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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Let Women Speak for Women: How John Scalzi Pissed Me Off

About a month ago, Seanan McGuire (of October Daye fame) wrote a kickass blog post about things she will never, ever do to her characters. She wrote about why she will never write a sexual assault in her novels and how disappointing it is that certain subsets of her readership might expect that to happen. It made the internet rounds, it circulated over Twitter, and it probably even percolated into the Reddit circle of hell.

But, to my knowledge, it didn’t reach the upper stratosphere of male SFF novelist bloggers.

On Friday, Patrick Rothuss shared on Facebook a blog post by John Scalzi called “A Fan Letter to Certain Conservative Politicians.” The essay is a sort of Swiftian satire written from the perspective of a rapist writing to the politicians:

Every time you say ‘I oppose a woman’s right to abortion, even in cases of rape,’ what you’re also saying is ‘I believe that a man who rapes a woman has more of a right to control a woman’s body and life than that woman does.’

It really boils down to that: these wealthy white politicians are saying that ANY man, from rapists to men in power have the right to control women’s lives and bodies. And those man get off on that knowledge.

It’s true. It’s totally true. But by writing this post from this perspective, Scalzi takes control of an issue that belongs almost exclusively to women. He is using his louder megaphone, as a internet-powerful guy, to speak on our behalf.

He’s not alone. Joss Whedon is extolled far and wide as a great feminist, but his strong female characters are inevitably subject to rape and abuse. (*coughBuffyandSpikecough*). And I love Rothfuss for writing strong female characters, but I didn’t see him sharing—or even noticing—Seanan McGuire’s post on a similar topic.

Don’t get me wrong. If I ever meet Scalzi, I’ll give him a high five and buy him a beer. If I meet Rothfuss, I’ll squee and give him hugs. If I meet Whedon, I’ll faint dead away.

But here’s what rubs me the wrong way: in spite of their best intentions, they’re perpetuating the problem.

Scalzi, Rothfuss, and Whedon are—right now—wealthy(ish) white men writing about problems only women face. They are exhibiting the male control they castigate by fighting our fight. I’m not ungrateful, but I’m frustrated that the strongest plays in the feminist fight are coming from men… and even these men don’t seem interested in what women have to say.

They’re taking away our right to fight the good fight.

When women write these posts, they’re quietly applauded, loudly criticized, or just ignored as regurgitating feminist vitriol. So when men like Scalzi step up to the plate, we praise them high and low, and the merits of their argument ring across the internet.

All because they have the lucky position of being a privileged white man writing on behalf of women.

“That’s awesome,” we say, “that they’re using their power to defend women’s rights.”

And it IS. IT IS.

But shouldn’t we women be fighting our own corner? Shouldn’t we be writing the satire? Shouldn’t posts like Seanan McGuire’s be shared all across Facebook and Tweeted with the vengeance of a hundred thousand little blue birds? Shouldn’t one powerful woman be sharing the post of another powerful woman and starting the discussion that way? Instead, I, a woman, found wrote through the internet-fu of one man a post written by another man.

Lots of women write about this issue. I’ve written about feminist woes in fantasy, my friend Emmie Mears has written about women in fantasy and rape issues; but of course, we’re not famous (yet). Yet Seanan McGuire’s series is highly successful, and the male writers talking about feminism and women’s rights don’t even seem to pick up on what she has to say. They’d rather listen to themselves rant and then congratulate each other on their own feminist virtues.

It’s maddening.

Let’s change this. Let’s share the posts that women write. Let Scalzi host a woman on his popular blog. Let Whedon write a female character who never falls prey to violence from a man. Let’s hear from Jane Espenson on the topic. Let’s take back our own goddamned fight and make our own arguments. We don’t need rich white men taking away our rights or trying to give them back to us.

What do you think, readers? Do you think these men should stop trying to ‘save’ women, or do you like having a champion?

Image via HuffingtonPost.com

edit: 8 p.m. EDT
Well, the name calling and threats have started in the moderation queue. We’ve all had our fun, but I think it’s time we take a breather. I’m turning the comments off for the evening.