Posts Tagged ‘Sexual Assault’

Trigger warning: this entire post is about rape.

I don’t want to talk about the US election. I’m neither American nor resident in America, but the thought of Cheeto Voldemort being elected president is still stressing me right the fuck out. If I had the emotional energy, I could write a lengthy essay on why that is, but I’m not that big of a masochist. This¬†is only about the Republican nominee in a peripheral sense, viz: the extent to which his platform has necessitated endless new conversations about sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape and rape culture.

Because the argument that comes up time and again, over and over, in specific reference to women being assaulted by men, is this, or some permutation of it: but men are just wired that way. It’s evolution, instinct, a biological impulse to ensure the continuation of the species. Women just don’t understand testosterone, how hard it is for men to stop when they get going, to look but not touch, to restrain themselves. If women did understand, they wouldn’t act or dress like temptations, they’d see why they need to¬†submit to the needs of their husbands and partners while remaining modest and chaste around other men. It’s just a fact of life.

Here is my response to that argument: bullshit.  

Has there ever been a stranger hermeneutical alliance than the one between Evangelical puritanism and red pill evopsychology? The only thing they share¬†is a deeply entrenched misogyny: the idea that men are fundamentally entitled to do what they like with women in general, and women’s bodies in particular, because of something that happened at the dawn of human history. Nitpick all you want about the distinction between a cherished possession and a disposable object: they’re both still forms of dehumanisation. And so, as a consequence, the working definition of rape¬†within those groups is whittled down to a horrifying nub. Under this schema, marital rape doesn’t exist; yes once means yes forever, and possessions in any case cannot say no. Corrective rape isn’t rape at all, but medicine: a therapeutic treatment for abnormality or recalcitrance. The only rape that functionally matters to such people could be better classed as a combination of theft and destruction of property: one man’s assault on something possessed by another, and therefore an insult to him above everything else (the woman herself is largely incidental, except inasmuch as she represents his status).

(If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, he said, perhaps I’d be dating her. He said,¬†Grab them by the pussy. When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Or almost anything, even if you’re not famous. Serving three months of six a month rape sentence is, we’re told, a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.)

So let’s set the record straight, shall we?

Rape doesn’t happen because men are inherently programmed to rape; if it did, there’d be no such thing as a female rapist, and no such thing as a man who’d never struggled not to rape, let alone failed to contemplate it. Rape doesn’t happen because of a biological instinct for procreation; if it did, there’d be no such thing as the rape of pregnant women, the paedophilic rape of children, the rape of the elderly, oral rape or anal rape or any other form of rape that can’t possibly result in a future child; no rape where the rapist bothered to use a condom, or rape where the rapist knew his victim was on birth control. Rape doesn’t happen because women are drunk or dressed immodestly; if it did, then sober, modestly-dressed women, like¬†nuns and Muslimahs¬†in hijabs and burqas, would never be victims. Rape doesn’t happen because women are allowed to interact with men to whom they’re not related; if it did, there’d be no such thing as incestuous rape, the rape¬†of children by adult family members or abuse¬†between siblings¬†or cousins. Rape doesn’t happen because it’s impossible for men to stop having sex once they’ve started; if it did, there’d be no such thing as men who stop¬†when a partner changes their mind, let alone men who change their minds themselves. Rape doesn’t happen as an inevitable consequence of men and women working or socialising together; if it did, then situational rape in all male or predominantly male environments, like armies and prisons¬†and boarding schools and clergical settings, wouldn’t happen; nor would it¬†be possible for women to rape other women.

Rape happens because rapists decide to rape. That’s it.¬†End of story. Period.

The rapist’s decision can be opportunistic or premeditated. Sometimes, the¬†rapist understands that what they’re doing is rape. Sometimes, the rapist tries to justify their actions¬†to avoid that understanding, whether by blaming the victim, claiming their assault was somehow necessary or inevitable or a thing they were entitled to do, or dismissing the consequences of it as unimportant. Sometimes,¬†the rapist doesn’t realise that they’re a rapist – because their victim froze up and stopped fighting and they figured that was as good as a yes; because nobody ever told them that getting a girl too drunk to say no and fucking her while she’s unconscious is rape, not something to high five about the next morning; because they think of rape as a stranger in the bushes, not one partner pressuring another until they give in and lie still for something they didn’t want; because they’ve failed to connect their understanding of the crime to the fact of their own actions. That some rapists genuinely don’t realise that they’re rapists – that learning otherwise can appal them after the fact – is a tragedy of culture and education both. Even so, the lack of malicious intention no more stops it from being rape than a careless driver’s lack of callousness stops them from committing vehicular manslaughter. It might impact what happens afterwards – sentencing, the ability of those who were hurt to move on with their lives – but it doesn’t change what we call the crime itself, let alone prevent it from being a criminal action. Rape is rape is rape. I shouldn’t have to say it, but I do.

We all do.

Rapists rape because they see their victim as a conquest or an object, not a person; because they care more about their own pleasure than their victim’s consent; because they want to control or punish or dominate someone who can’t fight back; because they don’t think they’ll get caught; because they feel entitled to someone else’s body; because they get off on the idea of being able to take what they want by force; because they don’t think anyone in general, or the victim in particular, should be allowed to say no to them; because they see their victim, or their victim’s body, as a means to an end; because they think that wanting something badly enough entitles them to take it by force; because they want to reinforce the victim’s (in their eyes) lesser status; because they want to believe that it’s all¬†for the victim’s own good. These are not reasons in the literal sense, because rape is never a reasoned action, however extensively premeditated or calmly executed it might be; rather, they are justifications, excuses¬†produced to defend the indefensible.

Because rape, whatever the rapist claims, invariably boils down to just three motives: power, control and dehumanisation. A rapist thinks, I am stronger than you; therefore, I can do what I want Рthat is power. A rapist thinks, I am more important than you; therefore, I can do what I want to you Рthat is control. A rapist thinks, I am more human than you; therefore, I can do what I want to you and feel I am justified. Рthat is dehumanisation. Everything on top of that is a lie constructed to cast their actions in a better light, whether internally or in the eyes of others, or to make the victim doubt themselves.

