Thursday, March 24, 2011

Blaming Victims, Blaming Characters

So this post is going to be hard to write without getting a little bit angry and emotional, but after talking about the topic with friends all day, I've decided it's something I should blog about because it's important - not just to me, but to a lot of people. Warning, this post does contain some discussion of rape, though not in any sort of graphic detail.


In a recent blog post, Kristin Cashore discussed some controversial reporting in the New York Times. The post, which you can see here, talked about some bad wording choices on the part of a reporter who, long story short, hinted that a rape victim had "asked for it." Now, you'll have to read Kristin's post or one of the many other's she linked to for the details - that is not what this post is about - but that post has been on my mind for weeks, and today, after a conversation with another student, I realized that this "victim blaming" culture has seeped much farther than I imagined.

Today, after reading a short story for class (the story is unpublished so you will not be able to find it anywhere) in which a character is gang raped, I had a discussion with a friend about the contents of the work we'd just read. When I mentioned the dark contents of the story, my friend said, "I'm sorry, it was her own fault." To shorten a very long, very heated (on my side) debate, my friend's basic reasoning was that the protagonist had put her self in "that position" by going over to the house of a guy she didn't know that well with full intention of sleeping with him. I disagreed (strongly) and said that even if the character had gone to the house of a stranger dressed in nothing but a miniskirt and bra - no one ever, EVER puts themselves in "that position." Because the character intended to have sex with one guy, no matter who he was, does not mean she planned on being assaulted by five of his friends.

Since I can't share this story with you, it's hard to really express my argument. But the debate really got me thinking. Part of me doubts that if this character had been a real person my friend would have said such things. It's college, so I'm sure a few of her friends have hooked up with guys they weren't necessarily super in love one time or another if she hasn't. Would she ever blame them if this tragedy happened? Probably not - at least, I seriously hope not. But because this was a fictional character, she felt okay saying, "She asked for it."

Let me be clear in saying that I am incredibly against victim-blaming. No matter the person, no matter the way he or she dresses, acts, or who they are associating with - no one ever asks for rape, and no one ever deserves it.

I feel this way with real people, and I feel this way with characters, too.

But today's event was not the only run-in I had with blaming fictional victims. Last year, in my freshman seminar, we read the short story "Greasy Lake" by T. C. Boyle. If you haven't read the story, you should. It's a coming of age short story and it's quite good, but in the story a female character is the victim of an attempted gang rape. She ends up unharmed physically, but in my seminar I mentioned that the scene made me dislike some of the protagonists, who took part in the attempted rape.

This led to a discussion about whether this female character deserved what she got. Some argued, "She's half naked in the backseat of a car in the middle of the night - she doesn't seem that innocent." This made me angry then, but it flat out infuriates me now. Innocent or not, virgin or not, promiscuous or not - how is an attack like that deserved? Would the boys in the class have felt that way if it was their girlfriend in the backseat of a car with them one night in the middle of nowhere when some thugs attempted to rape her? Again, I say - dear god, I hope not.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that we as readers are too hard on fictional characters in general. Our society has an obsession with likable characters when, in reality, people are not always likable. There are actually many scholarly articles about this, about bow our culture in particular insists on a character you can "like." I won't get into all of that too deeply because I haven't done enough research, but I can see that I see it a lot in book reviews.

I am constantly reading reviews in which people say "But this main character made so many dumb mistakes" or "but the character was so stupid" or "I didn't like how the main character handled this situation." I see it constantly, and to be honest, it annoys me a little. Because in so many books, the whole point of the book is that the main character was stupid or that they made a huge mistake - heck, if there were no mistakes there would be no conflict, and that's a boring story.

Don't get me wrong, there are characters I despise, but I think sometimes that's the point. Because there are people I despise, too, and they still have stories to tell.

What does this have to do with victim-blaming? Well, I think our determination on having likable characters is part of what leads to the idea of "she asked for it" in literature. I feel like so many people see the mistakes a character makes and say, "Well, that was dumb, so if something bad happens, you asked for it."

