The Stories We Tell About Rape
We are raped and we are raped and we are raped and we are raped.
Whenever someone asks me why I take such objection to the frequent assaults of women in the media – in movies, on TV, in literature – that’s the only answer I can give them. And there’s no joy in recounting the fact that every woman I know has been sexually assaulted. I take no pleasure in counting the various ways my body has been violated over the years, the way the bodies of almost everyone I know have faced the same traumas. But it’s true. Sometimes, once in a while, I find myself crushed by the weight of it, the knowledge that dozens of people I have a solid relationship with have had to brush off the violence that’s been meted out against them by people who didn’t know better, or did.
Because, in short, how would you like it if the worst thing that has happened to most of your closest companions was a go-to plot point for almost every “adult” show you’ve ever seen? What if these stories were twisted and retold as tales of empowerment, of overcoming? What if you never overcame, because overcoming was impossible? What if there was never anything to overcome? What then? What does that make you?
And what if you had to sit there, in front of every critically acclaimed show of the last ten years, and watch the woman (and there’s so often only one) meant to be a stand-in for you and everyone you know raped and assaulted and debased – in ways you recognise specifically, in ways you’ve heard about? And what if her violations were just a plot point in a wider character arc about her overcoming trauma and growing to become a more powerful woman because of it? What if you never felt that way? What if your sexual assault did nothing but undermine you and leave you powerless? What if it meant nothing to you at all? What if it didn’t fit neatly into an empowerment arc that wrapped up within a season? What then?
What if you saw your experiences reflected in dozens of stories from the people you know, and from people you don’t? What if none of them fit neatly into the character beats that pop culture assigns to a victim of rape? At what point did you start wondering how the hell the media had gotten the stories of rape so obviously plotted, beat-by-beat, and yet fail to reflect the far more nuanced true lived experiences of dozens of people in all of our lives? When did you start to wonder why these stories weren’t being told? Is it because, like all stories of violence, they’re too complex and sprawling to examine in the detail you deserve? Or is it because it’s easier to file these kinds of assaults away under the same arcs, the same plot points, because it allows us to find a way to fit the people who have to deal with this first-hand into stories that we can understand? Because it’s too difficult to imagine the wide-ranging experiences that people have to deal with? Because the thought of someone suffering deeply and irrevocably as a result of these experiences, or the thought of someone not suffering at all, is too difficult for us to wrap our heads around?
I think the stories we tell about rape are important. Because, as long as we live in a culture that doesn’t want to acknowledge the rates of sexual assault people face all the time – in a culture that makes punchlines out of it – these are the characters and plots we offer to people trying to make sense of what they’ve been through. And what we’re offering them simply doesn’t correlate with the lived experiences of many people who’ve experienced sexual assault, whether it came to define them or not. But repeating these plot points over and over, and endlessly, endlessly bombarding audiences with depictions of rape and sexual assault that all fit into the same narratives and neat character beats isn’t working. It’s simplistic and stupid and doesn’t do justice to the real, lived experiences of real, lived human beings. Whether they’re life-altering or not, the stories we tell about rape reflect what we think victims of sexual assualt should be – powerful, overcoming, empowered. But they’re not. We’re not. For some, sexual assault is the worst thing that’s ever happened to them; for others, it’s just a blip in the course of their life. But as long as the media continues to try to shove stories of rape into a certain box – with certain criteria and reactions that render the assault “legitimate” or otherwise – it will continue to do those who’ve suffered assaults a disservice. And, with sexual assault being such an endlessly pervasive slice of life for so, so, so many people, we owe them at least the chance to tell their stories as they truly happen, and not in the way so many pop culture producers seem to think they should.
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