Are We Responsible?

Yesterday’s post about the gang rape of an 11-year-old Texas girl received the highest number of hits ever recorded on AngelSpeak. I don’t say this with any amount of celebration. But it does raise a question that I think is relevant to the topic of this blog: are writers encouraging a rape culture? Are we, in some way, responsible for the atrocious acts that are committed against women every day?

I used popular fashion advertising to make my point yesterday. Like it not, deny it if you will, but we have a rape culture in this country. As Roxane Gay said in her posting on The Rumpus:

The casual way in which we deal with rape may begin and end with television and movies where we are inundated with images of sexual and domestic violence. Can you think of a dramatic television series that has not incorporated some kind of rape storyline?…Every other movie aired on Lifetime or Lifetime Movie Network features some kind of violence against women. The violence is graphic and gratuitous while still being strangely antiseptic where more is implied about the actual act than shown. We consume these representations of violence and do so eagerly…While once rape as entertainment fodder may have also included an element of the didactic, such is no longer the case. Rape, these days, is good for ratings.

Of course, we know it is not only in television and movies that gain audiences through incorporating the stories of violence against women. Clearly it is also deeply ingrained in our advertising as well as in the music we listen to:

Where does literature fall? In “Reading Hurt: The Rape Scene in Literature,” Jaramillo notes:

The relationship between “seduction” and “romance” is coded in the romance genre in very specific terms, according to literary scholar Janice A. Radway. In her cornerstone study Reading the Romance(1984), Radway examined these commercial texts, as well as the publishing houses that produce them. She reports that “what one reader called ‘a little forceful persuasion'” would not necessarily be objectionable in this genre, if the readers give credence to the author’s “attempt to show that the hero’s sexual sway over the heroine is always the product of his passion and her irresistibility” (75). In fact, Radway found that:

one publishing house understands this quite well, for in its directions to potential writers it states that rape is not recommended but that one will be allowed under specific conditions, if the author feels it is necessary to make a point.(14) Should a rape occur “between the heroine and the hero,” the directions specify, it must “never be initiated with the violent motivation that exists in reality” because “a woman’s fantasy is to lose control” with someone who really cares for her. “A true rape” can be included only if “it moves the story forward” and if it happens to someone other than the heroine. (75)

The question remains: are we responsible (too)? What obligations do writers have to speak out on the topic of violence against women? What obligations do we have to treat such material with respect to victims? What impact does it have when we choose to write a rape scene? And should that impact our decision to include it in our work?


4 thoughts on “Are We Responsible?

  1. i have taught alice sebold’s memoir, lucky, a countless number of times. it is a book about her rape as a college freshman and the aftermath. the book opens with the rape and is detailed and graphic and violent and feels like 50 pages and is only about 15. without fail, when teaching the book, the class discussion opens with their discomfort in reading this scene. i’ve even had students unable to read it all the way through (good students, not just lazy ones who dont like to read). i always ask, how many watch law & order: svu or criminal minds or csi etc etc etc and always most of them raise their hands. we discuss the amount of “rape” we see on shows like that and in a variety of films and compare it to the reaction they had to the book. the class often comes to the conclusion, as do i, that the media, in many cases, has altered rape in a way that is softer and basically made it entertainment. and, in many cases, it is neatly wrapped up in the end. rapist caught, or killed, or reciprocated. girl seems still uneasy, but healing. fade out. that’s a wrap.
    and then we discuss why sebold’s book feels different. could be that is is so slow and detailed? could be that, somehow, words still carry more power that the visual image? could be that the story doesnt really end–the book (and the rape) follow her, shape her, etc? could be that it is a real story?
    whatever it is, i am always happy i taught the book. it impacts men especially hard, which i think is good. it brings out good class discussions about how we become sexual beings? where we learn our sexual norms and no-nos? and, of course, our society’s version of rape in the media.

  2. Yes, I think we are all “guilty”, whatever that means. We are all responsible. And on the other hand, we have a responsibility to “do the right thing” and write about social justice issues – just as you have done. Writers have a responsibility to build awareness as we bring issues to the forefront, and we have a responsibility to promote right actions as well. In fiction as in non-fiction, we always write about our own truth. When we project our dark sides onto others, that is our secrets and our shadow. We are compelled to write about the good, the bad, the evil and the golden. Not that that is our goal – to build public awareness – but (to me) our goal is to open minds and hearts to other worlds. If some of us are sheltered, or refuse to believe, and do not know these other worlds exist, how can we make “right decisions” and how can our characters? How can we tell what is a redeeming action and what is not? Through the written word we can see those worlds and hopefully promote the good, even though it might be by revealing the evil.

  3. I was horrified, but not surprised to read about the gang rape of the eleven-year- old Texas girl. I believe writers have a responsibility not to portray gratuitous violence. Everything has gone viral these days, and I believe that teen males are being strongly influenced by the trivialization of violence against women in the media, especially on the Internet. I am very concerned about the youth generation and what they are being exposed to and accepting as the norm. The culture of violence is the blame, but others argue it is individual responsibility. Yet, is this behavior being shaped by the violence against women in literature and the media?

    I remember using the documentary “Killing Us Softly” by Jean Kilbourne in my composition courses as an illustration of the power and influence of the media. It had a powerful effect on the women in my course, and many who were mothers said they would definitely limit their daughter’s exposure to harmful media while other women who were not yet mothers felt forewarned and said they would never look at the media in the same way again and would protect their future daughters from this type of exposure. More importantly, they stated they would educate their boys about respect for women so they would not become predators . One of the conversations that Kilbourne’s work ignited was on the subject of date rape. This study on Kilbourne also raised the awareness of males in the classroom about how harmful the trivialization of violence of women in the media was whether it was on television, in magazines, in the movies, or in the lyrics of rap songs.
    Here is part I of the “Killing Us Softly” series of lectures by Kilbourne work analyzing the images of trivialization of violence against women in the media:

    When I was in college taking a film studies course, I read Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape about the portrayal of women in films and other books to research a paper I was writing on the depiction of women in early 1970s women-in-prison movies (movies that played regularly at an Orlando drive-in we used to go to on Friday nights. I was only ten years old. I still cannot believe my mother allowed me to watch those movies.). Today, I cannot bear to watch rape scenes in movies. I turn the television channel to avoid watching those crimes shows that always begin with the image of a woman being brutalized.

    Thank you for writing about this topic, Gabriel. It is an important subject to discuss.

  4. I think WriteMemphis really hit on something important in her comment when she writes, “even though it might be by revealing the evil.” This is, I think, what is at stake and at question – does the revelation of the “evil” in some way promote a culture of violence?

    Chrissy mentions in her comment, as does Cindy, that the introduction to texts that deal with realistic rape scenes has a negative impact – especially on male readers. But I wonder if being privy to these scenes – whether in visual media, literature or music – in some way desensitizes the viewer/reader/listener, thus making the action less “real” for the actor. This is in no way to say that we should silence rape and abuse narratives – that’s a move that would be devastating to the cause of bringing awareness to the public and healing to the victims…. I suppose, perhaps, it’s the sheer amount of rape media that I’m struggling with. Anything encountered repeatedly will, eventually, become commonplace. We’ve seen it with sex scenes, explicit language, general violence and, now, violence against women, in particular.

    But maybe the media is simply illustrating how common these events are – and certainly we know them to be very common. It’s the “what came first” question – the violence or the media portrayal of violence?

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