How Far Does Author Loyalty Carry Us?

Warning: this post will contain spoilers for no fewer than two book series and three TV series, and will make reference to sexual violence in fiction.

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Last week, George R. R. Martin released a new excerpt from The Winds of Winter, simultaneously breaking the internet and all of our minds. The excerpt called, simply, “Mercy,” contains sentences like: “Mercy, I’m Mercy, and tonight I’ll be raped and murdered,” and “It would be just like Mercy to sleep through her own rape.”

The language of rape continues through the chapter: Mercy, the main character, has to hurry or she’ll miss her own rape, and there are repeated allusions to sexual acts with the character who seems to be her boss.

There are two twists. One (and this may be the biggest) is that Mercy is in fact Arya, our child-heroine. An intrepid (okay, frustrated) reader  who is upset by the first paragraphs will scan to the end and see this fact, compounding the upset: not only is this character an unwilling prostitute, but she’s also one of the few non-sexualized female characters in the series. When I saw this, I was devastated, and almost didn’t read the whole chapter.

Of course, you could argue that the other twist is more important: Mercy is an actress, and the rape she’s referring to is on-stage.

When I realized this, and realized that Martin knew that he was deliberately using inflammatory language, teasing us with a fictional act he’s constantly criticized for, I felt hurt. Relieved, but hurt.

He was trolling us, you see. Upsetting us deliberately, and then he took it away. He’s aware of the criticisms about his books, the accusations of constant rape and sexual violence, and he used our sensitivity against us to achieve a shocking reveal.

WTF?

I was almost more upset by that use of a real problem with his work than I was by the apparent sexualization of Arya. I’ve been reading Martin’s books since I was 14, since before I even really fully understood just how violent against women the books are and just how twisted this world’s view of sex is. I’ve struggled with my love for the books, feeling like I shouldn’t be able to read them, like I shouldn’t love them, because I now recognize just how troubling Martin’s treatment of women (and sex generally — this isn’t just about women) is.

The same thing happened in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, when main character Claire is raped (in a fair amount of realistic detail). I’d come to terms with the rape of Brianna, Claire’s daughter, but when it happened to Claire I was stunned. And hurt. And I felt almost as brutalized as our protagonist.

Why did this have to happen? In what way did Claire’s rape further her character development? We’ve been in Claire’s head for something like 20 years. I read Outlander when I was in SIXTH GRADE. What if I had read these later books then, and seen the two female main characters dealing with this problem? Would it have normalized sexual violence for me?

I realize that neither of these series are really intended for 12- and 14-year-olds, but adults become immune to the things they see in fiction as well. And it’s worse in some ways, because we have the capability of drawing our own lines and seeing where society has failed to draw lines for us. When we continue to read these books, to purchase them and enjoy them in spite of the sexual violence, are we becoming part of the problem?

When I watch a TV show, I will turn it off if there is any sort of sexual violence in the first few episodes. The new season of American Horror Story? Gone. Never finished. The Americans? Dead to me. But Buffy? Or Battlestar Galactica? I kept watching, because the sexual violence didn’t happen until I was already in love with the characters and invested in their stories, which in some ways makes it so much worse.

So how far does our loyalty take us? Should I give up on books I’ve been reading for most of my life? Should I wave away fictional characters I love, because their creators crossed a line? I really don’t know.

I do know that someday, when I’m published, I don’t want to put my readers in this position. I don’t want to create a dilemma for a woman who grew up on my books or normalize rape for a preteen girl. I may have undeserved loyalty for certain authors and series, but I also have loyalty to myself, my someday-readers, my characters, and, above all, my principles.

So I ask you: How far is too far? How do you react when sexual violence bubbles up in your favorite series? What’s the right answer here?

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6 thoughts on “How Far Does Author Loyalty Carry Us?

  1. This is such a fantastic blog post.

    I read Outlander as an adult, and Claire’s rape was what made me put it down. I haven’t even finished A Breath of Snow and Ashes. Part of that has to do with the fact that I read it when I was recovering from my own rape, and I not only felt intensely triggered by it, but seeing Claire put through it felt like a deep betrayal. Martin’s books I also approached as an adult, as a survivor of sexual violence, and it was sort of a constant wearing-down that has kept me from reading further. I might return to them, but I might not. I’m still not sure.

    But you make an excellent point here about Buffy and Outlander both — ABOSA is what, six books in? Six DOORSTOP books in? Not everyone is as bothered by it, and even survivors all have varying levels of tolerance for seeing sexual violence depicted in fiction, but you’re very right: the issue is whether or not these things contribute to a culture where rape of women is an inevitability, a given, and it’s only a matter of when. I think to an extent, they do. We’ve referenced it before, but Seanan McGuire was asked point blank WHEN her characters would be subjected to this. It’s been retconned into superhero backstories. It’s ubiquitous.

    Having read early drafts of my novel, you know that I’ve since removed references to sexual violence. And we’ve talked multiple times about how both of us want to move into the Seanan McGuire camp: it’s not going to happen. Your bodily autonomy is safe with our characters.

    Part of me kind of does want to make a badge or something. Authors you can read without worrying characters you love will get raped….

    1. That’s a good point, the whole inevitability of it. You two are right (don’t know this Seanan McGuire fellow, will look him up). It definitely shouldn’t be a given.

  2. Oh, wow, that’s a hard one. And very true. I struggle with Martin’s work, too, for that same reason.

    I guess, maybe, we should step back and ask ourselves: Are these authors normalizing rape and/or sexual violence? Or are the authors reflecting what they see in society (or their fictional society which is influenced by our own, of course)? Does putting characters through it minimize it, or highlight a problem that most don’t even talk about?

    I remember the first time a saw a fictional rape on TV. It was in the 70s. My parents were watching a movie and before that, all five kids were watching some sitcom with them. When the movie in question came on, everyone was told to go to bed but I feigned a deep slumber and my mom left me sprawled across her lap. When the rape scene came (it didn’t show it all, but enough), it was shocking, and I looked up into my mother’s eyes. Tears ran down her face and I knew that it had happened to her. We never talked about it, but I knew. Watching that rape scene was traumatic, but it also made me more aware of sexual violence and how it hurt the people I love. In the movie, I think, the woman went on to testify in court against her husband, or something. I can’t remember the details, but the woman over came her fear of the man who had raped her. And, when the guy went to jail, I could tell that it affirmed something for my mother. Maybe she could never get justice, but she saw someone who did, and that took a little bit of the hurt away. And maybe gave her a bit more confidence to discuss it. If not with me (far too young at the time), with others.

    I do know that sexual violence is something that women do deal with, and we shouldn’t be surprised to see it show up in our fiction (like murder, theft, etc).

    I’m not saying that every piece of fiction should have it. Obviously, it shouldn’t. And I am not saying that the authors you noted know what they are doing when it come to portraying sexual violence, but rape is part of many women’s lives. It is definitely not something we need to focus on, but if we are trying to convey a character’s entire life, then it may come up. Whether you want to read about it or not,I guess, is entirely your preference.

    I prefer not to read it in my fiction either. It would be nice to read a long fantasy epic that doesn’t include every woman getting raped. So, you have one reader ready and waiting! 🙂

  3. Great post!
    I really do believe that media creators have a responsibility to create stuff that makes this world a better place. I don’t see any reason to write rape, abuse, war or any other type of violence into a story unless the author intends to DO something with it beyond moving the plot forward. It needs to be thought provoking, eye-opening, paradigm-shifting, cathartic, or healing for readers, otherwise it’s just emotional calisthenics.

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