By Guest Contributor Amber Love.
(This post originally appeared on Amber’s website, Amber Unmasked)
Trigger warning: sexual assault discussion
I’m not sure I can adequately describe how stressed I was reading and reviewing CANARY by Duane Swierczynski. I’m not going to copy all of the problems I had with the book since it took me 3,500 words to do that already and it was only scratching the surface. The problems I had with the female protagonist included several facets from her weak ambitions about pleasing male characters to how there were more threats and exploitation of her sexually than providing other dangers; avoiding jail time by man-pleasing led this protagonist to make bad choices, relinquishing her autonomy. My experience and subsequent disappointment reading this character, Sarie, is not likely a unique one for readers. [Edit: read up on character agency at TerribleMinds]
Do all books require trigger warnings? No, though I would support reasonable labeling like films and video games most especially in media that is targeted for consumers under 18. Instead, I beg the creative community to ask themselves what the relevance is to putting characters through actions where it doesn’t specifically propel the plot. I spent a couple hours searching and within a few clicks found advice from some of today’s top writers and advocates regarding this continued problem of creators trying to make rape/exploitation entertaining.
I’m not talking about metaphors or implied character actions either, like Maleficent. We can argue whether depowering a superpowered person is rape all day long, but I won’t. I’m addressing the unquestionable realistic world, realistic character stories. When a female character chooses to continuously expose herself to exploitation and rapey gangsters rather than give up the name of the boy she likes who is a criminal, that’s a problem.
At this point, I will say that I understand gender does not save anyone from sexual violence. The trans community, children, and men have their own instances of violence/abuse/exploitation. This post focuses on female characters because that’s what’s done in every single medium, it’s what I just finished reading, and because I finished writing a book with a female protagonist.
I wanted to write more about this than what I did in my CANARY review because I have drafted a mystery novel with a female protagonist. There’s a scene where the police detective tells the hero she should go to the emergency room for a rape test since she had been knocked unconscious. I have my character use her judgement here and decline the suggestion after she gives it careful thought and makes the choice on her own. Why did I bring it up all then? Because it’s so unusual for the police to believe in sexual assault in the first place; and because I wanted my female character to make her own decision.
Instead of a character that has to agonize over being interrogated as a victim by the police, I wanted my hero to feel compassion from this officer. My detective isn’t a softy, all gushing with emotions; he’s methodical and cares about doing a good job. He’s also a human being. This story doesn’t feature much of him but he provides the necessary law enforcement component pitted against the protagonist. I hope that in the few pages where readers get to see them interact, they see a man who has the tools to be a dependable and reasonable law enforcement officer that doesn’t shirk women who come in to report crimes.
But Sexual Violence Happens in Real Life!
Yes, it does and I’m one of the vocal writers that says real threats against people are opportunities for discussion in fiction — if done with sensitivity for the purpose of story not because you’re too lazy to find something else to threaten your character.
I read one Nancy Drew book — teenage female protagonist crime solver — and there was not one threat against her or her friends that had any sexual tones. There are 175 volumes of Nancy Drew and I don’t recall anyone ever saying that it would have been necessary to have Nancy or her friends raped in order to illustrate danger and criminal activity. You can roll your eyes that the vintage character isn’t relevant in today’s TWILIGHT world, but she’s a legacy because she’s always relevant. And it’s not like rape and exploitation didn’t exist in the 1950s. We don’t need characters to exude purity, but you need to be able to write a character who makes decisions out of motivation not shock value (unless of course shocking gory abuse is your goal, then fine but don’t expect critical acclaim for developed characters).
We have an overarching culture of violence. Gun culture. Drug culture. Rape culture.
As a writer, you need to ask yourself what defines the success of your work: Do you want a lot of sales? Do you want tons of fans? Do you care only about the one fan that tells you the story changed her life? Do you want to create a character you love whether other people care or not?