No. Just no.

IIf it is so easy to blame a fictional character who makes mistakes, how easy will it eventually be to blame a stranger? An acquaintance? These are real people. And as we can see from the New York Times article Kristin Cashore mentioned, sometimes we already are blaming real people.

I don't care if it's the book's protagonist or antagonist, main character or side character, good guy or freakin' evil asshole - no one deserves rape, no one asks for it, and no one deserves our judgment, not even fictional characters. Because when we start blaming the people who read about in books, it isn't along before we start blaming those we read about in articles or see on the news or hear about in the hallways. It's a chain, and it needs to be broken. Now.

So this is what I ask of you - next time you watch a movie or read a book and someone is victimized (be it rape or another heinous crime), stop and think for a second. Don't judge, don't point out the character's mistakes, and just think. Put yourself or a friend in those shoes and see if you'd feel the same then.

I also ask that if you are ever in class or anywhere, really, discussing something and someone says a person "was asking for it" - steer them in the other direction. It may lead to a fight or a debate (like the one I had today), but maybe we can change this mentality, one mind at a time.



23 comments:

M.J. Horton said...

This topic gets to me too because I see it so often.

I learned in Pyschology that 'victim blaming' is so rampant because it comforts the person doing so. They think that if it's that person's fault then in can't happen to them because they would never put themselves in that situation. It adds a security blanket to horrid events that happen by chance because it gives them a sense of control.

Amy Lukavics said...

Dude, let's just put together the most cliche "she had it coming" type of personality/qualities that victim blamers love to use.

Let's say a drunk, high, scantily clad stripper who is a swinger, lover of orgies, and overall avid sex addict goes to someone's house and gets raped. Let's even say that she heard at the bar that he's abusive and forceful and has gone to jail for rape before.

SHE STILL DIDN'T DESERVE TO BE FORCED TO HAVE SEX AGAINST HER WILL, SORRY. Yes means yes and THAT IS ALL. How is this not obvious? It's pretty fucking black and white to me.

Kody Keplinger said...

That makes a lot of sense, MJ, though it breaks my hear to say so. I wish our society turned more to comforting victims instead of comforting ourselves. But I guess that's a big thing to ask a whole society. LOL

Kody Keplinger said...

Amy - AGREED. No one deserves it. No one asks for it. And even though I think we all know that to some degree, its easier for some people to make excuses for why it happened.

Kate Hart said...

We need to move toward the "Yes means Yes" message instead of just "no means no." Like I told a friend who was date raped: I don't care if you were dancing around naked in front of him- it's your body, and if you did not say YES, then he had no right to touch you.

You've heard me rant plenty so I'll just say: Good for you for posting about it, Kodester. <3

Kody Keplinger said...

<3 Thanks Kate. And COMPLETELY AGREE on the "yes means yes" and not just "no means no."

Andrea Cremer said...

Fantastic and important post, Kody. Rape can never be excused or justified. Never.

Remilda Graystone said...

This is a great post, and M.J. Horton has it right about giving the person control when they victim-blame. Is it a good idea to go to someone's house when you don't know them that well? Not always. But I fail to see how it was the protagonist's fault or how they put themselves in that position or how they had it coming. If they did put themselves in that position, wouldn't that be the same as saying they wanted it? In which case it wouldn't even be rape, would it?

My first experience with things like these--seeing victim-blaming, that is--was when I read a non-fiction book in which the author was brutally raped. They mentioned at some point that they were a virgin and hadn't been dressed immodestly, so they were likely to get the jury's sympathy. Something along those lines. I was really shocked and quite frankly, pissed that a rapist could end up getting away with something based on how the victim was dressed or whether they were a virgin or not. Still pisses me off thinking about it.

Rape--like child molestation and other crimes--is never justifiable. It's never the victim's fault (hello, they wouldn't be the victim, would they, if it was their fault?) and the person who did it--be they stranger, friend, or spouse--doesn't ever, ever deserve to get away with it or from it. That victim-blaming is so prevalent is probably one of the biggest contributors to why so many rapists get away with hurting another human being in that manner.

