Trigger warning: some talk of rape.
About a week ago, urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire wrote an excellent post in response to having been asked when, exactly, her heroines were going to be raped, because according to her interlocutor, not having that happen would be both unrealistic and disrespectful to her work. Her answer: never, for which she has rightly received an enormous amount of respect. Today, she’s followed her initial blog with a short post further clarifying her position, and which ends on the following note:
The other point I’d like to clarify is this: I’ve had a few people say that sexual violence should always be on the table simply because it’s so realistic for male villains to want to use that against female heroes. Well, in my two primary universes, I have feral pixies living in a San Francisco Safeway, and frogs with feathers. If a lack of “I will dominate you with my dick” is all that makes you think I’m being unrealistic, I want some of whatever you’re having.
Now, I agree wholeheartedly with this argument – but it’s also worth unpacking, because there’s a lot to be said about suspension of disbelief, the fourth wall, fantasy and worldbuilding that’s massively relevant to understanding why, exactly, it holds true. On the surface, for instance, it could be read as a contradiction of one of the basic tenets of writing good SFF: that the unreal elements of a given narrative are anchored and made plausible by the presence of realistic characterisation, plotting and what we might otherwise term as real-world logic. Wizards who behave like real, complex people are infinitely more believable than wizards whose cardboard wizardliness is presented as the justification for their lack of regular human variety. With few exceptions, good characterisation matters more in SFF than any other genre, because the realism of the characters and their actions must necessarily support our belief not only in their fictional existences, but in the plausibility of other elements we know logically to be impossible. Thus: if a given reader believes rape to be a realistic, logical inevitability under certain circumstances, then its absence from such a narrative will cause their suspension of disbelief to falter precisely because the presence of elves and unicorns isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to motive and characterisation. Even if they’re shapeshifters fighting dragon gods in space, the characters in an SFF narrative still have to read like real people.
Makes sense, right? But here’s the thing: neither human behaviour nor human culture are static, immovable constants, and that means our background understanding of human society – what the reader deems to be familiar, and therefore obviously real – is far from being an inviolate, perfect yardstick of human nature. And this is where a lot of readers are tripped up by their own biases and preconceptions about how the world works: they make the mistake of assuming that because (for instance) women in the medieval period held little or no political power, it’s therefore unrealistic to envisage a fictional medieval setting populated by female powerbrokers; as though their own understanding of human culture is identical to the limits of human culture. Never mind the fact that medieval female aristocrats most certainly played at politics, and that the widespread assumption of total female helplessness prior to the modern era is based primarily on an ignorant, simplistic, mythologised view of history: particularly when it comes to questions of gender, sexuality, race and power, many readers will simply assume that unfamiliar social paradigms are by definition unrealistic paradigms, and react to their inclusion with anything from bafflement to outright hostility.
I’ll say it again: your personal understanding of human culture is not synonymous with the limits of human culture; it is not even necessarily accurate, if certain widespread forms of ignorance are anything to go by. Yes, the writer still has to convince you that their version of reality is plausible, but that’s a near-impossible task if you, the audience, have got it into your head that certain familiar patterns, actions and stereotypes are fundamentally intrinsic to human reality rather than being the arbitrary consequences of a specific history, society or culture. A failure to appreciate this fact is why so many people freaked out about Idris Elba being cast as Heimdall; why half the internet is routinely baffled by the presence of a black Guinevere in Merlin; why the presence of female cavalry in an RPG setting is apparently enough for people to call bullshit on the whole endeavour; why you have people like R. Scott Bakker saying that writing strong female characters is a ‘bootstrapping illusion’ that’s inimical to reality; why, over and over and over again, we balk at accepting fictional realities that subvert our most deeply-held cultural biases, not because they’re poorly written or badly characterised, but because we can’t get past the idea that a world where the heroine doesn’t get raped is somehow fundamentally less plausible than a world full of faeries.
Because that’s what it ultimately boils down to: that all too often, we’re only willing to accept the existence of the impossible provided it doesn’t upset our assumptions about the primacy of the familiar. That’s why sexism, racism and homophobia so often end up as narrative defaults: because we forget to see them as mutable, rather than inevitable, even when they’re things we actively disdain. Yet even if you really do believe in the impossibility of functional, real-world cultures that reject racism, sexism, homophobia and the like, or which are otherwise alien to the familiar, the original question still stands: provided they’re well-written, why should their inclusion in a narrative be any less acceptable than the presence of other impossible things, like magic and dragons? We restrict our understanding of escapism at our peril. And who knows? Many inventions that were once thought impossible had their genesis in SFF, so why not social mores, too? To borrow a quote from Carl Sandburg, nothing happens unless first a dream - and we who defy your concept of the familiar? We are dreaming, too.