Ultimately, writers should care what they put their characters through whether it’s their hero or villain. Not every victim of child abuse perpetuates the cycle of abuse (something I recently saw in an episode of JACK TAYLOR). If you can accept that, perhaps you can accept that characters can have threats against them that pertain specifically to the course of actions of the plot. If you put your female character in constant rape or exploitative situations, you are failing at understanding how to write female characters.
What is Rape Culture?
“Rape culture is a term that was coined by feminists in the United States in the 1970s. It was designed to show the ways in which society blamed victims of sexual assault and normalized male sexual violence.” ~ Women Against Violence Against Women
“In a rape culture, people are surrounded with images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate, rape. Rape culture includes jokes, TV, music, advertising, legal jargon, laws, words and imagery, that make violence against women and sexual coercion seem so normal that people believe that rape is inevitable. Rather than viewing the culture of rape as a problem to change, people in a rape culture think about the persistence of rape as ‘just the way things are.’
This is what it means when people say that sexism and violence against women are ‘naturalized.’ It means that people in our current society believe these attitudes and actions always have been, and always will be.” ~ FORCE: UPSETTING RAPE CULTURE
I honestly can’t say it any more perfectly than popular writer Seanan McGuire who wrote this as part of a LiveJournal post about rape culture and writing fiction:
What Can Creators Do About It?
Just as video game journalists have never said “story arcs can’t contain sexual violence,” I’m not saying “never” either. When readers, gamers, and critics get upset about violence against women is when the characters and story do not benefit from the situations. When stories normalize violence against women, it leaves people suspect of every work to follow. Now that I’ve read CANARY, can I reasonably expect the protagonist Sarie Holland will face more threats and exploitation of a sexual nature if she appears in a sequel? That is exactly what I would expect and I would continue to be disappointed in the lack of creativity surrounding building her as a character.
This graphic above is a snippet from Marshall University. It’s shocking when colleges actually bother addressing the issue of rape culture so I wanted to share it. I boxed the bullet point that specifically addresses media, such as forms of entertainment that you consume and that of which you create. THINK CRITICALLY. That’s what audiences are asking of you, dear writers.
Renowned author Jim Hines wrote a brilliant piece giving writers advice on addressing rape tropes. Hines is an authority, not only because he’s a best selling writer, but because he’s also spent time as a crisis counselor. He has a devoted section of his website for rape advocacy resources right there in the same level of importance as the links about his career.
Here are some excerpts:
“But what if you actually care about your story? What if you’re writing about rape and sexual violence not as an emotional shortcut or a cheap attempt at motivation or characterization, but because it’s important to your story? How do you write about rape and sexual violence and do it well?
There’s no right answer to that question, of course. I’m not about to sit here and dictate the Right Way to write about rape. But here are some of the things I’ve thought about over the years as both an author and a reader.” Jim C. Hines for Apex Magazine
He goes on to explain his methodology about Research, Characterization, Rape Does Not Equal Sex, and then Ask Yourself Why?
“Ask yourself why? Why do you want to include rape in your story? Is it just to show how bad your villain is? Is it because you’re writing horror, and sexual violence is such an overused trope of the genre that you added it to your story without thinking? Or does this scene really add to the story you’re trying to tell?
Ninety percent of the rape scenes I read in fiction, published and unpublished, are predictable. I see where the author’s going from a mile away. I sigh and keep reading, thinking maybe this time there will be something different or interesting or original here. But most of the time, it’s obvious how little real thought went into this part of the story.” Jim C. Hines for Apex Magazine
Please follow the links to read the full pieces by McGuire and Hines. If you don’t respect my opinion as a n00b author, respect theirs.
Elizabeth Amber Love is the author of several comic short stories including “No. 130, For Love” in the Shakespeare Shaken Anthology, “Left Behind” in the upcoming RISE: Comics Against Bullying anthology, and a prose short story in the Dark Horse Sequential Pulp “Athena Voltaire” anthology. Her podcast Vodka O’Clock and website are intended for mature audiences. Follow at amberunmasked.com and @elizabethamber on Twitter.