If rape is only ever about biology and bodies and a primal male response to the sight of tempting womanflesh – if rape is only ever an impulse, never a calculated act intended to¬†hurt or degrade another person – then nobody would ever threaten a stranger with rape because of something they said or did or wrote; it would simply make no sense. The very act of making a rape threat belies the claim, often made by the very same person in the very same breath, that rape is an ungovernable impulse, just as claiming¬†that someone is “too ugly to rape” belies the adjacent belief¬†that rapists don’t choose their victims. The whole genre of rape-as-threat-and-insult, in fact, completely undermines every “moral” or “scientific” excuse such adherents invariably employ when subsequently challenged to defend themselves. If rape can be used as a threat or a punishment, then clearly, it can arise from calculated viciousness, and isn’t just an accident of nature. If rape is awful and vile enough that you routinely wish it on your worst enemies, then clearly, we’re within our grounds to consider it a serious crime.

Rape is rape. It is not biology, and it certainly isn’t morality.¬†Learn the fucking difference.

Pun intentional.

 

 

Warning: All the spoilers for Supernatural, especially Season 10. Trigger warning: discussion of rape.

The first time I tried to watch Supernatural, I gave up midway through the first episode, irked¬†by the show’s highly stereotyped portrayal of women. Though I subsequently found myself sucked back in by the promise of the premise and lead characters both – and while I’ve never been shy about my affection for the show overall –¬†the range and treatment of female characters in the first nine seasons has, with few exceptions, remained disappointing.

Traditionally, Supernatural¬†has¬†used¬†the deaths of women as emotional motivators in the developmental arcs of its male protagonists, all of whose pasts are littered with female loss. Beginning with Mary Winchester and Jessica Moore in the very first episode, the body count steadily ratchets up, claiming established characters like Ellen and Jo Harvelle, Bela Talbot, Ava Wilson, Pamela Barnes, Anna Milton, Meg Masters and Ruby alongside women whose connection to the Winchesters, or to other male characters, is frequently rendered equivalent to wearing a red shirt in Star Trek.¬†Sarah Blake, Madison, Tessa, Emma, Karen Singer, Channing Ngo and Gwen Campbell, to name just a few, all die to amp up the emotional tension for the boys, and while Dean’s girlfriend, Lisa Braeden, escapes alive, the fact that she does so with her memories wiped denies her any agency in the decision.

Though undoubtedly a show whose male characters also die in staggering numbers – getting close to Sam and Dean Winchester is practically a death sentence, regardless of gender – Supernatural has also tended to offer its men both a higher chance of resurrection and a wider range of characterisation, and when you couple this fact with the highly sexist language of the early seasons in particular, it’s easy to see why the majority female fanbase has often felt, if not underappreciated, then certainly misunderstood by the show’s creators. The fact that the series was originally intended to attract a male audience – a fact incorporated into¬†early meta episodes like ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ (5.9), which portrayed the fanbase for the Supernatural books as predominantly male – goes some way towards explaining this; the creators expected one type of audience and found themselves with another.¬†This does not, however,¬†excuse the treatment of the female characters, even early on: a story may be intended by its creators to be male-oriented without disrespecting, stereotyping or belittling either women or femininity, and vice versa (though our frequent failure to make such a distinction is of a piece with the rest of our cultural baggage around gender roles, and looks to remain so for some time).

Yet slowly but surely, Supernatural has begun to catch up to its own audience, introducing recurring female characters like Charlie Bradbury, Jodie Mills and Donna Hanscum, and making a (mostly) sincere attempt to engage with its fans on topics like queerbaiting, shipping, diversity¬†and sexism. Which isn’t to say the dialogue isn’t prone to insensitivity, missteps and¬†one-sided preaching, or that all parties¬†have always been respectful of one another; the conflicting opinions run too deep for that, and after ten years on the air, three different showrunners and the omnipresent spectre of network approval as a meddling factor, the various camps – both within the fanbase and the show itself – are entrenched enough that sometimes, agreeing to disagree is as close to a compromise as can be managed.

Undeniably, one of, if not the most contentious such¬†issue is the question of Dean Winchester’s sexual orientation. With a significant portion of the internet¬†currently revelling in the popularity of Dean and Castiel’s still-apparently-platonic relationship – according to tumblr’s year-end statistics, Destiel is now the most popular ‘ship on a site with somewhere between 30 and 50 million users, while multiple media outlets, including¬†Buzzfeed, MTV¬†and¬†TV Guide,¬†have all described them as a romantic couple – the fact that the pair have shared the screen¬†in only two of the current season’s nine episodes hasn’t gone unnoticed, leading to rampant speculation about what this might mean, given that the show’s 200th episode, ‘Fan Fiction’ (10.5), expressly mentions Destiel as a concept. (And with the recent confirmation of a canon romance¬†between the two lead female characters of Avatar: The Legend of Korra¬†– a relationship heavily and deliberately inferred throughout the show, but never made explicit due to network pressures – the question of Destiel, and of how we distinguish ‘romantic’ vs ‘platonic’ relationships on screen between same sex couples where PDAs are verboten, seems more pertinent than ever.)

Which is perhaps why Season 10 of Supernatural has, in some quarters, been met with a critical reception not dissimilar to that of Season 8 of The X-Files, when viewer anxiety over the fate of Agent Fox Mulder, absent and presumed dead until the finale, lead to the dismissal of a narrative arc that was otherwise much stronger than that of the preceding Season 7. Indeed, one of the reasons that rewatching a film or rereading a book is not only emotionally satisfying, but (I would argue) critically necessary, is that the context in which we encounter a story¬†can dramatically alter our perception of it. Though TV shows air week to week, with the distribution of episodes frequently spaced around one or more season breaks, they are still constructed as narrative wholes, and as such,¬†there’s a world of difference between watching the finished product unspoiled, as it airs, and watching the same episodes spoiled, in a glut, or for the second time. That being so, anyone watching the first half of Season 10 of Supernatural in tense¬†anticipation of Dean/Cas interactions – and it’s hardly a small number of fans who are thus invested¬†– may well have been, not only¬†disappointed, but actively frustrated. Apart from ‘Soul Survivor’ (10.3) and ‘The Things We Left Behind’ (10.9), Dean and Castiel are kept apart, moving along narrative trajectories that not only failed to intersect, but which saw both of them romantically engaged, however fleetingly, with different women.

