And so we come to the post that I’ve been dancing around for a long, long time. I wasn’t sure if I was going to open my mouth and go here, and I wasn’t even sure that I’m qualified enough to do so. Like everything else, all I really have are my opinions and how I view the world as a writer, a horror fan, and a woman. But this is also a trend that really, really hits a nerve with me, so I feel like I wouldn’t be completing my exploration unless I go here.
You probably already have a good idea of where I’m headed by the title. The thing is, there are a lot of kinds of victims in horror. We could probably do a month’s worth of posts dissecting what it really means to be a victim, the types of victims, and all the rest. Rest assured, I’m not waving a banner to take all the victims out of horror; it’s my viewpoint that you need them to show the lead character (and the readers) what the actual danger is. This also isn’t about final girls and their relevance, or anything like that.
We’re going to get a little serious for the moment and continue down the line we’ve been following: we’ve discussed nudity in horror, sex in horror, and now we’re going to touch on sexual violence in horror.
I’m going to be very, very honest. This is not a topic I like to watch, like to read, and can even tolerate for any amount of time. I’m never going to be a fan of titles that rely on rape, molestation, or even torture bordering on fetishism to prove a point.
With that in mind, I do understand that certain sub-genres of horror make a point of pushing the limits. I understand that if you’re dealing with a plot that involves a serial killer or rapist, yeah, that kind of opens the door to include graphic scenes. I get that this kind of thing is probably on the edge of as far people can go in terms of what they can legally write and show. But does that mean people should actually do it?
Yes, I know movies like Last House on the Left and Spit on Your Grave are supposed to use the topic to show the extremes normal people can go to (though I’ve also heard the first handles it better than the second – I haven’t been able to get through either). Here’s where things get muddied for this and a lot of other titles that include a rape in among all the other violence/action/gore sequences. Same for movies that include really slow and graphic torture of women. At what point does this help the story along? I mean really, really help the story along? If you’re primarily concerned with the victim getting revenge, how come a lot of those plots involve a very graphic description of the actual event and less about the revenge in question (or treat it as so over the top we can’t really relate to it?)? Why is it that in a story that isn’t about rape per say, that it has to even crop up? It gets to the point that these sequences are so graphic that yeah, it becomes less about the issue and more about another way to show a woman in a sexual situation.
Here’s my problem with this. This is still a really, really taboo subject in daily life. Victims still are not treated fairly (There are all sorts of theories about what rights victims of sexual assault actually have and there are news reports coming out this past month about rape kits not being tested and left to get dusty on shelves), they’re still made to feel powerless. It’s still a stigma for victims to admit that they’ve been assaulted. This is something that is not about sex and is all about power, and so often when it’s portrayed in horror it borders on becoming sexualized. To be fair, it is very, very hard to present this issue in any form of entertainment. While I’m not saying ban any use of it as a plot element all together, I feel like it’s become the next go-to place in horror for a way to up the stakes. Usually I’d mention that outside of Deliverance, I can’t really recall a title where a man suffers that same sort of fate. But here’s my thing – that’s not a scene I want to watch at all, involving either gender as the victim.
If it’s really, really necessary to your plot, I wish film makers and authors would realize that you don’t have to linger forever on the actual sequence of violence (or show it at all). Nancy A. Collins’ character Sonja Blue is transformed into a vampire via rape. Yes, it’s a very VERY hard scene to read. That’s still a scene I skip when I reread the series, because it is really hard to get through. But once through it, it isn’t revisited all the time. It shapes Sonja, she definitely is affected by it, but the plot is about HOW she’s affected and the hell she goes through to survive and reclaim her new self and her sanity. It isn’t twenty or fifty pages of watching her struggle under a vampire. There is also the thing with the Governor and Michonne in the Walking Dead comics. Granted, you don’t see anything per say, but you hear every word thanks to thought balloons and location settings. It’s not pretty. It’s horrible. I get that it shows how sadistic the Governor is, but it also made me stop reading the comics because I wasn’t sure how much more of that I could take (and it’s a long series).
