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.

  1. I hate how people assume that no one other than white cismen ever deserves to dream about people like them prevailing against impossible odds. Also, I don’t suppose it’s occurred to people that in a world where magic exists, maybe it doesn’t make quite as much sense as they think it does for women to be oppressed — especially if women have magic, too.

    Also, who the fuck reads a book and thinks “when is someone going to be raped?” Who the FUCK does that? Gross.

  2. mmromance says:

    I must agree, anyone who reads a book and thinks “When is someone going to be raped?” has pretty severe issues.

  3. Daniela says:

    I wonder how many male writers writing about male characters have ever been asked when their male characters are ever going to be raped. But I also wonder about the person who asked that question. I actually prefer books were the female either doesn’t get raped or somehow manages to escape by knowing self-defense or simply being that powerful or by simply knowing how to avoid potentionally threatening situations.

    Another thing is also the assumption that it’s the villain who has to do the raping. Most statistics actually make it clear that the most common rapist are people the women know, like friends, boyfriends, husbands, co-workers and so on. So theoretically the most potintional rapist in a story should be the hero.

    I absolutely agree with you on the complexity of human culture. Depending on the world-building in Fantasy or SF it’s entirely possible to create a world that does not have a rape society and where women can take the autonomy of their own bodies for granted. Just like there are worlds where situational male rape would be a possibility yet most writers don’t write it and I doubt they ever get asked why their character wasn’t raped.

    This whole assumption of female hero = has to raped to emotioanlly grow is just sickening. There are other challenges a character can face.

    The Heimdall-thing always cracks me up. Of all the things to focus on… in a comic-adaptation. What about the fact that in mythology Laufey is actually female? Or Loki Odin’s best friend and not his ‘adoptive’ son? Or that the Vikings made it all the way to Africa and maybe Heimdall was ‘adopted’ ;-).

  4. Byghan says:

    I too am utterly baffled and gobsmacked by the idea that the only way a male villan can attack a woman is sexually for it to be ‘believable’ – however, I am more sympathetic to confusion about a PoC as Guinevere. It messes with my head because my reading of the welsh word guin/gwen etc. is derived from the same root as blonde/white (which is totally and unashamedly linked to the word fair – meaning both pale and beautiful) – I like that mindfuck because it reminds me how influenced by language we can be

    • fozmeadows says:

      To be honest, I find it massively disingenuous when people start bringing up what the name Guinevere literally means as a defense against why the character can’t be black, because seriously: even back in the day, not everyone was given a name purely because its meaning doubled as a descriptor. Then as now, some names were chosen for family reasons, for aesthetics, or because they were aspirational, well-omened, or popular. My first name, Philippa, means ‘lover of horses’ – does that mean it would be unrealistic to have a TV character called Philippa who was played by an equinophobe? Of course not. Byron means ‘born by the cowshed’, but I’m pretty sure Lord Byron never let that hold him back from being an aristocrat. Not every Rufus in history has been red-headed, nor has every Calvin been bald. So basically their argument boils down to, ‘People called Guinevere can’t be black, even in fiction, because the name means white.’ Which, um. NO.

      Back when that godawful King Arthur movie with Keira Knightly came out in 2004, how many people complained about the fact that the entire fucking premise was based on the idea that the knights were really Samaritans – that is to say, from the Middle East – but still somehow had Welsh names and white skin? Pretty much nobody, because no racists were bothered by the idea that you could say that the ‘real’ Knights of the Round Table were from Jordan and indulge in the supposed historical authenticity of that theory while simultaneously keeping the characters white. Nobody cared that they made Guinevere a Pict, either, which was actually a pretty cool departure from the canon; the whole thing was a badly-scripted mess, but the point is, there was no outcry about what the names really meant or their country of orogin or how the actors were the wrong colour, because as long as everyone was white, the audience didn’t give a shit. But create a well-loved, popular YA show with magic and mayhem and a black princess, and suddenly the whole internet is up in arms about historical accuracy, even though the majority of them would never otherwise view it as a relevant factor.

