Jenny's Library

Posts Tagged ‘sexual assault

My senior year of high school, I spent a good chunk of my spring semester doing what many middle class high school seniors with good grades do: I visited the colleges I’d been accepted into.

There were overnights in dorms and sitting in on classes and campus tours and social events.  The usual.

One such social event involved heading over to a dorm other than the one we were staying in and standing at an upper window while some of the boys at the school serenaded us from the ground below.  This was an annual event of some sort, the point of which I never quite figured out.  It sounded like not my kind of thing, but hardly an awful experience.

Until our host (it was was prospectives week, there were three of us staying with the same hostess that night) warned us that the year before it had turned into the boys shouting obnoxious, insulting, graphic, and profane things at the women they were supposedly meant to be complimenting.  Our hostess seemed cool about this possibility, she just wanted to let us know because it had upset some prospectives last year, so if we’d rather stay behind she’d understand.

I knew that if this happened just like she described, I would be pissed and miserable and either be seething silently the whole time, start crying, or start yelling back.  Or, more likely, start throwing shit down at the obnoxious assholes.  So I claimed I had homework to do and said I would stay behind.

Needless to say, I wasn’t in the mood to deal with people that night, so when the rest of the women came back into the room, I feigned being asleep so that I wouldn’t have to answer any annoying questions about my decision.

Instead, it turns out, I got to listen to the other girls gossiping about me.* Not our hostess, I would like to point out. I don’t remember where she was, but she wasn’t part of this conversation, just the other two prospectives.  But it was clear from the conversation that one of the other applicants did not think much of my decision.  A topic that she went on about at length.  And while she has the right to her own decisions and opinions, just like I do, there is a difference between disagreeing and having a hard time accepting that other people make choices different from yours.  Especially when those choices involve them wanting to avoid having insults hurled at them.

Until this point, this school was my top choice.  They had also offered me a scholarship – it didn’t pay for everything, but it was a decent chunk of money.  The problem was that the woman who kept rudely talking about my choices was also talking about how much she really wanted to go there.  And then there was the fact that the incident that our hostess had warned us about had not only happened in the first place, but also hadn’t resulted in any effective discipline or changed peers expectations of each other’s behavior.

So, I suppose you could say that I disagreed with the school’s and student’s decisions, and made my own choices accordingly.

For me, in the end, it worked out all right. Because I fell in love with the school that became my alma mater, and they offered me even more money than the first school did.

But not every situation like this has a happy ending.  So I think it’s important to think about what it means for people “to make [their] own choices accordingly.”  Because I could have easily had to choose between a better school, complete with scholarship, and a school that was more expensive (for me) and not as good, but at least felt safer.

For Elise Mattheson,this kind of decision has meant an almost certain loss to her yearly income.** This is not a unique situation that she finds herself in, either, it just happens to be more well known than most.  (And I appreciate her willingness to talk about it, and Natalie Luhrs for linking to her post and keeping the topic on my radar.)***

For a great many readers and viewers and creators and fans of sff, it means not going to (certain) conventions, losing out on opportunities to grow friendships, network, make sales.

Making my “own choices accordingly” is not a decision without cost.  We need to ask ourselves: “who are we asking to make these kinds of decisions, and what are we really asking them to give up?”

* Yes, I realize that this is what one gets for eavesdropping.  But still, there is a difference between trying to eavesdrop, and these other women not considering that I may not be sleeping all that soundly and TALKING ABOUT ME IN THE SAME ROOM I WAS IN.

**If you would like to help offset this loss, she currently has items up for sale, and they are gorgeous, as always.

***And to Rosefox, for bringing my attention to this latest incident via twitter.

Five  Must Read Posts

After my visitor stats jumped up the other day (thank you to The Book Smugglers – and Kate Elliott and Liz Bourke – for retweeting the link to my Sisters Red post!) I realized I ought to point readers in the direction of some of the posts that got me thinking about this.  And then I fell down the rabbit hole of collecting links.

