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.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
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Today, after reading a short story for class (the story is unpublished so you will not be able to find it anywhere) in which a character is gang raped, I had a discussion with a friend about the contents of the work we'd just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.