On the Destiel front, then, Season 10 has thus far been slow going. But despite the wider implications of Dean and Castiel’s relationship, it would be a grave mistake – and even, I’d go so far as to say, an actual injustice – to judge the latest season purely through this lens. Because not only is Season 10 steadily unfolding a coherent, engaging narrative arc built, unlike the melodramatic angel wars of Season 9, on the importance of human relationships, it’s also doing something utterly unprecedented in the history of Supernatural: it’s wholeheartedly handing the reins to the women, and doing so with a respect, a sincerity and a deftness of touch that’s all the more powerful for coming from a show with such firmly¬†sexist beginnings. It’s a tonal shift so profound and omnipresent across every single episode as to be inarguably deliberate, and when taken as a whole, the effect is gamechanging.

To give a sense of the extent of the shift, while only 20.93% of episodes across the first eight seasons passed the Bechdel Test, and with Season 9 not much better, the pass rate for Season 10 thus far is 100%. That’s a staggering improvement even before you get to actual context of the episodes themselves, and once you do, the results are even more profound. There simply isn’t another way to put it: Season 10 of Supernatural¬†is fundamentally invested in discussing issues of sexism, gender roles¬†and female agency, and has managed to do this without either retconning the main characters, turning them into white knights or changing¬†the tone of the show, and if that’s not an endeavour worthy of praise, then I don’t know what is.

Right from the outset, sexist and misogynistic behaviour is actively subjected to criticism. In¬†‘Black’ (10.1), Demon!Dean is shown to be in a sexual relationship with Ann Marie, a waitress at a bar. When her ex shows up and corners her, Dean violently beats him, his aggression fuelled by the Mark of Cain – but though Dean tries to pass his actions off as chivalrous – ‘I protected your honour, didn’t I?’ – Ann Marie calls him out. ‘Seeing you take on Matt,’ she says, ‘I was like, no one’s ever done that for me before. But then you kept going and going, and I realised whatever is going on with you has nothing to do with my honour at all.’¬†They argue, and Dean eventually responds by calling Ann Marie a ‘skank’ – but again, she gets the last word, leaving the audience¬†in no doubt as to how unacceptably she’s being treated: ‘Now, see? I’m so screwed up myself I’m gonna walk out of here thinking I actually deserved that.’

Similarly, in ‘Reichenbach’ (10.2), we see Demon!Dean at a strip club, where he touches a dancer without permission, then beats up the bouncer who comes to her rescue, his behaviour¬†presented as a consequence of the Mark of Cain. Yet in the same episode, when Crowley sends Dean to kill the cheating wife of a man, Lester, who sold his soul for the hit, Dean ends up killing Lester instead, disgusted by¬†his misogynistic double standards – he wants his wife dead because of her infidelity, yet freely confesses to having cheated first, because ‘It’s different when guys¬†do it.’ In an episode that’s expressly about Dean’s ambiguous moral status – sometimes demonic, yet sometimes not; enough so that Crowley yells at him to ‘Pick a bloody side!’ – it’s not an accident that Dean’s disrespect of women is presented as demonic, while his championing of them hints at his humanity. Elsewhere in the same episode, angel Hannah goes to visit the imprisoned villain, Metatron, who taunts her in an aggressively sexist fashion, leering as he refers to the ‘white-hot spark’ between them and describing her as ‘desperate to be dominated’.¬†¬†Hannah responds, very satisfyingly, by slamming Metatron’s face into the bars of his cell, and while Castiel is present for some of their exchange, it’s notable that Hannah is the one given the satisfaction of responding to Metatron’s abuse, just as Ann Marie was given the space to name and shame Dean’s cruelty.

This respect for female agency is pivotal to the season’s success: though misogyny is consistently entangled with villainy across all nine episodes, its status as an expressly gendered form of abuse, rather than just another type of evil, is always made clear, while the women it affects are, without fail, validated in their responses. Though Sam, Dean and Castiel are far from bystanders, over and over and over again, Season 10 gives us women who save themselves and each other, and whose cathartic moments of confrontation aren’t stolen by the boys. In ‘Paper Moon’ (10.4), it’s returning werewolf Kate who ultimately kills her renegade sister Tasha, not the Winchesters, while both the captured women in ‘Fan Fiction’ (10.5) and their showrunning friends are treated as equal participants in the defeat of the goddess Calliope, their right to interpret the Supernatural stories validated by both Dean and – more pertinently – Chuck.

Which isn’t to say that women are consistently saints through Season 10; far from it. Along with Tasha and Calliope, we’re also given other female villains in the form of renegade angel Adina, shapeshifter Olivia and the witch Rowena, Crowley’s long-lost mother and a likely candidate for the season’s Big Bad. Additionally, in ‘Ask Jeeves’ (10.6), we’re also given Heddy and Beverly, older women who make an effort to foist themselves on Sam despite his obvious discomfort. Though their characterisation is part and parcel of the episode’s Cluedo theme of stereotypical socialites in a murder mansion, it’s one of the few sour notes as regards the season’s portrayal of gender; not because the women are sexually confident, but because they repeatedly ignore Sam’s boundaries in a way that’s played for laughs without being called out as inappropriate, their eagerness and age presented as¬†justification to view them as comic.