So, this is not the “you should read these posts” post! – that’s still coming.  Instead, this is a nice long list of links about “grimdark,” realism, fantasy, and other related topics.  Not all of these links are ones I find intellectually stimulating, but many of them are, and I’m hoping that this list will provide a good reference.

For me, if no one else.

Two last notes: First, a huge thanks to Liz Bourke and Cora Buhlert for their recent link posts, which is where I got most of these links.  And secondly, several of these links deal with sexual assault, so proceed with caution.

2/2/11 The Bankrupt Nihilism of Our Fallen Fantasists – Leo Grin (one of the critics of grimdark that Abercrombie links to as decrying grit in a general sense)

5/13/11 Lament for a Lady – George R. R. Martin “It has come to my attention that a number of television viewers…were shocked and upset by what befell Sansa’s direwolf Lady…Good. I mean, that was kind of the point.”

8/2/11 “People who like this sort of thing.” Being a review of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns – Liz Bourke “In my experience, you have to be either especially clueless, or trying very hard, to achieve that level of misogynist creepy.”

2/27/12 A Game of Thorns: Or This Partially Being an Epic Review of the Epic Fantasy Novel, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, And Partially Something Else – Eric M. Forester “Because while the author claims it only has rape in “0.06%” of the book, it is certainly front heavy with it. And a general dismissiveness towards women stalks its pages.”

5/12  Dear Speculative Fiction, I’m Glad We’ve Had This Talk – Elizabeth Bear “The thing is, that kind of cynical pose is really just a juvenile reaction to the world not being what we hoped. We can’t have everything—so we reject anything. But it’s adolescent, darling, and most of us outgrow it.”

10/18/12 “But Alas, She Is A Woman”: How Dishonored Uses Gender Roles To Tell A Story – Becky Chambers “There are many other examples, but those were the two that made me realize that Dishonored is fully aware of how the women within it are treated. It knows how unfair that treatment is.”

10/21/12 The Treatment of Women in Dishonored – Cuppycake “I just wish that at least once, either the women are given the chance to fight back and improve their situation, or I am given the option as a player to help them and show that I care.”

1/20/13 onwards Gratuitous Rape in Fantasy novels – SFF Chronicles forum

1/28/13 A Song of Gore and Slaughter – Tom Simon (one of the critics of grimdark that Abercrombie links to as being concerned with morality)

2/8/13 Grimmy Grimmy Dark Dark – The G “Darkness has its place in fantasy fiction, and can infuse a book or series with immediacy and power, but it only works if horror is presented as horrible, and if it serves some greater purpose.”

2/25/13 The Value of Grit – Joe Abercrombie “So, yeah, shitty gritty books are no better than shitty shiny books.  But I proudly and unapologetically assert that there’s a great deal more to grit than a capacity to shock and titillate.”

2/25 onwards Joe Abercrombie Defends Gritty Fantasy – SFF Chronicle discussion thread

2/26/13 Sleeps With Monsters: Epic Fantasy is Crushingly Conservative? – Liz Bourke “We come back again to a lack of a broad consensus in definitions: I like epic, you like grimdark, they like crap.”

3/1/13 Grimdark Fantay’s Last Hurrah? The Grim Comany by Luke Scull – Niall Alexander

3/1/13 Stopping the Pendulum by C. P. D. Harris

3/1/13 Truest Grit – Joel Johnson “But don’t try to turn on all the lights and wash over everything with a fire hose. We’ve grown fond of this dark, dirty place we live in.”

3/3/13 It’s That Time of the Year Again: Grimdark Fantasy – Cora Buhlert “First of all, I find it telling that he equates people who don’t want to read grimdark fiction with those who don’t want sex or swearing in their fiction.”

3/3/13 On Grittiness & Grimdark – Foz Meadows “when you contend that realistic worldbuilding requires the inclusion of certain specific inequalities in order to count as realistic, you’re simultaneously asserting that such inequalities are inherent to reality – that a story cannot be honest, or your characters believably human, if there aren’t mechanisms in place to keep women oppressed, POC othered and LGBTQ persons invisible.”

