Needless cruelty

Recently, my friend lent me an advance copy of a book we were both looking forward to, as it is the sequel to another book we both seriously enjoyed.  (I won’t be specific about the title or author, because SPOILERS ABOUND.  But even without specifying the book, a lot of this post will sound familiar – you’ve seen or heard similar tropes before.)  Anyway, I couldn’t put the book down; I drank it up for the price of a couple nights’ sleep.  There was a lot to love about the story and the telling.  But one of the last scenes of the book really threw me for a loop, and has sort of obstructed a pleasurable memory of the whole.  I’ve been taking some time to reflect on my response to it.


The novel is fantasy fiction.  Toward the end of the book, some of the characters summon a powerful supernatural being, and the supernatural being rapes one of the female characters.

My first response to this – aside from a mental flinch – was to wonder why this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.
My next and lingering response was to be equal parts disturbed and annoyed that  this incredibly common act of cruelty was acting as the final flourish of a veritable symphony of unusual, supernatural cruelty.

Let’s have some context, borrowed from Sady Doyle at Tiger Beatdown.  Sady is tired of seeing sexual assault as a way to “spice up” horror.  What I found particularly resonant about her post was the observation that most of the buttons pushed in horror are unusual; massacre and torture are horrific, but are blessedly infrequent occurrences in our part of the world.  Sexual assault, on the other hand, is incredibly common – so much so that the probability of a  survivor of sexual assault viewing any such movie is very high.  And the narrative strategy of using rape catapult a horrific scene into more-horrific is just… insulting, really.  Not to mention unoriginal.  Another thoughtful read on using sexual assault as a narrative tool comes from Shakesville: Melissa McEwan is contemptuous of the suggestion that the viewers need gratuitous sex and assault to demonstrate the extent of a character’s villainy.  (Concerning the presence of this visual shorthand in a fantasy film, she adds: “It says something interesting, and not at all pleasant, about our culture that we are willing to accept a complete reinvention of the planet’s climate for the purposes of fantasy, but not the possibility of a culture devoid of sexual exploitation and rape, as if the weather is just a suggestion but rape is immutable.”)

So back to the why.  I picked up and finished the novel described above while I was in the midst of reading The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, which has put me in the mindframe for contemplation.  The Art of Cruelty is more exploration than argument, which I like. Nelson sets out to consider and analyze some artworks and poems that she finds disturbing, or that have been criticized for their depictions of cruelty; she’s not interested in a wholesale condemnation or relativistic defense, but she does want to find and model a way to query and assess such works.  The way she goes about this is similar to the way I’ve been taught to read poetry and art: what does x element of the work do?  What cultural bells does it set off, does it cause the viewer/reader to view or read is a particular way?  Does the experience of reading/viewing allow the reader/viewer some space with which to make meaning of it?

That’s what I’m asking myself about the act of rape in this scene, in this book.  What does it do for the narrative?

  • The scene that includes the act serves as a climax of one character’s story, and precipitates the climax of the total narrative.
  • The act demonstrates the  cruelty of the Supernatural Being.
  • The act is a trial for the Female Character to overcome.
  • The act is the source of the Female Character’s own supernatural powers.

Okay, fine. Now what if the scene had been deleted, or replaced with something else?

  • The scene that concludes with the act of rape, would without rape still serve as the climax of her story. As my friend and I discussed a few days ago, the summoning of the Supernatural Being is an incredible scene. It is shocking, horrifying, unexpected, meaningful – everything a good plot twist in a thoughtful book should be. (And then the Being leans her over a table and ZZZZZZZZZ and also UGH.)
  • Prior to the rape, the Supernatural Being demonstrates the extent of his supernaturality and cruelty in some pretty spectacular ways – emphasis on spectacle, with the Female Character acting as a horrified witness to the Being’s casual violence. Emphasis on horror, too, where “horror” denotes a class of events that falls so far outside of habitual human experience that we learn something about our own boundaries. (Not that horror is always meaningful! But there is a reason that the stories of historical cruelties still captivate.) Being supernatural, the Being could have done any number of things to the Female Character. It seems… odd, and out of place, that he chose to reenact that pool table scene from The Watchmen.
  • Setting aside the inherently problematic (and overused) trope of giving a female character a rape to overcome as a part of her character development: this Female Character has already overcome a great deal. Among other things, throughout the novel she negotiates a near-constant barrage of sexual harassment and objectification. Her response is to use these circumstances for her own gain, a compromise that earns her both power and damage. That was all well-written and well-considered, I thought. Adding one final, boss-battle outrage against her body just seems like overkill, an Intro to Fiction misstep.
  • And finally – the rape is the first act of sexualized violence in which the Female Character is utterly helpless (rather than complicit, and acting with some agency).  And it is the act that transforms her into a Supernatural Being herself. She is, in other words, a woman in her own refrigerator. She reminds me of the title character of The Wind-Up Girl, who does not discover her own strength until a barrage of unimaginably (yet attentively described) brutalizing circumstances pushes her past the point of endurances.  Not just brutal circumstances, but gendered circumstances. It reminds me, too, of that awful chapter in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men in which the narrator lovingly describes the stoic heroism with which a woman he knows survived a brutal attack. These are not flattering comparisons. They’re called Hideous Men for a reason.

