One of the guilty pleasures me and my sister have is our enjoyment of crap TV, usually chatting on IM as we do, shaking our heads at the crap we’re watching.
—OMG, I can’t believe X did Y to Z.’
—I know! That is sooo out of character, the writers must have it in for X.
And so on.
Last year Grimm and Warehouse 13 served the purpose nicely. Mostly inoffensive silly fun. And judging by episode three, Agents of Shield might join them this year.
Of course, this only works if the experience of watching these shows is largely disposable.
One series that used to be on this list was Downton Abbey. Less realistic than Warehouse 13. Characters so two-dimensional that they make extras on Buffy seem like they have epic backstories. Soapy story lines. Incredibly reactionary and conservative politics portrayed in such a ham-fisted way that it borders on parody. It’s been one of the greatest ‘laugh at’ TV series in recent years. Perfect.
(Many of you know exactly where I’m going with this.)
Anybody who has been in a serious accident knows the psychological effects of trauma. If you’re lucky you come out of the incident mostly unscathed, if a bit keyed up and disoriented. You think you’re fine.
- You don’t stop being keyed up, even days later. Your body is still in stress mode.
- Your sleep is disrupted, you wake up more often, and don’t feel as rested.
- Because the cause of the stress isn’t immediate, you are likely to misattribute the stress as anger or resentment towards those around you or your circumstances. Our brains aren’t more sophisticated than that.
- You can sometimes become hyperaware of potential dangers, to the point of being touched off by trivial things. Because you can’t make sense of what’s happening to you, instead of realising you’re overreacting, you blame somebody close to you, taking offence to something trivial.
- These negative effects can last for a very long time, often until the trauma sufferer is taught how to process them.
A traumatic experience has long-term and far-reaching effects. The psychological aftereffects of major traumatic incidents can ruin lives just as much as the trauma itself.
We are complex empathic animals whose mental processes can be ‘hijacked’ by exterior forces. Otherwise storytelling would be pointless and ineffective. For this reason portraying major trauma in a story can have significant effects on the audience.
There is a difference between trauma and violence in storytelling. It’s a matter of perspective, narrative distance, psychological detail and duration. If the character is one which the reader has ‘embodied’, i.e. feel a strong empathy for, then any act of violence against that character risks being traumatic.
This trauma is entirely psychological but the audience can still feel the full psychological consequences of trauma.
Yes, every trauma effect I listed above can be induced by simply reading something in a story or watching a scene in a movie. Sleepless nights. Constant stress. Irrational anger. Broken friendships.
Having experienced similar trauma in the past increases the likelihood of being affected. Ask, for example, anybody who lived through 11 September 2001 in New York what it felt like to watch the disaster porn sections of Avengers or Man of Steel. There’s a strong chance it ruined the movie for them.
But you don’t have to have experienced the act in real life if the depiction is severe enough and if you relate strongly to the character.
I’ve never been raped but watching the Swedish movie adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Män som hatar kvinnor) was a nauseating experience for me. I’d gone in forewarned about the major rape scene and so planned on skipping it (which I did) but I wasn’t warned about an earlier scene in the movie.
The aftereffects I suffered from cover most of the list I outlined above. Sleepless nights. Misdirected anger. Physical discomfort due to stress. It took me a couple of weeks to fully process and recover the experience.
(Yeah, I related a lot to Lisbeth in the early parts of the movie. I didn’t have her fashion sense but many of her characteristics reminded me of myself when I was a teenager.)
Strangely enough the novel was easier to deal with. I found it easier to flip past the rape scenes there as I churned on in disbelief about how incredibly badly written the book is. I don’t know if it was the English translation, but the book I read was rubbish and Lisbeth becomes increasingly caricatured as the story goes on. And, of course, the more cartoonish the book became, the less effective the depictions became. (Thankfully.)
Why did I read the book, even with skipping through major sections? To be able to look people in the face and tell them that I not only thought it was rubbish but that it is an actively and brutally misogynistic novel. I’m annoying like that.