Disgusting.

Thanks for writing this post.

Samantha Manzella said...

This is a fantastic post, Kody. I absolutely agree with you; one of my close friends was sexually assaulted as a young girl, and I can't EVER imagine how angry I'd be if some idiot suggested that she'd "asked for it". You're totally right about how hard readers often are on fictional characters, too. Yes, characters make mistakes and make stupid choices, but where would the story go if they didn't? Better yet, doesn't that make them easier to relate? We all make mistakes, so seeing it reflected in the characters we read and write about should be uplifting, not aggravating.

Thanks for articulating this in a way I don't think I could have.

Claire Dawn said...

It is so easy to say that a low necked blouse 'caused' a situation to escalate, but who's to say it wouldn't have if the victim were wearing a nun's habit?

I will agree that a victim's behaviour (character or real) is often not the wisest. But because the victim made some mistake, doesn't mean he/she deserves whatever.

We've all made mistakes. Many of us have even made the same mistakes victims made, put ourselves in the same positions. It could have happened to one of us. I wonder if these same people would feel that they deserved whatever they got if they didn't take every precaution to stay out of harm's way.

Elizabeth said...

I agree with you, Kody. The protagonist may have gone to this guy's house expecting to sleep with him, but she probably also went in with the expectation that no meant no. Not to lighten the situation in the least, but saying otherwise is akin to saying if you walk into a store, you give away your right to refuse merchandise, credit accounts, even identity theft and fraud. It doesn't work like that. Ever.

Rachel Stark said...

Thank you for this wonderfully thought-out post. I hear victim-blaming all the time and it always makes me feel ill.

I think you've put a new perspective on it with this idea that it stems from our need for likable characters, and it seems to me you're on to something. I also think that part of our need in reading fiction, especially dark fiction, is to experience horrible things but maintain the distance necessary to say, "That could never happen to me." Victim blaming, whether or real people or of characters, is one more (horrible) way to say that.

Jane said...

A friend of mine commented that she's only ever been accosted when wearing an ankle-length skirt and a long-sleeve shirt that buttoned up to her neck.

I like the shifting to a "yes means yes" mentality as Kate said. But consider how much of our communication is nonverbal: some researchers estimate that 90% of the way we communicate is nonverbal, from the rate of our speech to our body language and yes, to our clothing. An attorney who shows up at court with uncombed hair and wearing ripped jeans and a t-shirt that says The Party's Over is not going to be taken as seriously as one who shows up in a suit and tie or a knee-length black skirt, white blouse, and her hair pulled back in a bun.

So to some people, a woman who dresses in a specific way is nonverbally indicating "yes," and that's the mentality that needs to be combated. Because no means no -- absolutely. No one is "asking" to be raped.

But move it away from rape. Someone who doesn't lock her car and leaves her iPod and six twenty-dollar bills on the front seat also isn't asking for her stuff to be stolen. But if I did that and complained later that someone took my stuff, people would laugh in my face. Are they blaming the victim? Yes.

The question is where to draw the line, then. Rape is so intensely personal a crime that it seems much worse to blame the victim there, and also because a low-cut blouse or one's presence at a party can be interpreted later on by people who weren't there as a nonverbal "yes" when the woman herself never meant it to be.

One final thought: "she was asking for it" implies that rape is a sexual crime. It's violence about control, expressed sexually. Rape is not an act of seduction that went wrong. No one is "asking for" the violence, no matter what she wears or how she dresses. I think the primary way to get away from the "she asked for it" mentality is to frame rape for what it is: an act of violence. An act of hatred.

Emma Cunningham said...

This reminds me of a recent incident in Toronto where a police officer implied that a girl who had been sexually assaulted while wearing clubwear had asked for it. Toronto has scheduled a SlutWalk to protest this type of behaviour and attitude.

Ceilidh said...