3/3/13 Yes, This! – Cheryl Morgan “The point about happy endings is that they give hope. They let people know that they don’t have to accept that darkness and oppression are the natural state of the world.”

3/4/13 What is Your Consensual Sex & Love Doing in My Epic Fantasy – Kate Elliot “To my mind, we lessen the story we are telling about human experience if we do not include and see as worthy all of human experience, especially including positive depictions of sex and love. What kind of world do we vision if we only tell the ugly stories about such intimate matters?”

3/5/13 Sleeps With Monsters: Urban Fantasy is Licentiously Liberal? – Liz Bourke “Within the greater umbrella of “urban fantasy” as I choose to conceive of it, then, it’s clear that there are a wide range of possible moods, themes, and approaches.”

3/5/13 More on Grimdark Fantasy – Cora Buhlert “This is remarkable, because – as I’ve noted before – women and writers of colour are usually assumed not to write gritty fantasy, even if they do.”

3/10/13  Coverage of Women on SF/F Blogs (2012) – Renay

3/10/13 A question about male gaze – Michelle Sagara “Male gaze irritates the crap out of me. Most of the women I know who notice their bodies are likely to say “I need to lose weight around my thighs” or “my stomach is so flabby”, so if you really want to write from a female viewpoint, you don’t have your character notice her fabulous perky breasts or creamy skin or etc. Because. Well.”

3/13/13 The Rape of James Bond – Sophia MacDougall “I found I couldn’t cope with rape as wallpaper.”


3/14/13 Why Winterbirth Was Gritty, Grimdark, or Whatever You Want to Call It – Brian Ruckley Part 1 (Winterbirth being a novel by Brian Ruckley)

3/15/13 Realism, (Male) Rape, and Epic Fantasy – Liz Bourke “Why do men flinch from the reality of their victimisation? Does it not fit their fantasies of power? Of gritty, grim, realistic life and violence?”

3/15/13 Grim, Dark, and Straw – Richard Morgan “So it seems I’m writing GRIMDARK!!! Who knew? Well, certainly not me.”

3/16/13 Welcome to the Desert of the Real – Marie Brennan “I don’t have a problem with stories where everything is grim and dark and horrible. I may not want to read them, but I’m not going to run around saying they shouldn’t exist in the first place. What I do have a problem with is the imputation of moral virtue to those stories…”

3/17/13 Transcript of a Twitter Conversation – fidelioscabinet (+ various)  “I’m beginning to think that writers of epic fantasy and SF should be required to learn about the anthropology of material culture… (Liz Bourke)”

3/18/13 I Love A Good Tragedy As Much As the Next Guy – Elizabeth Bear “If every woman’s going to be raped, if every hero is going to turn out to be a pedophile or a coward, if every halfway honorable man is going to be impaled, if every picturesque little town is going to be burned to the ashes… Rocks Fall, Everybody Dies is just as lazy a narrative as the one where all challenges are resolved by a handy Deus ex machina. And possibly a little more juvenile.”

3/19/13 Sleeps With Monsters: Thinking About Dishonored – Liz Bourke “I don’t need the social disabilities of my gender slapped in my face in a gaslamp fantasy stealth-assassination game.”

3/19/13 Gritty People, Gritty Problems – Sam Sykes “It’s very easy to sign off accusations of grimdarkness as overreaction, because sometimes it is. …But there is a real danger in dismissing the word because there are some questions that should be asked.”

3/19/13  Gritty Washback – Joe Abercrombie “My main problem remains with the definitions, and their apparently endless mutability to suit whatever argument is being made.”