To sum up: no, I can’t think of a single reason why this book – which I was prepared to love, which I did in fact love many things about – derailed me with an act of needless sexual violence. I question the choice to place rape in this seat of honor: narrative climax, boss battle, origin story. I don’t say that it should never be written.  I don’t even pretend to sketch out some rules about when it’s okay and when it is not okay.  I only want to ask – why is this here?

And I wouldn’t mind if authors, editors, and previewers would think to ask themselves the same.


Filed under Books, Gender, Ideas

5 responses to “Needless cruelty

  1. Yikes. From your summary, it almost sounds like a “spunky-sex-pos girl tries to outmaneuver the system and is punished for her sexuality” thing. Except she gets superpowers, which makes it… science fiction?

    Seriously. Rape as Female Character Development at the END of the book? And I thought it was lazy to have that as Automatic Back Story…

    • Jo, with more context it gets a little more complicated: the “main” story (meaning the narrative that begins and ends the novel) is told from the perspective of a different (male) character, and the Female Character narrative that culminates in the scene I described is a backstory that leads up to the conflict introduced at the beginning of the book, but is interspersed with the “main” story so that the summoning scene appears toward the end of the book. The book ends after Male Character makes a sacrifice so that Female Character can complete her transformation.
      Which like….. doesn’t really help the case, does it? There are more interesting things going on with character (and with gender) than my summary can convey, but if the bare bones sound like a problem, that is perhaps indicative of a narrative problem, right?

  2. Brian

    Interesting post. The author pulled something similar toward the end of the first book, when it’s revealed in a throwaway line that the villain had been molested…

    I don’t suppose you’ve read much Stephen King? I remember rolling my eyes when I got to the end of that scene as well, because I realized I’d read it practically word for word about 10 times before. I doubt King invented the concept of rape as the ultimate horror, but I’d guess he’s the reason why it’s so widespread in the genre today. Thanks for articulating so well why I’ve always found these plot developments so tedious.

    The author you’re writing about is a book critic specializing in nerd culture in his day job, and since he wrote these books as an homage to his favorite works of fantasy/horror, I guess we can put this scene in the hallowed tradition of that chapter that was cut from the original version of The Stand and the unfilmable ending of It.

    • Brian, that’s a good point that I left out of my account: this author does do a lot of homage, and that is actually one of the things I enjoy about both books. But in most cases, I see his homage as a sort of update. I like it that the characters are usually aware when they are acting out scenes from fantasy fiction. I like it that he is critical of the ways some characters engage with the fantasy elements (like the one character who wants to find Middle Earth so he can have sex with an elf), but offers reverence when characters encounter something that is truly amazing. Part of what is so great about the summoning scene is that the power they summon is so completely outside the realm of what they expected, understood, or could cope with.
      But if the rape is an homage, it seems to lack both the criticism or the appreciation of horror apparent elsewhere in the book. (Not that it’s otherwise perfect – just that it is usually better.) Maybe because the original material is so uninspired? I don’t know, I’ve not read a single Stephen King book.

      I’m going to mull over your comment about the throwaway line in the first book. It could have been an interesting path to explore – a case of violence begetting violence – and I think that when I read that book, that’s the path my mind wandered down. But you’re right, there isn’t anything solidly thoughtful or reflective there to back me up. Come on, book-critic-turned-author! I wanted to like you unconditionally, help me out here!

  3. kyoske

    FYI I was listening to a podcast that revisited this issue, and linked to your blog in my response 🙂