If sexual violence isn’t a necessary plot element (ie your story won’t fall apart without it), why are you using it at all? I get the argument for extreme horror, I get the whole splatterpunk thing, but extreme doesn’t have to automatically equal abuse. And let’s face it, it IS abuse. And I don’t want to pay money to sit and watch or read someone be abused when the plot could go on without it. Repeated use of this (and extreme violence) to women in the genre is just leading towards more desensitizing. It makes it that much harder for there to be any headway for real life victims, especially when if it comes down to it, I’m sure a writer or film maker is creative enough to come up with alternatives.
Think of it: as women, we already have to be on edge and careful of who we go out with, who we go home with, who we open the door for, what’s going on with our drink if we walk away from it, where we go by ourselves, where we drive alone, and who might think we’re “leading them on” and decide to do something about it. It’s already a fear or a nervousness we have to live with every day of our lives, and you want to gore it up to the maximum because it’s the last place to go? Do we really need to be exposing ourselves as society to something like this as entertainment?
There are a lot of ways a woman heroine can overcome the odds. There are a lot of ways to be a final girl, a survivor, a badass chick character, or any woman in a horror story without having to be demeaned and subjected to that. My other problem is if it isn’t integral to the plot, you’re asking us to believe that every random alien/monster/mutant/evil spirit/tree/male horror character is running around just waiting to get on someone. Short of Alien, I just feel like that line of thought is demeaning to guys as well, because you’re pretty much asking me to buy that every guy character is just a fine line away from being a raping maniac. If the roles were reversed, I wouldn’t want to write a female character acting that way to men, necessarily, either, because there are a lot of ways to write freaky chick without going there. It’s my job as a writer to be different, to freak people out, but also to find new ways to do it. Yes, I get that a lot of horror is all the bad things that can happen….but there are a LOT of ways to take a plot without going there. This is doubly true if you’re doing it for effect or for comedy. Just…why? Seriously, what is the purpose of this? What does that kind of scene do over some other type of scene that might show character or plot development in a different way? Even if you’re trying to seriously explore the issue of sexual violence in a horror movie or book, this is a very hard subject to do well. You run the risk of going way over the top in an effort to keep to the horror vibe, you also run the risk of stereotyping the victim (she wanted it, oh she’s the slut character, oh she’s a bitch so she deserved it, oh she’s a good girl so she was asking for it), of alienating readers who were with you up until that point. And unless you have a really, REALLY clear idea of WHY you want to use that kind of an element, of WHERE you’re going to go with it, HOW you’re going to get there, what the outcome is, and that you know for a fact that you have a real reason to explore that territory respectfully to move your plot forward or explain a character…well, there’s no reason to go there.
I write horror for a lot of reasons. Yes, people die in my stories and there are high stakes. I’ve always said that horror is about possibility, and there are a LOT of possibilities out there. There are lot of ways to scare people without sexual violence. There are also a lot of ways to show a strong female character, a crazy female character, or any other type of female character without saying she got that way by being molested, assaulted, raped, or anything else. Like any other genre, we should have great women characters for a variety of reasons, women who show us parts of ourselves, who show us what we could be, for better or worse. Every woman knows there’s the possibility of violence against her somewhere in the back of her mind. We don’t need to define characters by that in extreme ways to drive the point home.
We want to women characters who grow, who fight, who figure things out, who overcome odds, who go after others, who freak others out, who entrance us the moment they come onto the screen or page. We women are many, many things in real life, and we’re many things in the horror genre, but there’s one thing we don’t need to be anymore. We don’t need to be defined as victims. Maybe if there were less of these glorified or flaunted, we could have an actual fair talk about violence and what needs to be done about it. Maybe we could stop being so wary and look over our shoulders. Maybe we could help work to do different things with the horror genre, take it in different directions, and press it even further.