2. My first experiences of reading fiction with sensationalized rape and sexual exploitation come from Mercedes Lackey's fantasy novels. At least, that's how I recall feeling when I read sections of her novels: that the scene was a little more titillating than it should be; that reading it was almost exciting. (I'm not saying that Lackey's novels didn't have their merit: her Last Herald-Mage series helped me see LGBTQ etc. individuals as real people and opened up my explorations of same-sex relationships and empathy for people with same-sex or non-heterosexual leanings.) However, I think that reading her novels at the impressionable age that I did made it seem okay to write scenes like that - something which I thankfully grew out of quickly.

    In one of the "novels" that I wanted to write at that age, I planned to have one female character captured and magically seduced (against her will) by the villain. I don't think I thought of it as "rape" at the time, but I clearly can identify it as that now. (And have debated, in a much re-envisioned version of that same wannabe-novel, whether to include any similar experience.)

    Something changed between the time I read those Lackey novels and the time I began to take my writing seriously: I have a very difficult time reading about/watching/etc. rape or sexual abuse of a character. I can't watch the scene in Crash where one of the characters is violated by a policeman (and I can't forgive his character either, despite the movie's attempts to redeem him.) In fiction workshops, whenever someone wrote about rape or abuse of a female character (because I don't recall anyone writing about rape or abuse of a male character), I was vocal about the necessity of it in the story, perhaps to an extreme. I remember being always offended and finding the scenes superfluous to the story - perhaps they were, or perhaps I couldn't see beyond the violence against women to the merit of having a scene that explored and condemned said violence.

    In the end, I'm a hard sell when it comes to using rape as a device for character development or plot development. A big part of that is personal: it bothers me a lot to read about those things happening to any character, no matter how "good" or "bad" she is. (Sorry to keep making this a women's issue; I don't have much experience of literature in which men are raped or abused sexually.) There are two books I can think of that contain rape and that I believe use it in an appropriate (and semi-autobiographical) way: Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison and Alice Sebold's Lucky: A Memoir. (Also Tori Amos's song "Me and a Gun.") Perhaps it's no coincidence that the writers of these pieces experienced the rape and abuse that they wrote about. Either way, I haven't been able to write a rape. I have a story with an attempted rape, but the character gets away (and I hope it is a powerful and transformative scene.) I'm not saying that only people who have been raped or sexually abused can effectively write about these topics with truthfulness and in a respectful and effective way; but I think the author has to be willing to go there in his or her own mind to really do justice to such a terrible experience and represent it in a way that is not titillating, but factual and real.

  3. I just finished reading book one in the Millennium triology, and let's say it has left a mark on me. I am a 33 year old woman, mother, and wife, and a lover of reading and writing alike. I was suggested by a few people to read this and you know, I was really glad I did... without reiterating it here, I hope you'll jet over to my blog and see my take on what I thought of the book and movie. But before you do (if you decide to do so,) I want to share with you some insight on what I heard and later found out as the reason and source for the creation of Stieg Larsson's books. Apparently when he was a young man, he witnessed a girl being raped... I don't think it was a coincidence that her name happened to be "Lisbeth." Stieg had done nothing, and lived with haunting regret, and at some point afterward, he went to visit her and ask for forgiveness. (Rightfully so, she denied him the peace he was searching for). Though it was then, via his guilt (which guilt is not bad as it teaches us when we've done something wrong) that he wrote "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" (which was originally named "Men who hate women," as a way of not only continuing with his apology, but to give the world a peak at reality that they were either ignoring, or unaware of.

    with that, I really hope you'll check out my blog, as I found your posts intriguing and thoughtfully written. This book/movie has shaken me to my core, and I find myself telling my friends and family, and helping shed light on the dark corners of society and our world, that would rather throw a towel over it.

    (MOVIE REVIEW) http://writewronginbetween.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/the-uncomfortable-a-movie-review-of-the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo/


  4. Also, meant to add real quick (sorry, as I tend to push the send button too rapidly) :) ...I wanted to comment on one specific point you made. You had said,

    "So I keep asking myself why Larsson wrote this scene in particular, when he could have written a shorter rape scene, or a different scene altogether. The scene made me painfully uncomfortable."

    I too felt sick to my stomach and to the core of my being. It was, as you mentioned, 'uncomfortable,' though I want to share with you a quote I heard from David Fincher, who directed the Hollywood version of "GWTDT". In an interview, David Fincher was told that a viewer of the film had said that rape scenes were 'offensive' (which I also take as somewhat synonymous with "uncomfortable") and David Fincher's reply was "Of course it is suppose to be offensive. It's a rape"... my question is, how was Larsson, who first came up with these books and stroy, and the now the directors of both the Swedish and Hollywood versions of the movies suppose to take something that IS uncomfortable and offensive, and make it not be so. To me, it was a representation of how ugly our world is. Most people are blind to all the horrible, ugly, bad things that go on around them, either out of ignorance or by choice. Either way, I felt this movie was like a wake up call saying, "hey, this is real. this can/does happen. it is ugly. it is horrible. but don't ignore me."