Bit late to the party but this is such a great post. Victim blaming is so rampant in pretty much every element of our life and media. It's sickening how often it comes up in YA as well, or some variation of slut-shaming, where a girl is defined solely in terms of her sexuality and how dirty and bad it makes her. Bad girls have sex and sex is for bad girls. There's a great quote in Jessica Valenti's The Purity Myth, about the abstinence movement and how harmful it is, where they discuss victim blaming and slut-shaming. I can't remember the exact wording but it basically said a woman doesn't get raped if she's drunk or wearing a short skirt or has been sexually active in the past; she is raped because of the presence of a rapist.

Kate Hart said...

"It's violence about control, expressed sexually. Rape is not an act of seduction that went wrong. "

YES. *fist bumps Jane*

Christa said...

This is excellent, Kody. Thank you! I am a childhood sexual assault survivor and felt like what happened to me was my fault for a long time. Part of the reason for that is the world that we live in and the "rape culture" that is perpetuated. My friend, Anne Ream, started a movement where survivors can tell their stories. And the stories aren't always "perfect" rape stories.
Here's mine:
http://www.voicesandfaces.org/survivor_christa.asp

Rockie said...

This is an excellent post. No one deserves to be raped no matter how promiscuous they dress. No is exactly that..No.

Chelsea P. said...

Yes. Thank you for this. I, too, have gotten into these heated debates in which people Really Didn't Expect me to say, "Uh, no, no matter what she was wearing she didn't deserve that." And yeah, sometimes they get angry, or defensive, which can be uncomfortable, but it's so much more uncomfortable to remain silent and let this mentality go unchallenged.

Frankly, a woman can be doing naked cartwheels and it's still not an invitation to any and all guys in the vicinity. What is an invitation? When she invites someone. With her words. (And, it's important to remember, even then, it's her right to change her mind.)

Thank you so much for sharing your voice on this :)

erica and christy said...

I saw a link to your post several hours ago, but I knew I needed to cool down before visiting. This is a topic near and dear to my heart.

Do I know of women who have been sexually abused beyond the scope of anything I could ever have previously (i.e. before I heard their stories) imagined? Yes.

Did they ask for it? Never.

The internet age wasn't nearly as prolific when I was 19 (I'm 35 now), but if it were, I hope I would have been as brave as you to talk about it. I still hope I am.

For the young women who have experienced something like this, who are reading this post - stay strong. Believe in yourself. And, if you can, talk about it, although I understand if you can't. You can live a normal life - and you deserve it.
Erica

Britany Clarke said...

I'm shaken. I really am. I've heard people use that phrase before: "She/he asked for it". I've even heard a lot of it's different variations, all of them practically meaning the same thing, that the victim did this to themself by not thinking first or trusting too easily.
And it really pisses me off. Of all the people to blame in a rape situation or a situation where someone is hurt or violated against their will, I would think they'd blame the attaker.

I agree with you completely, no matter what, no woman or person deserves to be raped. They never ask for it, and they never deserve it. What does that even mean? How could she deserve cruelty? Are we supposed to be teaching the victim a lesson instead of concentrating on the attacker?

Thinking about the people who have used this phrase makes be angry and sad for them. Angry because in a way, by saying that to the victim, it doesn't make them much better than the attacker. And sad because I really just want to stop them and try to fix their way of thinking.

Great post, Kody. This is something people need to think about.

Lisa Potts said...

Wonderful post! I couldn't agree with you more. I just finished reading THE MOCKINGBIRDS by Daisy Whitney which covered this issue brilliantly.

Anonymous said...

What a fabulous post. I think the victim-blaming of real people has already started (or, rather, of real WOMEN) and it makes me sick. Rape is not taken as seriously as it should be in our society. I have a friend who was raped and she was afraid to go to the police because she didn't think they would believe her. And you know what, she's probably right. Our society's mindset toward rape seems to always be against the victim. She even felt guilty herself for WEEKS before I managed to convince her that it was in no way, shape, or form her fault. The media and the world should think about what they say before they open their ignorant mouths and make innocent VICTIMS afraid to come forward. She never told anyone, and it's a burden she lives with every day.

I'm commenting anonymously to protect the identity of my friend.