      • Byghan says:

        I don’t know if you quite see what I meant – I was pointing out that the fact that the name suggests a particular thing in literature really is often deliberate (especially in medieval lit) and thats why its good to play with those ideas, to change them about and to re-use them.
        I do think of red-heads when I hear rufus or rory as a name – that doesn’t mean that the person has to be red-haired but simply tells me something about my own understanding of the word. I like it best when literary names mean something within the story but not necessarily what you expect.. I like to be challenged in my ideas

        • Byghan says:

          I totally take your point about people objecting to a Name on canonical basis without objecting to other points that don’t fit..
          And I do think that it is ridiculous to suddenly have a hissy fit about her skin colour just because she is a major character going round with a life and opinion of her own; I don’t feel it makes it less plausible but personally it jolts me more into noticing the character whereas I don’t think I had ever noticed rape was ‘missing’ from a storyline

      • Daniela says:

        There are a few interpretations of the name Guinevere that say it means Gwen the Bigger (and her younger sister was named Gwen the Smaller) which woudl follow a more Roman tradition of naming children.

        And honestly by the time Merlin runs past the first Fleur de Lys historical accuracy is shot to hell anyway. Not to mention the attempt of having historical accuracy in any version of the Arthurian legend.

        I just love Angel Coulby in Merlin and think it was great casting. Just like I like the complete and whole re-interpretation of the mythology.

        It reminds me a bit of the comic Camelot 3000 where several of the knights were characters of color (one was Asian, another African) and Tristan was reborn as female. It was the first comic I ever read that also touched the topic of homosexuality.

      • One of the Knights of the Round Table was actively and canonically a black Muslim prince from the Middle East. I don’t watch Merlin or follow the fandom, but I’d be interested in seeing them react to Sir Palamedes. He had some popular younger brothers – Sir Segwarides and Sir Safir – and their stories were widely enjoyed in their time, although people don’t really remember the Saracen Brothers in modern adaptations.

  5. I tend to think that most rape scenes are a form of lazy witing. I imagine the author thinking “How can I traumatise my female character and show her helplessness? Ah ha! I will have her raped.”

    I wrote about it(along with other aspects of sex in literature) in a blog post a couple of years ago:

  6. I couldn’t agree more with you and with McGuire. To reinforce your points (and to complete an earlier discussion you and I had), I wrote about this issue in SF/F from a different angle: That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle,

    Fuqua’s Arthur was a mishmash, but I liked the mention of the Pelagian issue, and Guinevere shown as a Pict. However, although the general point about non-white heroes is valid, the knights in that film were not Samaritans but Sarmatians: horsepeople from the steppes by the north shore of the Black Sea. Most definitely not Middle Easterners. The Sarmatians primary military was heavy cavalry, unlike the Romans, and the Romans did move populations they had subdued to prevent uprisings. Genetic evidence supports Fuqua’s theory, though it doesn’t prove it.

  7. […] seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible […]

  8. Callan says:

    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.

    You’ve treated your own prefered fantasy quotent as being the other persons preference as well. Seanan McGuire seems to embrace she is not gunning for a high percentage of realism in her work – and okay, that’s her choice.

    What your arguing that if a reader has dragons or fairies in the book they read, then what they want is complete or near complete fantasy. No, that’s up to the individual reader – it’s as false as the opposite notion that if someone argued that if you have characters who can die of thirst or die from falling from a cliff (real life things), then that person aught not want any dragons or fairies in their story (as if they should not want any amount of fantasy at all in their stories).

    If someone likes having a fairy or two in their story, it doesn’t mean they want no realism in their story at all. If some character goes without drinking water for a week and does not die, just because some fairies are in the story doesn’t mean the reader just has to accept that. If they dislike that, that book just fails to meet their prefered reality quotant.

    I’m not sure why some person would ask when rape WILL happen. But at the same time I’m not sure why some author will say it CAN’T happen (in a story that covers some amount of realism), as if some hand of god blocks it from existance. The more a reader wants realism in, the more there is a reflection of unfortunate reality. Granted, do books that cover some amount of realism cover things like the RL road toll, where peoples sons and daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands and wives are mangled in twisted wrecks of steel on the roads? Not that much. Maybe even rape is used as a dodge to avoid looking at legitimised killing on the roads? Mind you, I went for a job interview at an emergency call center once and they talked about friday nights being the worst. The manner of fact way the trainer (a woman. Nice lady, actually) mentioned the rapes and murders called in then, chilled me.