The fact that this is the only instance of demonstrable sexism that goes unchallenged in the season* is striking: a blind spot on the part of writers who are otherwise making a clear effort. But then, Sam being assaulted by women for laughs is a running joke in Supernatural, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why it snuck through unchallenged: prior to the events of ‘Ask Jeeves’, there was his drugging by and marriage to Becky Rosen, his longtime stalker, in ‘Season Seven, Time For A Wedding!’ (7.8) and his groping by Gertrude Case (also an older woman) in ‘Red Sky at Morning’ (3.6).¬†What makes this gag even more objectionable in Sam’s case, however, is the fact that he is, canonically, a victim of rape – a revelation¬†made explicit in ‘Hello, Cruel World’ (7.2), when he hallucinates Lucifer calling him ‘bunkmate’ and reminiscing about their time in the Cage, when Sam was ‘[his] bitch, in every sense of the word’. There is literally no other way to interpret this than as an admission of rape, and yet this detail¬†is never addressed again. Instead, Sam continues to be assaulted for laughs – because undesirable women wanting him is funny; because their touching him despite his discomfort is apparently even funnier – and while his experience with specific tortures demonstrably triggers him at other times, sexual assault, for all that it happens repeatedly, never does.

That being said, in all other respects, Season 10 endeavours to be sensitive on the subject of sexual abuse. In ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ (10.7), when Sam and Dean encounter a demon-run brothel, it’s significant that the phrase used to describe the treatment of the (human) women is ‘forced prostitution’, rather than simply prostitution alone – a pivotal distinction between choice and coercion. Again, the emphasis on female agency comes to the fore: when her pimp is tricked into a confrontation with the Winchesters, it’s Shaylene who responds to his misogynistic abuse by killing him, and while this cuts short the interrogation, she still manages to provide the necessary information on her own initiative. Elsewhere, two other women, Catlin and Elle, are ‘rescued’ from similar circumstances by Rowena, whose magical abuse soon leads to Elle’s death. But when Rowena tries to talk Catlin into sticking with her, praising her as ‘strong’ while calling Elle¬†‘weak’,¬†Catlin responds by agreeing that yes, she is strong – at which point, she punches Rowena in the face and walks away. Adding a further layer to their interactions is the fact that, prior to Elle’s death, Rowena tries to manipulate the women into trusting her by taking them to a fancy restaurant. When the head waiter snobs Catlin and Elle because of their clothes, Rowena casts a spell to make him do their bidding, and while her motives are unquestionably selfish¬†and cruel – like Elle, the waiter dies – this is nonetheless another instance¬†of sexism (Elle and Catlin are upset by the waiter’s attitude, then happy at being allowed to stay) that’s flagged as such in the narrative.

Further fleshing out the depiction of female agency in ‘Girls, Girls, Girls’ is Hannah’s decision to let her vessel, Caroline, return to her husband. Throughout the season, we’ve seen Hannah struggle to understand humanity and human feelings in much the same way that Castiel once did; she experiments with her body and the reactions it can elicit from both herself and Cas, but when confronted by Caroline’s husband, she reconsiders her claim on the person¬†she’s wearing. ‘Caroline was inside me, screaming out for him, for her life back,’ Hannah says. ‘These feelings – they aren’t for me, for us. They belong to her.’¬† And thus comes one of the most powerful, graceful exits of a female character in the entire run of Supernatural: Hannah not only¬†chooses to leave, but does so in a way that is expressly considerate¬†of the wishes of another woman, Caroline. That we don’t hear the dialogue between them doesn’t make its impact any less real. Both Hannah and Caroline are granted agency through a respectful negotiation, and when Castiel watches Caroline’s reunion with her husband, he’s prompted to consider the former family of his own vessel, Jimmy Novak, in turn.

When it comes to depiction of female friendship and agency, however, the relationship between Sheriffs Jody Mills and Donna Hanscum in ‘Hibbing 911’ (10.8) is hard to beat. Not only is this a funny, engaging episode in its own right, but it manages the trick of taking two very different adult women – Jody is wry and antisocial; Donna is smiles and sunshine – and realistically developing their relationship in the context of a monster-of-the-week case. Again, there’s an emphasis on calling out sexism: both women are condescended to by a male gunseller, whom they eyeroll and mock, while Donna’s douchey ex-husband repeatedly fat-shames her until Jody gets him to stop. The fact that Jody actually calls his behaviour ‘fat-shaming’ while simultaneously reassuring Donna about her body is the kind of representation that we badly need more of; even better, however, is the fact that Donna is still allowed to feel embarrassed and upset at Jody speaking for her, rather than being obliged to accept the defence without comment. Both women are existing characters with complicated personal histories: though Jody has a teenage daughter, Alex, to care for, their relationship isn’t simplified either, and the fact that Jody still mourns the loss of her husband and son is something we’re allowed to feel along with her.

In fact, in a show whose male characters are so often defined by the loss of their wives, mothers, girlfriends and daughters, Jody’s status as a woman who has survived the loss of three significant men – her husband, son and Bobby Singer, with whom she was romantically linked – is striking, as is her near-death on a date with Crowley and her subsequent adoption of Alex. Jody’s development arguably parallels that of the Winchesters: like Sam, her romantic partners either end up dead or demonic, and like Dean, she’s been forced to watch the death of her child. Donna, however, with her incongruously cheery personality and slightly comic introduction to the series – at a weight-loss spa run by a fat-sucking pishtaco – is closer to that of Garth Fitzgerald, a dentist who became a hunter (we’ve been told) after killing the tooth fairy. Just as Garth’s friendliness was initially juxtaposed against Dean’s surly demeanour, so Donna’s smiles are juxtaposed against Jody’s scowls – and just as Dean ends up taking Garth under his wing, so ‘Hibbing 911’ ends with Jody offering to show Donna the ropes.

Rounding out the season thus far is ‘The Things We Left Behind’, a heartbreaking episode that reintroduces a now teenage delinquent Claire Novak – daughter of Castiel’s vessel, Jimmy – on the run from the foster system. Critically, the episode respects Claire’s anger: though Castiel tries his (clumsy) best to look after her, both he and Claire are acutely aware of the fact that her actual father is dead, and that Castiel can’t replace him. When Claire states that¬†Castiel is helping her out of guilt alone, Cas acknowledges the truth in the accusation while still expressing a desire to protect her. But even when Claire is effectively ‘sold’ by a man she considered a protector to a loan shark, who promptly tries to rape her, the story still gives her agency in her escape: she fights her attacker, and when Castiel breaks into the room, it’s Claire who takes advantage of the distraction to kick her assailant to the ground and flee. Yet neither is she shown to be unaffected by what’s happened: she is clearly distraught, looking to Cas for comfort that he anxiously provides, and as harrowing as the sequence is, it never once feels exploitative or sensationalist. Claire is a realistic character, flawed and brave: she makes her own choices and acts to protect herself, but is still allowed to be a scared, vulnerable girl distressed by a dangerous situation.

