Tuesday, 27 October 2015

rejecting rape in high fantasy

I love high fantasy books. 

I've written a post about my love of fantasy fiction before, so I shan't go over that again here. Today we'll stick with high fantasy.

What's high fantasy?

You can check out the Wikipedia entry on the topic, but I'd describe it as big stories, set in slightly magical alternative worlds, often peopled with things like elves. The societies are well worked out, with power structures, religion, and rules for any magic. The most famous books in this genre are probable Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series, although George RR Martin is currently vying for that position with his Song of Ice and Fire series and other stories set in the same world.

High fantasy is often set in a medieval-esque world, although it doesn't have to be. Similarly, the books often use medieval-esque societal rules, although they don't have to.

These rules often result in women, and races other than white human, getting the short end of a rather shitty stick.

In Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books women are all but invisible. No doubt this was a reflection of Tolkien's real world, writing as a white male academic. He was educated at a boy's only school, then a men only university, before joining the army in World War I. It was then that he started working on what would eventually become his stories set in Middle Earth. You can find out more about Tolkien here.

There are plenty of women characters in George RR Martin's books, many in positions f power, although they are still within a patriarchal system. I would argue that while such a system is not required, it does provide a useful obstacle for many a narrative arc. Also, the possibility of women's inheritance is well explored in Martin's books; the patriarchal system coming across as anachronistic, although it's clear from the actions of Aegon the Unworthy that some system is necessary.

As I've said, you don't have to set a high fantasy story in a medieval-esque setting, but I rather like to. I enjoy historical fiction, including that based on real people, and love exploring grey characters like Richard III. To me, a story has more possibilities if you don't have to deal with pesky things like the rule of law. It makes religion more interesting, and allows a focus on traditions.

So I've set a story I'm currently writing in a medieval-esque world. A world where criminality is a way of life for some families, and where production of the next generation is of great importance to the rich.

In my world the Queen has brought down the monasteries, replacing them with a secular organisation, seeking to contribute to their own version of the Enlightenment, and yet religion still thrives in the margins.

This story happens to be about a man, but there are lots of women in it. I've written the first draft and I'm now doing a whole load of editing, which, up until now, has been way harder, and duller, than the initial writing. I'm onto Chapter 8.

This is the Chapter in which our hero realises he's got in with a bad crowd. He kind of knew this already, but I wanted to show how EVIL they were. This Chapter also sees the introduction of a new character, who will need to be rescued further down the line. So, I had two rapes in this chapter.

TWO RAPES! There are lots of articles looking at why the proliferation of rape scenes in fantasy is bad. I quite like this one, because he gets straight to the point, and keeps repeating it.

Editing Chapter 8, I realised that the new character couldn't just walk into such a situation, get raped, and later get rescued. I want her to seem like a real person, not a tragic doll. So that rape has gone, and, importantly, the character is getting better. This has massive ramifications for my story. Despite me giving this particular character a starring, if horrible, role, I realised I hadn't even created a character sheet for her*. She wasn't a character, she was just a thing. That changing changes the rest of the story, for the better.

On to the next rape. This one is a cornerstone of my story. But it doesn't have to be. In Chapter 8, a nameless woman was brutally raped for entertainment, to show how evil other (named, male) characters are. It's important because it's a regular event, and leads to the deaths of two significant other characters elsewhere in the story, BUT:

    1. My bad guys are really not as a bad as that.
    2. Why would people repeatedly watch that for entertainment when they could go and see a comedian, or enjoy good music?
    3. The characters that need to die, could die in other ways. There are so many other ways.
So, that rape is going too. This is going to involve massive amounts of rewriting, not because there are lots of such scenes, but because of the ramifications.

I'm glad about this, I think the rewriting will improve (and interestingly change) the story.

It's also made me think. People criticise George RR Martin, and the Game of Thrones series for being too sexually exploitative, particular trigger points being rapes in Game of Thrones which didn't happen in the Song of Ice and Fire series. When I've seen these criticisms I've generally thought that the scenes are a result of the world they're in, but it is true that this is a created world.

So, I'm going to quickly share my thoughts on two controversial rape scenes from Game of Thrones (the TV series).

First up, did Jaime need to rape Cersei for his character arc? This is a scene that supposedly went wrong in the making. Cersei was supposed to initially resist, and then change her mind. It was all supposed to be rather passionate. It didn't work. It looked like rape. The scene is taken from the book, but it's in different circumstances (the twins haven't seen each other since Jaime is taken until Joff is lying in state), and although Cersei is repelled initially by Jaime's missing hand, the scene in the book is not rape. Perhaps the people involved with filming this scene were so sure of what they were aiming for that they didn't see what it had become. I think more dialogue could have solved the problem, something like this (just a suggestion George, not fanfic):
Cersei is crying while Jaime keeps vigil. They are alone (with the body) in the sept.
Jaime goes to comfort her.She sees his gold hand and flinches away.He looks at the hand, and then at her, says: "I'm still me."Cersei: "Not all of you." (She turns away)Jaime: "Enough." He embraces her, kissing her neck (echoing their first romantic scene together).Cersei: "Not here."Jaime: "Here and now. When else are we alone?"Cersei turns and kisses him, passionately, and the camera pans away (or they have a sex scene, but it's consensual).
What about the scene with Ramsay and Sansa? Ramsay is a vicious little git and it's hard to believe that Littlefinger doesn't know that, but Littlefinger moves in mysterious ways. He might know but think it's worth the risk to his 'beloved' Sansa.

In the Song of Ice and Fire books, Ramsay does force Lady Hornwood into a politically strategic marriage. Raping her and killing her. He's also a fan of raping and killing peasant women. Ramsay Snow is also horrible in Game of Thrones. He enjoys killing, and torturing. He threatens Myranda, but he does seem to have a loving, consensual, if sadistic (on both sides) relationship with her.

Did he rape Sansa so as to prove his loyalty to Myranda? Is that also why he had Reek watch? Although if it was to prove his loyalty, why not just have Myranda watch?

Personally I think Sansa is no Lady Hornwood. In the TV series she is thought to be the only surviving Stark, and she is in Winterfell. The Bolton's would not be able to hold the North if she's seen to be mistreated. I think Ramsay would have to do his husbandly duty and then maybe leave her alone and carry on his affair with Myranda. The rape seems not only unnecessary, but unlikely. Still, those problems are solved by Myranda's death and Sansa's leap from the battlements.

Enough of Game of Thrones. Back to me. I'm glad that the editing process allows me to get rid of the Chapter 8 rapes, but I'm also concerned about where they have come from. I consider myself a feminist. I did a degree in Women's Studies, so why am I using women like this in the first instance? We create our worlds from what we know, and despite my best intentions, I guess I read too much / watch too much rape.

I don't want to be part of the problem wherein rape is normalised, so I'm not only getting rid of the rape, I'm also working on my characters, and hopefully I'll improve my story in the process.

Then you can buy copies of it for yourself and all your friends. 

*let me know if you'd like a blog post on how I do a character sheet.