Content Warning: This post discusses rape and sexual assault, particularly against women, and spoilers for both Outlander and Games of Thrones. Approach with caution.
Most of us are unfortunately all too familiar with the statistic that one in four women in the USA have survived rape or attempted rape, and that 400,000 women a year are sexually assaulted in England and Wales alone. It’s a haunting reminder of the power of patriarchy and the smothering circumstances that accompany living while female, a risk that increases dramatically for women of colour, trans* women and disabled women. It’s expected and often necessary for our media to offer accurate portrayals of rape, the consequences and the after-effects, especially since rape culture still deems it to be not a big deal or something women have invented for kicks. Such scenes can be extremely tough and triggering to watch, yet there is an intrinsic value to them.
Yet that’s not what we mostly see or read. What we get instead is rape as a plot device, the go-to shock tactic to show just how very bad the big baddie is, the easiest way for a storyteller to put someone, more often than not a woman, at risk. Having to preface a recommendation for a show or book I enjoyed with “But it is a bit rapey” has become a more common occurrence than I’m entirely comfortable with. I’ve had many similar conversations with friends upon beginning to read Outlander as well as frequent talks with Game of Thrones fans. Both series have been forced into either/or discussions lately, with critics discussing the feminist merits of both and how one is clearly more liberating for women than the other. One thing with rape is more feminist than another thing with rape. I despair.
Both shows also use the same justification for violent content and sexual assault, particularly against women – it’s historically accurate.
I am so sick of hearing this defence.
The A Song of Ice and Fire series is inspired by historical fact, notably the War of the Roses, and the Outlander books span history from the Jacobite rebellion to World War II. It’s true that history has not been kind to women (and rape as a weapon of war is still an everyday occurrence in places like the DRC) but the series inspired by these time periods are first and foremost fiction. They’re fictional stories with dragons and time travel. So many fans are willing to overlook that particular anachronism.
The use of rape as a plot device ties in to how frequently women are reduced to mere plot devices themselves. They’re there for the male characters to save, to abuse or to gain some sort of victory from. How many times have you seen a crime procedural where the camera lingers as a screaming woman is dragged away and fondled by a villain of the week? These women are seldom named and as such become entirely defined on screen by being victims of an abhorrent crime. For the characters fortunate enough to be fleshed out and given more to do (and George RR Martin has written a number of fascinating female characters), their sexual assault serves to separate them from the men in terms of power. Sometimes the after effects are dealt with, sometimes they’re not. Such elements are too often dealt with casually, as if reacting to trauma is an option.
Writers taking inspiration from history is nothing new. It’s yielded some fascinating, influential and creatively enriching results over the centuries. There’s much to respect and enjoy in both Martin and Gabaldon’s books and their respective adaptations, but to dismiss worries over the seeming focus on sexual assault within them dismisses the context within which all our entertainment comes from – one where most film and TV is made by cishet white men and through their gaze. Outlander is an interesting and much welcomed example of a female focused story, both in terms of audience and narrative, yet the pervasive ‘historically accurate rape’ remains. There are plenty of other things that would be historically accurate for that time period that we never see. It’s always rape or attempted rape, and it’s used to highlight just how bad things were for women back then, but it’s still hugely questionable.
Why selectively take inspiration from history yet happily ignore it in other areas? Why steadfastly dedicate your efforts to maintaining a patriarchal culture that treats women as sex and abuse objects while writing about dragons? The showrunners of Game of Thrones came under fire during season 4 for turning what was a consensual sex scene in the books between Cersei and Jaime into a pretty unambiguous rape scene. The dynamics of that incestuous relationship were already complicated and questionable without deciding that they needed to be just that much more shocking.
It’s not just an exhausting plot device when applied to the victims: It’s also a lazy and overused way to define a man as a very bad baddie. In Outlander, the first person Claire encounters when she steps back in time is Jack Randall, a man who bears an uncanny resemblance to her husband. How is he immediately established as a villain? He forces himself onto Claire. Boom – instant baddie! It’s not just a tired and insulting cliché; it’s another tool that yet again sees rape as the ultimate shame to bring upon a women. You want to put a woman in peril? Bring in the potential rapists.
Rape happens. It’s always happened, and it’s a depressing and horrific thing we should be tackling every single day. Great activists and charities are doing stellar work, often with little funding, and insightful writers are challenging perceptions in countless essays and stories. I’m not here to tell any writer what they should and shouldn’t write, but I do ask for a few moments of thought on this particular issue: If dragons are an excusable anachronism from ‘historically accurate’ tales but not raping women is political correctness gone mad, then what does that say about us all?
Check out this site for some resources related to rape crisis and assistance in USA, and please share other relevant charities in the links.