And what about Sam and Dean? After all the secret-keeping of Season 9, it’s both refreshing and necessary to see them attempt to communicate with each other; not that Dean isn’t still lying about the effects of the Mark of Cain, but they’re lies of emotion and omission rather than the informational, you-can’t-know-the-truth-Because-Reasons fibs of the previous season, and it both grounds their relationship while demonstrating its rockier edges. The parallels between Dean and Cole – an antagonistic ex-soldier whose monster father Dean killed in 2003 – are clear and deliberate: Cole has a wife and son he’s neglecting in pursuit of revenge against Dean, just as Dean lost Lisa and Ben to the hunting life. Though Cole may yet return later in the season, his use as an inverted foil for Dean’s transition from demon to human – Cole becomes more monstrous as Dean regains his humanity, while Dean’s acknowledgement of his own monstrousness pushes Cole to return to his family – is neatly cathartic, while at the same time, Cole’s¬†vendetta is what¬†allows Rowena’s escape, his exit as an antagonist leading directly into her establishment as one. But Dean’s transition from demon to human – and the question of what makes someone a monster – is also echoed elsewhere: both in Sam’s decision to risk the damnation of innocent souls, including Lester’s, in his pursuit of Dean and Crowley, and in the questionable humanity¬†of the rapist loan shark and his cronies, all of whom end up dead at Dean’s hand: monstrous men, for all that they’re not technically monsters.

Powerfully, there’s a direct line drawn between Dean’s behaviour¬†at the start of the season¬†his actions at the end of it. In ‘Black’, he attacks Ann Marie’s ex-boyfriend on the pretext of defending her honour while overtly relishing the excuse for violence;¬†in ‘The Things We Left Behind’, however, and despite the greater provocation of the threat to Claire, he genuinely tries to avoid the fight, yet still ends up killing to sate the Mark. In both instances, Dean’s violence is contextualised by a sexual threat to a specific woman, and in both instances, his use of violence as a response is coded as being attributable to¬†the Mark of Cain. But whereas Demon!Dean tries to justify his aggression by falsely claiming it as chivalry,¬†as¬†a human with the Mark, he¬†doesn’t attempt to defend his behaviour at all, even though he has a much better case to make. Not only did the other men attack him first, they were all complicit in the attempted rape of Claire – yet Dean is left numb and horrified, because the Mark has compelled him to murder, and though he could try and pretend otherwise, as he did with Ann Marie, he knows there is no chivalry in his violence. And if that’s not a valuable entry point for a conversation about masculinity, white knight behaviour and aggression-as-protection, then frankly, I don’t know what is.

Nine episodes in, and Season 10 of Supernatural has blown me away with its female characters, human themes and clear commitment to discussing gender roles, sexuality and agency. ¬†It’s a rare show that lasts this long to begin with, but a rarer one still that’s willing to go so far outside its traditional parameters in direct response to the fanbase, and while the execution isn’t always perfect, the fact that the writers are so clearly making an effort carries a lot of weight with me. As big a fan as I am of Destiel, I’d be selling the show short to paint it as the emotional be-all, end-all of everything, and while I’d like to see more of Cas and Dean together in the rest of the season – and I rather suspect we will – if the show keeps on in this new vein regardless, I’ll be a happy camper.

*In ‘Soul Survivor’ (10.3), Castiel refers to Hannah’s presence by saying ‘there’s a female outside in the car,’ a line which has been justly criticised. However, while I agree that this is a¬†poor choice of words, I’m inclined to view it as a more innocent slip; partly because ‘female’ is a word we’ve seen Cas use before within his awkward speech patterns – most notably in ‘Reading is Fundamental’ (7.21) – but also because there’s a potential contextual reason for the ambiguity it provides, inasmuch as it doesn’t betray whether Cas’s companion is human or angel. (Dean and Hannah don’t get along, which makes it understandable that he wouldn’t call her by name.) So while I still find the line jarring, I don’t think Castiel is being sexist.

Trigger warning: some talk of rape.

“You’re not friends. You’ll never be friends. You’ll be in love ’till it kills you both. You’ll fight, and you’ll shag, and you’ll hate each other ’till it makes you quiver, but you’ll never be friends. Love isn’t brains, children, it’s blood – blood screaming inside of you to work its will. I may be love’s bitch, but at least I’m man enough to admit it.”

– Spike, ¬†Lover’s Walk (S3E8)

To me, the above quote is one of the single best speeches in all of Buffy – it might even be my personal favourite. In his lone appearance in S3, Spike is forced into a brief alliance with Buffy and the newly-returned Angel, and instantly sees through their claims to be “just friends”. Superficially, then, his response is not only the emotional denouement of the episode, but a comment on their relationship.

Only, here’s the thing: Buffy and Angel do become friends. Their love has already reached its big romantic climax. Buffy has fought with Angelus, not Angel; they’ve only had sex once (the events of¬†I Will Remember You¬†are reversed, and therefore don’t count); and though they argue down the line, they don’t ever hate each other. The relationship Spike is describing doesn’t exist.

Or rather, it does – but not between Buffy and Angel. This entire speech is a neat foreshadowing of everything that happens between Buffy and Spike. They’re not friends; they never were. Buffy dies being loved by Spike – he collapses in grief at the loss – and then later, after she says she loves him, Spike dies for Buffy in turn. They fight and shag constantly through S6 – sometimes simultaneously – and frequently state their hatred for one another before then: in fact, this is the exact progression of events in Smashed and Wrecked, when they first have sex. In Dead Things, we even see them stand on opposite sides of the same door, reaching for each other, each one yearning against their better judgement – blood screaming inside them to work its will, while Out Of This World by Bush plays eerily in the background. When it comes to Buffy, Spike is unashamedly love’s bitch. This speech will never not be about them.