    If you don’t want to let that realism get into your fiction, I get that. I try to forget what the call center trainer said, after all. But just because other people want a dragon or two, doesn’t mean they don’t want any realism at all.

    • Brendan Podger says:

      What you need to explain to me to justify what you are saying is why a woman being raped in a story equates with “realism”.

      Is it possible for a book to be “realistic” if it doesn’t feature the debasement of a female character?

  9. […] like our world?” Abercrombie asks. “That’s only honesty.” And that’s often a fair point to make, when it comes to fantasy. But I find it extremely telling that while he goes on to apply this rule […]

  10. […] one can’t change human nature and always needs to portray it accurately.  This has been addressed better by other people; I’ll touch on it when I get to the second […]

  11. […] would be raped (You read that right. Not if, when). She responded “never.” Foz Meadows links to that post and McGuire’s follow-up (she got a lot of WTF responses to the […]

  12. […] might seem at first blush, this is not a wholly ironic complaint: as I’ve recently had cause to explain elsewhere, the plausibility of SFF stories is derived in large part from their ability to make the impossible […]

  13. […] accusing Baker of being a rape apologist in real life, just of using similar logic). As Foz Meadows says, it’s assuming their is only one inevitable way men and women (or any other groups) can […]

  14. […] any comics event shows there are plenty of super-hero fans. As for A, Foz Meadows argues well here that being confined by “this is the way society is” is exactly that confining. And, of […]

  15. […] as I’ve said before, is a problem. Particularly in SFF, we’re used to the idea that unreal elements […]

  16. […] also inclined to paraphrase Foz Meadows: if we can accept a character who melts steel with his eyes, shrugs off missile fire and can […]

  17. Lúthien says:

    I’m sorry to reply so late. I stumbled across this post in an attempt to find alternatives for the position that is currently _en vogue_: that, for fantasy, it is good to be not just rooted in reality, but even limited by reality.

    I love your post! And I couldn’t agree more, except that I would like to comment on the point about the desirability of fantasy being anchored in real-world logic.

    Of course there must be _something_ in a fantasy story for the reader / viewer to latch on to, but I don’t think that that _something_ should necessarily be that it’s not too far removed, logic-wise, from the primary reality. To use JRR Tolkien’s terms: fantasy features an _arresting strangeness_ that the reader either accepts or rejects. If they accept it, the result is the suspension of disbelief.

    Whether or not that happens depends on the quality of that strangeness and the preferences of the reader. Many resist being arrested at all: they dislike any meddling with the primary reality.
    The writer is responsible for the quality of the strangeness: in Tolkien’s ‘On Fairy-Stories’, he is quite outspoken about what makes a ‘true’ fairy-story (or fantasy). According to him, quite a substantial part of what is considered ‘fairy-stories’ does not qualify as such: he talks about allegories, moral tales and a number of other categories that all share this: that they remain bound by the primary reality. They don’t break free.

    A true fairy-story derives from (he writer’s) own experience in Faërie (Tolkien’s word for the inner imaginative realm) and should invite the reader to enter into that realm.
    Such a story can thus arrest the reader _*despite*_ not being bound by reality. It is stronger than that reader’s innate resistance to let that happen. It is a combination of the ability of the writer to enter into that imaginative realm and their skill to convey that well enough for the reader to drop their guard and, consequently, their disbelief. Only then can the story truly break free.

    I hardly see any of this ‘magic’ happening in modern fantasy. Rather the opposite. Many even argue that the more a story is bound to the primary reality, the better. It seems to me that those who resist _being arrested_ – who denounce “fantasy” as frivolous nonsense – are the most ardent supporters of the “grimdark” trope: _it can’t be good if it isn’t bleak, dark and gritty._ They are the jailers who want to keep your mind locked inside the prison of primary reality.

    I think it’s essentially a defeat if a writer has to resort to “just like reality!”. It means that they’re no longer writing fantasy; they are writing fiction. Adding swords, dragons and the ubiquitous medieval setting doesn’t change that.

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