Monday, 23 March 2015

Monday Musings: Rape as a plot device

A good example of using rape
as a bad plot device: the rape
of Anna Bates in Downton.
There's been a reasonable amount of discussion recently about 'using rape as a plot device', some of which is summarised in this Guardian article. A lot of the commentary I've read has centred around the TV series Reign, a fantasy reinvention of the life of Mary Queen of Scots, which controversially depicted Mary being raped in one of its later episodes. Rhiannon at Feminist Fiction wrote well about how such a scene has no place in a drama that has otherwise been fun and light-hearted, and I agree with her argument as far as I can without having seen the series myself. (The obvious counter-argument is: why can fun light-hearted shows depict murder, then? I don't want to get into that too deeply here, but I think the difference starts with the fact that we all know that murder is wrong, whereas 1 in 4 British people think that a victim of a sexual assault is at least 'a little bit responsible' if they've been drinking.) Downton Abbey got itself into similar problems to Reign when it depicted the rape of Anna Bates, then largely failed to depict the long-term consequences for Anna; indeed, it soon became clear that the rape was a plot device to put poor, misunderstood Mr Bates in jeopardy again. Downton lacks the emotional depth and complexity to deal with a rape scene adequately, and I don't think that such a scene should ever have been included. Nevertheless, some of the commentary on Reign left me feeling baffled. For example, in this post, Anita Little argues, 'If rape is used primarily to move a story along or explain a woman character's "complexity", it can desensitise the audience to real-life sexual violence', whereas this post goes further, stating, 'Rape is not a plot device. It is not character development.' Although these writers may well be right about Reign, their posts did leave me wondering: what place does rape have in fiction, then?

Changing a consensual sex scene to a rape scene actually
created plot problems for Game of Thrones, rather than
solving them, I would argue.
One major issue in this argument is disentangling the idea of 'rape as a plot device' from other (often valid) criticisms of how rape is portrayed in fiction. For example, shows like Game of Thrones and Outlander have been criticised for the gratuitous use of rape, but this does not mean that they use rape as a plot device - indeed, the problem with many of the rape scenes in Game of Thrones is how little they add to the show. This recent Independent article manages to conflate almost any commentary about rape with the idea that it is a (bad) plot device. I want to spend a long time unpicking many of the ridiculous arguments in this article - particularly the idea that rapists must be portrayed as unsympathetic monsters to allow us to have sympathy with the victim - but I suspect that the statements made by the speakers concerned have been selectively and badly reported, so I'm going to move on. The main point is that even if you think rapists have been made to look too 'nice' in fiction, this isn't using rape as a plot device; this is shoddy characterisation.

So what do we mean when we say 'rape shouldn't be used as a plot device'? If we mean that rape shouldn't be used solely as a plot device, that it should never be used simply to move a story along, then I'm in total agreement. But I cannot agree that rape must never play any part in the plot - whether as a motivation for a character's actions or as an event that leads to a further chain of events. For example, in Louise Doughty's Apple Tree Yard (which I've been talking about a lot, because it's a great book) a character is raped. This rape is absolutely pivotal to the plotline. However, it's also central not only to the character arc of the character in question, but to the thematic weight of the novel. In no way is rape simply a plot device to move the story along. But I would argue that it is a plot device - in the same way that any crucial event in a story can be seen as a 'plot device' - because it is a turning-point in the plot. It works because it's not only part of the plot but because the ramifications for the character are important as well. 

In this context, the idea that 'rape is not character development' is even more baffling. I think the argument here is that rape shouldn't be used to make characters 'more complex' or to give the impression of a darker, edgier narrative, and again, I'm in total agreement. But, I think, here is where fiction must diverge from the way in which we talk about, and understand, real-life rape. For real-life rape survivors, it's absolutely appropriate to say that rape is not character development, because it's an event that was not their fault, does not fit into a story that proves their guilt or innocence, and they should not be expected to learn from it or, indeed, react in any particular way. Fictional rapes, however, are a part of character development, not in the sense that the character should be portrayed as somehow stronger or more interesting because s/he has been raped, but because they must be, or what is the rape doing in this story? If rapes don't contribute to character development, or move the plot along, then the only logical conclusion is that they have no place in the novel or film. And I don't think the way to address the poor handling of sexual violence in fiction is to erase it altogether. If commentators think that we shouldn't address rape in fiction at all, then, rather than debating about its use as a 'plot device', perhaps we should have this argument instead.


  1. I've been reading a lot of the same commentaries about this, and have been frankly puzzled by the implication (not in all the articles but some) that rape should never be the subject of fiction. I like your more nuanced consideration of the 'plot device' criticism very much.

    Have you read or seen Outlander? For me this is a personally interesting focus for the debate. I read the books when I was a young teenager (far too young for them really!) and didn't register that rape played such a siginficant part in the unfolding of plot and character until I reread them as an adult and watched the TV show. Claire is almost constantly under sexual threat, and Jamie is also subject to sexual violence, which is precipitated by the rape of his sister. Some of these instances I feel are justified by the demands of the historical setting and character (of the rapist, perhaps, in particular). But it does start to feel as though peril always equals rape or sexual assault or sexual verbal abuse. And it would be true to say that Gabaldon uses sex - both consensual and otherwise - as a catalyst throughout and therefore, I guess, a plot device.

    All of which leaves me feeling incredibly conflicted and sad with myself because I love, love, love those books, and I want to find some way to justify their content. It strikes me how ready I am to forgive it, and allow it past my internal feminist censor, because there are so many other things about it that I like.

  2. Thanks for this. I read and enjoyed the first three Outlander books about five years ago, but I don't remember them well enough to comment in detail on their use of sexual violence. Some of the commentaries I've read have made me a bit uncomfortable as I don't think it's necessarily an issue to depict a setting in which rape is a constant threat - although you make an excellent point about how this may become a plot device in itself. I'm willing to concede that this is a problem in Outlander, but I think this is to do with how it's handled rather than the mere fact of its existence (and possibly because the gritty 'historical accuracy' is overdone).

    I suppose the broader point here is how to deal with texts or films that are overtly problematic, but also have many strengths, even potentially feminist strengths. I'll use A Song of Ice and Fire* as an example as I can't really speak for Outlander. In many ways, I think GRRM writes women very well and very thoughtfully, and his depiction of how patriarchy moulds their experiences is nuanced and subtle, but there are definitely scenes and possibly whole characters in the novels that I find very problematic. I don't feel this means that I have to throw the whole text out because it's 'crossed a line', but if I was to write about the series as a whole, I would absolutely acknowledge these issues. Actually, I think it would be great to demonstrate that it's possible to like a text and still take it to task, because a lot of knee-jerk reactions to feminist critiques seem to assume that if any problems with gender representation are pointed out in a text, it's now a Bad Text and they are Sexist Readers if they like it, so they go out of their way to deny that there's anything wrong at all. And interestingly, I think it's precisely because A Song of Ice and Fire takes on so much that it sometimes fails so badly.

    *NOT the TV show Game of Thrones, which is a mess