Buffy and Spike is my crackship. Not because they’re impossible together, but because they should be – and because, like crack, they’re unhealthily addictive.

Their relationship is every possible flavour of fucked up. From the moment Spike first shows up in S2, they’re enemies – but when Angelus tries to end the world, it’s Spike who helps Buffy defeat him. In S4, despite their mutual loathing, we go down the rabbit hole of their relationship twice – once in Something Blue, when Willow’s magic forces them together, and then again in Who Are You, where Faith flirts with Spike while wearing Buffy’s body, and we realise he’s equal parts angry and aroused at the prospect. In Goodbye Iowa, he even refers to Buffy as Goldilocks – a term of endearment he uses again in S6’s Gone, when the usage prompts Buffy to cut her hair short. But it’s not until S5’s Out of My Mind that he realises he loves her: a dream-revelation that throws him awake with a whispered, “Oh god, no. Please, no.” (Love isn’t brains, children.)

Some of what Spike does is deeply gross (the Buffybot) or outright indefensible (his abortive rape attempt) – and yet, I keep coming back to their relationship; as broken and dysfunctional as it is, it’s nonetheless compelling. Even now, I still can’t decide whether every loving, useful thing Spike does while unsouled – withstanding torture to protect Dawn, fighting on Buffy’s side, comforting her when nobody else even knows what’s wrong – either outweighs or is outweighed by those two awful, terrible things. Because, here’s the thing: we don’t blame Angel for the crimes he commits as Angelus. His soulless personality is so different to his human one that it’s easy to view them as a flipswitch binary: he’s either one or the other. Angel has a romantic relationship with Buffy; Angelus wants to torture, abuse and kill her. But Spike is much more ambiguous. His emotional evolution starts while he’s still unsouled, to the point where loving Buffy prompts him to get his soul back.¬†He’s so horrified by his actions in Seeing Red – the rape attempt – that, in his own words, he makes himself into the man she deserves: someone whose conscience would render him incapable of sexual violence.

And I just… OK. It’s impossible, literally impossible, to get away from the rape attempt (though apparently the fact that Xander did the same thing in S1’s The Pack is both forgiven and forgotten). You can’t ignore or downplay it, and while you can try and contextualise it for the purposes of discussing both Spike’s character and his relationship with Buffy, that still doesn’t change what he did. Thematically, though, there’s something significant in the fact that Spike stops himself – that he regains himself mid-assault, realises what he’s doing, and goes immediately to get his soul back. Because when Angel turns into Angelus after he and Buffy sleep together, the whole narrative becomes a metaphor for the fact that sometimes, men change once they’ve slept with you – they turn into monsters, and you’re left to pick up the pieces. It’s a theme that’s reiterated when Parker turns out to be a colossal douche, and to a lesser extent, when Riley starts seeing vampire gals on the side. Men turn into monsters, but overwhelmingly in the Buffyverse, they refuse to acknowledge it – except for Spike, who not only admits what he is, but actively tries to change.

See, the problem with Angel/Angelus being two extremes of a binary personality is that Angel is never held accountable (or at least, not by Buffy) for the things he does as Angelus. We never see him apologise: not for the way he treats her while evil, not for Miss Calendar’s death, none of it. Despite the fact that Angel’s whole redemptive arc is predicated on actively atoning for his vampire crimes, he still behaves as though it was all beyond his control. He doesn’t apologise for what he does to Buffy, because he’s not the one who did it – yet even if we consider that to be technically true, it still seems reasonable to expect him to seek forgiveness. Parker, however, has no such excuse: he’s a classic user, a weasel who avoids responsibility for his actions by claiming his motives were always obvious – that Buffy, or whichever girl he’s left broken-hearted, has simply misunderstood him. And then there’s Riley, whose response to being caught cheating is to issue an unbelievably selfish ultimatum: either Buffy can decide immediately that she still wants him around, in which case he’ll make an effort to earn back her trust, or she can stay angry and lose him forever. The speech that Xander gives Buffy at this point to convince her that Riley ought to stay is infuriating. He’s 1% right, in the sense that fairness doesn’t enter into it – Riley has given her an ultimatum, and as sucky as that is, she can’t abstain from making a decision – but given how incredibly shitty a thing Riley’s done by putting her in that position, he really doesn’t deserve Xander’s understanding; he certainly¬†doesn’t deserve Buffy’s. And despite his denials, it’s clear his real issue with Buffy is her greater strength: she didn’t need his protection, he felt insecure as a result, and when presented with an easy out – flying away to the Amazon if his demands weren’t met, instead of staying to make things right – he takes it.

And then there’s Spike.

He apologises for the Buffybot; he openly admits that he’s a monster. After his assault on Buffy, the first thing he does is try to redeem himself, because unlike every other man she’s ever slept with, he admits he’s done something wrong, and that he, Spike, is the culprit. And it’s not silent redemption, either: the guilt drives him mad, and when he comes back at the start of S7, not only the audience, but Buffy herself is left in no doubt that what he’s done – regaining his soul – has been an act of atonement: that he’s given himself a conscience, punished himself physically and mentally, and returned with no expectation of forgiveness to offer what help he can. And that, I think, despite everything, is at the core of why I keep coming back to Buffy and Spike’s relationship, why I can’t let go of it: as brutally fucked up as their history is, and despite the fact that Spike’s assault is arguably* the worst thing any partner has ever done to her, he’s also the only parter to accept responsibility for his actions, and to try and directly atone for them. Spike learns because of Buffy; he becomes a better man – or a better monster – through loving her, and I don’t think that’s true of any of the others; even Angel.