3/19/13 onwards What’s all the hubbub about grimdark? – reddit

3/20/13 Why Winterbirth Was Gritty, Grimdark, or Whatever You Want to Call It Part 2 – Brian Ruckley (Winterbirth being a novel by Brian Ruckley)

3/20/13 My considered contribution to the “grit” debate – Mark Lawrence


3/20/13 I pity the fool – Elizabeth Bear “Because the viewpoint character being an able Western white cis het male totally doesn’t inform the narrative, and has no influence in the way the world is presented, because that’s the only viewpoint that really exists, and the rest of us are all flavor text. We’re spices. We’re here to be observed and consumed”

3/21/13 Batman had it easy – Marie Brennan “Can you imagine how audiences would have reacted if Bruce had to fight off a rapist? Even if the rape weren’t completed. A lot of people were put off just by Silva unbuttoning Bond’s shirt and putting a hand on his thigh, by a few lines of suggestive dialogue. They would have blown a gasket permanently to see Batman treated like, oh, name just about any superheroine you care to.”

3/22/13 Gritty, Grimdark, and Gratuitous – C. P. D Harris (talks a bit about the origins of the term)

3/25/13 It’s Still Very Grimdark Out There – Cora Buhlert “IMO that’s also why many in the SFF community feel so threatened by the popularity of urban fantasy. Because though urban fantasy is far from free of problematic gender dynamics, it is far more likely to feature consensual and mutually respectful sex.”

3/25/13 gritty vs. grimdark – Marie Brennan “You can have grit without being grimdark, and you can be grimdark without grit, but doing either while being female is rare? Not very tidy, but something to keep in mind.”

3/25/13 Game of Thrones – Oyceter (nudity in book vs. show, and by gender)

3/26/13 three conversations at once – Marie Brennan (pretty much just as it says: about grimdark and realism the current conversation about them and how they are really a whole bunch of overlapping conversations)

3/27/13 Where Goeth Epic Fantasy – Kate Elliot (normally, people say don’t read the comments – in this case: definitely read the comments)

“Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies, should never talk to strangers, for if they should do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.”

– from Little Red Riding Hood by Charles Perrault

Little Red Riding Hood by Gustave Dore

I picked up Sisters Red, by Jackson Pearce, with the expectation that a story about two Little Red Riding Hoods as wolf hunters would turn the traditional tail on its head.  Alas, I was greatly disappointed.

While it’s true that the plot veers wildly from the classic tale, and neither Scarlett nor Rosie are the helpless little girl that normally dons the red cape, the underlying assumptions and arguments of the Little Red Riding Hood we grew up with are never questioned.  Sisters Red is a retelling and not at all a deconstruction, and therein lies its problem and many of its flaws.

“I’m not worried,” I answer, unable to suppress a sly grin. “I’m not that kind of girl.”

The story begins with younger versions of the sisters pointing a wolf the way to their grandmother’s house. Deviating from the classic tale, the girls escape – and manage this without the help of a woodsman.  Partly through being observant and quick thinking, and with much help from their grandmother’s self-sacrifice, but also through the unlikely probability of Scarlett defeating a grown werewolf in combat.  Thus setting Scarlett and Rosie on the path of becoming wolf hunters.  Yet, this twist isn’t entirely an improvement; where previous versions of the story present us with children that are meant to represent any little girl, Pearce’s Sisters Red are Exceptional Women who know things and have skills that normal girls do not.  Unlike the paths previous Little Red Riding Hoods have gone down, this isn’t a direction that other girls can easily follow.

There’s nothing like a lost teenage girl on the bad side of town to get their blood pumping.

Time and again, from the sisters first encounter with a wolf all the way up to the last victims shown in the book, the basic idea that wolves hunt pretty young girls, and that these girls’ innocence, foolishness, and femininity is what makes them both vulnerable and desirable to the wolves, is repeated and reinforced. At no point are the wolves ever female, at no point are their victims ever male or – aside from granny – not young and pretty.  And at no point is the wolves prey not described in a way that mimics how we talk about sexual assault.

They toss their hair, stretch their legs, sway their hips, bat their eyelashes at the club’s bouncer, everything about them luring the Fenris. Inviting danger like some baby animal bleating its fool head off.