The last time I was this badly affected by a movie was when I watched American History X. Rape scenes always do this to me. They are a surefire way to ruin the week, not just a single evening. The more closely I relate to the victim and the more graphic the depiction, the more severe the effect.
Unfortunately for me, rape is for many writers the go-to mechanism for female character development or as a way to spice up the drama in the story. Even in comics (DC, I’m looking at you: “They did what to Sue Dibny?”). So, it’s not just offensive but also a cliche. This means I need to be careful about what I read or watch, often requiring research on my part so that I can avoid having my light evening entertainment ruin my day.
But it’s not just light entertainment.
One recent example is the apparently excellent Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. Highly recommended by a lot of people, its core concept hinges on a rape. An act that is apparently depicted. Of course, I’m told Nnedi Okorafor handles it all with deft and flair and substantial skill—it’s not the work of a hack looking to spice things up. But a little bit of research convinced me that reading this book would be an incredibly traumatic experience and so I dropped it from my to-buy list. No book is good enough for me to subject myself to that willingly.
Who Fears Death sets itself apart by having a strong conceptual reason for depicting rape. Most of the time it is gratuitous, a sign that the writer doesn’t consider women to be fully human and is only capable of thinking about them as sex objects.
For somebody with that perspective, the only possible tragic backstory or life-changing event for a sex object is sexual trauma. Their only valid experiences are sexual. And their punishment for not acting like sexual objects is always rape or some other form of sexual assault. In these stories women never have female friends or relatives, only romantic rivals and maybe a mother (you have to have her to do the mother-in-law jokes, obviously). Their power and importance is always either sexual or linked to their fertility. No woman in these stories gains influence and relevance through skill, practice, wit, or experience.
The flip side of this are writers who portray women as deified cyphers put on a pedestal. Portraying them as mysteries is just as dehumanising. (Oh, and if women are indecipherable mysteries to you it’s probably because you are a narcissist who doesn’t actually care what the women around you think. Women are no more mysteries than men or children. People are always partially indecipherable because we aren’t a telepathic species. Men just think they know what their male friends are thinking. Most of the time they’re wrong even about that.)
The depiction of women in most fiction (and so-called ‘literature’ is often just as guilty of this as genre fiction) is horrifyingly bad. Which is bad enough, if it wasn’t also often actively traumatising.
The pivotal scene in last week’s episode of Downton Abbey (episode three of series four) was the rape of a major character. Fortunately, me and my sister don’t watch the ‘silly series’ we watch as soon as they’re out and so encountered spoilers before the fact. We won’t be watching the episode, nor are we likely to watch the series ever again.
Watching or reading things as they premiere—being early to a story—is increasingly risky as more and more writers buy into the idea that rape is a narrative inevitability for female characters in stories that are pretending to be ‘gritty’ and ‘realistic’.
Which would be fine—you can always just wait a bit and read the first online reviews which usually warn you about these things—if that same narrative inevitability of rape wasn’t fast becoming an article of faith among the writers and producers of ongoing series (comics, TV, or novels). As the series plod on and the creators look for ways to spice things up, the probability of a writer, editor, or producer proposing a rape scene approaches one. Then, out of the blue, a rape scene injects itself into a series you otherwise considered a known quantity.
And what was a silly, stupid, and trivial piece of entertainment suddenly stops being silly, stupid, or trivial and instead become light evening trauma.
I agree with you very much, I think that the use of rape as a narrative trope not only trivializes the experiences of real life sexual violence survivors, it serves to reduce women as characters to sex objects. You’ve expressed what I’ve felt very clearly.
The idea seems to be that for an event to be traumatic for a woman it must be sexual violence, because a woman has nothing else that could be taken from her or violated. (And also that men can never be the victims of sexual abuse, which is sadly not true.)
I can understand a writer using trauma for narrative purposes, but women also have families that can be harmed, businesses that can be destroyed, friends that can be lost.