And speaking of Angel: sit down and think for a moment about the basis for their relationship. S1 is only twelve episodes long. Angel doesn’t appear in all of them, and most of the time, his presence is fleeting. He and Buffy don’t even kiss until episode 7, and two episodes later, we’re meant to believe he’s in love with her – and while we later learn he’s been watching her quietly ever since she was called (which is incredibly creepy and stalkerish), the short timeframe strongly implies that her love of him is a youthful infatuation, at least initially. They’re together for a while, but a bit more than halfway through S2, he turns evil, and Buffy sends him to hell. When he returns in S3, he isn’t back on the field (so to speak) until about episode 7 – prior to that, he’s recovering. Though they get back together soon afterwards, when Joyce speaks to Angel about the “hard choices” he and Buffy have ahead of them, he breaks it off with her – and as sensible as that decision ultimately is, the way he goes about it doesn’t sit well with me. However immature Buffy was at the start of their relationship, she’s grown up enormously by that point, and instead of treating her like an adult – someone capable of knowing her own mind and making her own decisions – he takes the choice away from her, effectively dumping her for her own good. This is something he does again by returning in S4 without letting her know he’s there, and it’s also something we later see Riley do, too: indulging in paternalistic, overprotective behaviour despite her superior strength and emotional autonomy.

A sidenote here about Xander:¬†I cannot even begin to express how much it bothers me that his rape attempt from S1’s The Pack is never addressed in the narrative. Despite remembering everything he did while under the influence of the hyena spirit, Xander feigns amnesia in order to dodge the consequences of his actions, putting him on the same page as Angel, Parker and Riley. Never mind the fact that, at this point – which is to say, four episodes into the first season – he and Buffy have known each other for all of a month or so, and that realistically, if a guy you’d known for such a short amount of time sexually assaulted you while in an altered state, ¬†it ought to make you wary of him afterwards¬†at the very least. But this doesn’t happen, which I take to be an enormous failure on the part of the writers. The fact that Spike’s assault is more forceful then Xander’s doesn’t detract from the vileness of the sentiment – nor, indeed, from the fact that, whereas Spike regains his senses mid-struggle and stops himself, Xander has to be physically incapacitated by Buffy. But despite the difference in their demonic aspects – Xander is possessed by a hyena spirit, while Spike is soulless – the two states nonetheless appear to be rather similar, in that both are guided by primal urges while still retaining their base personalities. It therefore seems a telling sign of Xander’s status as a Nice Guy that, whereas Spike seeks redemption for what he’s done while still soulless, Xander doesn’t so much as apologise even when back to normal. Xander, it seems, has less decency at times than someone who physically lacks a conscience.

Which is, I think, the best definition for vampirehood in the Buffyverse. Becoming a vampire invests you with bloodlust and demonic strength while stripping you of your conscience: what’s left is who you were before, but influenced by power and hunger and unfettered by consequences, which is the perfect explanation for Spike. In S5’s Crush, he’s implicitly likened to Quasimodo – a troubled outsider whose love for Esmerelda (that is, Buffy) can never be reciprocated, because his motivations in pursuing her are purely selfish – and yet, in the same conversation, we’re also invited to sympathise with him, for the sake of the effort he makes. Spike’s soullessness means that he’s without conscience, but unlike Quasimodo, he tries to grow one, and eventually succeeds by regaining his soul – but this being something of a chicken and egg dilemma, his attempts prior to that are equal parts creepy, misguided and genuinely touching. He makes a shrine to Buffy, furnished with clothes and photos stolen from her house. He tells her about Riley out of a mix of self-interest and real concern, but when he realises how deeply she’s been hurt by it, we see him express contrition and empathy. In S5’s Triangle, we even see him rehearsing apologies, complete with a dented box of chocolates. In Crush, he threatens her with death at Drusilla’s hands unless she confesses being attracted to him, but at the same time acknowledges how wrong his own feelings are. And when Glory captures and tortures him, he withholds the secret of Dawn’s identity at great personal cost, because he knows how much her loss would hurt Buffy. Without recourse to a conscience, he’s pulled in different directions at once, trying to do the right thing but failing at least as often as he succeeds. The demon in him is selfish, lustful and possessive, but the good man, the poet, so long dormant, is fighting for control.

And then there’s the issue of the Buffybot. More than once in the course of the show, a character spurned or crossed in love resorts to magic or science as a way to regain control: Xander once, with his wildly destructive love spell in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered;¬†Warren twice, first with his own robot, April, and then with the enslavement, attempted rape and actual manslaughter of Katrina; Willow twice, first¬†with her abortive attempt to curse Oz and Veruca, and then with her erasure of Tara’s memory; and Spike twice, once with his abortive plan to cast a love spell on Drusilla, and then again with the Buffybot. (And that’s before you count Anya’s work as a vengeance demon.) As skeevy and gross as the two sexbots are, for my part, I find them vastly less disturbing than Xander’s attempt to actually put Cordelia in his power – at least the robots aren’t real people. (We see from the Buffybot’s point of view in one episode, which was mechanical enough to convince me it lacks true sentience.) In fact, Xander’s spell is uncomfortably close to Warren’s plans for Katrina, in that both men actually used magic to try and control their ex-girlfriends; the fact that Xander never killed or raped anyone doesn’t put him that much ahead of the game when you consider not only how narrow his escape was, but the fact that he’s never really penalised for it. By contrast, Spike abandons his plan to curse Drusilla when he realises their split is his fault, not hers, an epiphany that Xander never has, and which stands as yet another instance of Spike admitting his faults and learning from his behaviour when other, ostensibly more moral characters fail to do so under similar circumstances.

There is, I suspect, a rather awful reason for this – and, indeed, for why Spike alone of all Buffy’s lovers and love interests accepts responsibility for his actions. It’s all down to narrative impetus: we, the viewers, are meant to sympathise with Xander, just as we’re meant to sympathise with Angel and Riley. At base, we “know” they’re all good guys, and as such, their contrition is implied. We don’t need to see them apologise, because the surrounding story is structured to suggest that they’ve already been forgiven off-camera. But Spike, by contrast, begins as a villain. His developmental arc is the most dramatic and varied in the whole show, culminating in a ¬†radical¬†heel face turn at the end of S6. We need to see his redemption, because otherwise, there’s no reason to believe that it’s taken place – and to an extent, this makes sense: if the audience can reasonably infer that something has happened, then it’s a waste of script and wordage to insert it. The problem is that, if the good guys never apologise on screen, then their goodness is called into question – which is why ¬†the most fucked up relationship in the whole show is simultaneously the most equitable. Neither Buffy nor the audience can assume anything about Spike’s intentions that we aren’t actually shown, and as a result, he has to work the hardest out of anyone to be seen as good.