The combination of these two aspects of the novel – the exceptional nature of the girls chosen path plus the sexualized nature of the wolves choice in prey – is where the lack of any sort of adult figure becomes a major flaw rather than just a typical trope in young adult literature.  Scarlett’s defeat of the wolf at the start of the story, and her subsequent choice to spend her life hunting wolves, is framed as a rejection of the gendered morality in the traditional tale.  Yet there is no actual person or institution for her to revolt against in order to generate this tension within the actual plot, leaving a narrative gap that must be filled.  In its place, the difference between herself and normal girls is highlighted.

“It’s like they’re trying to be eaten, isn’t it? [Silas] asks pointedly. “Can I tell you how glad I am that you and Rosie aren’t like them?”

Little Red Riding Hood on the pathThe insidiousness of the most talked about passage from Sisters Red is not even so much that Scarlett and Silas blame the girls* for being so tempting to the wolves, but rather the way that it reinforces our perception of Scarlett as an Exceptional Woman.  The limited range of ways to be female that are presented in the text means that Scarlett defies the restrictions of her gender rather than demonstrating the fullness of its possibilities.  Her dedication is not something that most other women could hope to achieve and her method of dealing with the wolves is the only option presented.  There is no Willow here, wielding magic at Buffy’s side – nor other potentials waiting in the wings; there’s just Scarlett and Rosie and their axes.

At various points during the story it looks as though the younger sister may be poised to break out of this mold.  A huge part of Rosie finding her own path involves interacting with people other than Scarlett or Silas via taking various classes at a community center, an experience that leads to her finding herself in a very classic coming of age way.  There was a possibility here for her to not just reject following in Scarlett’s footsteps, but of finding an entirely different method of honoring their grandmother’s sacrifice.  One that is truly revolutionary and very different from the individualistic compromise between black and white that she ends up deciding on.  Instead, these moments are fleeting and much of her angst centers on the tension between being accepting Silas’ romantic love and making her sister proud.  Again reinforcing the idea that the girls may only choose between being Scarlett or being normal, not from a multitude of colors and possibilities.

“The Fenris stare at her lustfully. Jealousy stirs in my stomach again, but I force it back down.”

There have been a lot of protests on the interwebs against people asserting that this construction reinforces rape culture. Some claim that was never the intent and that any reading that talks about rape is bringing something extra to the book that isn’t there to begin with.  Which would be all well and good if this wasn’t a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood – a story that has been about reinforcing rape culture ever since Perrault got his hands on it. Any retelling that borrows heavily from his version, directly or not, must address and reject the rape myths he presents if it wants to not perpetuate them.  The question is not if Sisters Red says anything about rape culture, but rather what it says about it.

screencap from Hard Candy

Pearce’s novel does make a rather interesting failure though.  We have every reason to believe the author about her intent but that doesn’t change the actual result.  How does this happen then? More importantly, how does one avoid it?  I think the trick lies in not buying into the default male point of view that we have inherited from Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, among others.  We are so steeped in the male gaze that it’s often hard to impossible to think outside of it or even recognize when we are using its assumptions as our framework. Like the many anthropologists who have assumed that any Ice Age depictions of women were meant for men, the idea that the wolves might target girls for reasons other than sexual allure never seems to occur to Pearce or her characters.

Little Red Riding Hood

To break out of this mindset there need to be options other than hunter or prey, and these two roles need to not follow so starkly along gender lines – especially with regards to who is prey and why.  While women’s physical strength deserves more attention and honor than it often gets, one can’t fight rape culture by arguing that women are capable of fighting back, however true that may be.  That still places the responsibility on women, makes them the enforcers of men’s morality, and creates a framework that encourages victims to second guess their own actions rather than seek help.  Somewhere there needs to be the argument that men are capable of stopping themselves, that they should do so, and that violence is merely one method of fighting back.

*Let’s get one thing straight: any narrative that argues that rape happens because of the lust women inspire in men is blaming the victim.  (And yes, this mindset is argued by the text overall, not just that one conversation.)  This concept perpetuates the myth that rape is about lust and not control/power/punishment/entitlement, obscures the reality of how most rapists choose their victims, and implies that rape can be prevented by women being less alluring.