From Ovid all the way up to this week’s Game of Thrones, rape and sexual violence have been a standard narrative device, used to connote edginess, or to generate prurient interest or simply to create suspense. Scrolling through the hashtag #Rapeplot, which was started by twitter user Femme Esq., you can see just how hoary and default sexual violence in pop culture is: Mad Men, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Law & Order SVU, soap operas — the list goes on and on.
And just looking at rape actually understates the extent to which women in film are subjected to, and often defined, by sexual violence and harassment.
What about The Matrix when Cypher takes time out from killing his former colleagues to lecherously linger over Trinity unconscious form? Rape, as joke, threat, character development, or motivation: how could narrative exist without it?
Writers such as Femme Esq., Jill Pantozzi and others have used a feminist lens to point out that the constant, lazy use of sexual violence to connote edginess, or simply to move the plot along, is ugly and offensive. It trivializes trauma, and its ubiquity ends up suggesting that women and women’s stories are only interesting, or worth talking about, to the extent that they involve sexual abuse.
In addition, though, I think the focus on sexual violence against women as a uniquely horrible and important driver of narrative results in a less-discussed side-effect. It naturalizes or trivializes non-sexual violence against men.
Alyssa Rosenberg makes this dynamic unusually clear in her review of the most recent Game of Thrones episode, when she writes that she hoped the rape would be prevented by the beginning of a war, writing, “Maybe we’d be spared the sight of a young woman’s suffering by the sight of grown men turning each other into meat.”
Rosenberg adds that, “This is the terrible calculation that Game of Thrones has trained us to make,” but she fails to point out that this is always the calculus in just about every form of pop culture fiction. Women experience sexual violence, which is figured as horrible, life-changing, traumatic and the defining truth of their existence. Meanwhile, men are casually butchered with little comment, often in narrative pursuit of saving women from sexual violence or as revenge for sexual violence committed against women.
Again, that scene from The Matrix is instructive. Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) moves among the sleeping, plugged in bodies of his former comrades, killing a couple (one man and one woman.) To cement his evilness, he leans in close to the sleeping form of Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and evilly explains that he’s lusted after for years.
The murders are neat and quick; it’s the almost-sexual-assault that has the real emotional evilness behind it, and it’s that evil that justifies Cypher’s murder in the nick of time by one of the heroes. As Rosenberg says, men turning each other into meat provides the heroic narrative alternative to sexual assault.
Sexual violence is used to show that Cypher is evil and worth killing; women’s sexual vulnerability is the plot device that justifies violent retribution. The tropes can be shuffled and even regendered in various ways.
In Daredevil, for example, Claire (Rosario Dawson) is tortured rather than sexually assaulted—but still, torturing women is something only the bad guys do, providing heroic contrast to Daredevil, who only tortures men (and who, in rescuing Claire, wreaks carnage on untold minions.)
In the first episode of Oz, the white supremacist neo-Nazi establishes his overwhelming evilness by raping, not a woman, but a conveniently feminized man.
And of course rape revenge narratives (like the infamous I Spit On Your Grave) often feature women enacting retribution themselves, fulfilling, on their own behalf, the imperative that says women must suffer rape in order to provide the narrative justification for the spectacle of bloody violence against men.
Men’s rights activists sometimes argue that there’s lots of violence against men in media, and so worrying about portrayals of violence against women is silly or unnecessary. But the truth is that violence against women in media is coded and presented differently and that that difference is used to reinforce gender roles and ideas about gendered violence.
Women are shown, iconically, as victims of sexual violence—and the seriously titillating excitement of that sexual violence becomes a way to generate suspenseful plot that often has little to do with the victim herself.
Meanwhile, violence against men is either a collateral sideline, or else the entertaining set piece, a la Daredevil beating the snot out of the Kingpin in the climactic battle. Sexual violence against women doesn’t cancel out violence against men; rather, the two justify, build on, and reinforce each other.
The #Rapeplot, in other words, is part of an economy of media violence in which women are victims and men are not. This is codified in part by sexualizing violence against women to present that violence as exciting, edgy and, especially, traumatic.
Meanwhile, violence against men is ignored or else justified—often through demonstrating that a man is evil because he has committed sexual violence against women. The obsessive narrative weight given to sexual violence against women and the shrugging refusal to give narrative weight to violence against men, are of a piece. Both serve to create a world in which women are reduced to sex and victimization, and men are reduced to sometimes heroic, sometimes sinister cannon fodder.
That world is imaginary, but it also has a purchase on our own real world, in which sexual assault on women, and killing men in violent wars, are both seen as natural, inevitable and even entertaining. Which means it’s not just in women’s interest, but in men’s, to stop relying on the same stupid plots and figure out better stories, both in fiction and elsewhere.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is a contributing writer for The Atlantic.