Thus: when Angelus is trying to end the world, Spike is trying to save it. When Xander is busy making threats and lying, Spike is saving Giles and keeping his promises. When Riley is out paying lady vamps to bite him, or sulking because Buffy’s had the temerity to put her own need to be strong ahead of his need to feel manly and protective, Spike is telling her the truth and offering quiet, undemanding support. When Willow and the others are smothering the newly resurrected Buffy, Spike gives her an out. And when absolutely everyone betrays her at the end of S7, it’s Spike alone who keeps faith with her. From villain to invalid to lovelorn drunk; from glowering menace to chaotic, defanged outsider; from frenemy to lover to ex; from assailant to madman to stalwart, both Spike’s personality and his relationship with Buffy undergo the most development in the whole show. He’s done some truly awful things, but when it really matters and everyone else has abandoned her, it’s always Spike, and Spike alone, who’s there to watch her back.

*I say arguably, because Angelus’s crimes are pretty horrific, too, and YMMV in terms of which you consider to be worse overall: there’s no sliding scale for evil, no definitive catalogue with which to determine their heinousness objectively.

Trigger warning: predatory behaviour, creepiness, sexual assault.

Yesterday, I read this¬†account of creepy stalking behaviour retold by a woman whose husband had witnessed it first-hand and subsequently described the incident to her in detail. During the course of her husband’s recitation, the woman asked him what she refers to as The Question, capitalised because, once asked, he stopped seeing the creeper as simply being awkward and inappropriate and started seeing him as frightening and potentially dangerous.¬†And as I was reading, something clicked in my head regarding an incident which, approximately sixteen years ago, left me deeply unsettled, and which continues to unsettle me in memory. It’s not a story I’ve ever told more than once or twice, partly because even now, at the age of 26, I find it as difficult to articulate as I did at age 10, but mostly because, up until yesterday, I didn’t know how to convey the the thing that most bothered me about it, because when it happened, I was too young to ask The Question, and until yesterday, I hadn’t known I could ask it retrospectively. But now I can, and so I’m going to put it all on record.

I don’t remember my precise age, though ten seems the best guess: certainly, I was no older than eleven, and I doubt I was younger than eight. The occasion was a child’s birthday party – not one of my close friends, but a family friend, a son or daughter of someone from my mother’s extended social circle. The setting was a restaurant: all the adults were at a big table in the front room having a roaring party of their own, while the kids were in another out the back, with music and balloons and a trestle table against the far wall where the presents and party bags were. I remember that the kids’ room lead directly outside in two directions – one past the kitchen, one past the toilets and storage room – and that there was no direct line of sight, or indeed point of access, between the adults’ room and ours: you had to pass through a third dining room, occupied by other patrons, to get between them. I remember, too, that I was pretty much on my own: I knew the other kids, but I wasn’t great friends with any of them, and so was standing alone when one of the waiters approached me.

To my child’s perception, he was a youthful-looking adult; in memory, I’d say he was in his twenties. He was blonde and not bad-looking, but something about his eyes bothered me, and when he spoke, he addressed me by name.

“Hello, Philippa,” he said. “That’s a pretty name.”

I felt uneasy. “How do you know my name?”

I have never forgotten, nor will ever forget, the type of smile that accompanied his response. It was a wrong smile, a shark smile, a greasy smile that flicked his mouth up at the left corner and which didn’t match the intensity of his eyes, which were pale blue. His answer, too, I recall verbatim.

He said: “I read it on your lovely little lolly bag.”

And in that moment, I was frightened. I knew, with an absolute certainty, that the waiter shouldn’t have talked to me; that I needed to get as far away from him as possible. I don’t remember what I said to excuse myself, or if I even said anything at all: either way, I went straight to the room where the adults were, determined to tell someone what had happened, because over and over, when you were taught about stranger danger at school, you were told to tell an adult. I got right up next to my mother; I stood beside her chair and waited for a pause in the conversation. There must have been ten or more adults present, and all of them were laughing at something, presumably a joke. When my mother had finished laughing, she turned to me and asked me what I wanted. I opened my mouth, but all at once, my confidence failed. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know how to describe the fear I’d felt or the reason for it in a way that would make sense, or that would give the adults something to act on if I did. The waiter hadn’t done anything but talk to me. What if I was wrong? What if they laughed at me, too? What if I ruined their evening?

“Nothing,” I said. “It doesn’t matter.”

But it did matter, because I didn’t feel safe. So strong was my fear that I left the kids’ room and spent the rest of the evening sitting just outside the back entrance to the kitchen, where I was constantly in view of the adult staff. More than once, I was asked if I wanted to go back inside, and each time I said no, I was fine, thanks for asking, I just liked being out in the air. Eventually, one of the other girls at the party came out and sat with me. We talked for a while, and when she asked why I was sitting there, I whispered in her ear that the blonde waiter made me uncomfortable, and so I was keeping away from him – and in reply, she whispered back that she felt weird around him, too. From time to time, I saw him looking at me from inside the kids’ room; he had to walk past my seat to get to and from the kitchen, too, but he didn’t try to talk to me again, presumably because we were guaranteed an audience.

I sat outside for the rest of the night, until it was time to go home. I never told any adults, and in the years since, I’ve often wondered if that was ultimately a good thing or a bad thing. My fear was certainly real, and the phrase lovely little lolly bag¬†still strikes me as being very creepily worded. But still, what does that prove? Nothing actually happened, and apart from my own deep sense of unease, I have no evidence that I was actually in danger. What if I’d raised suspicions about someone who, though seemingly creepy to me, was ultimately harmless? But then again, what if he really had posed a threat? What if the fact that I didn’t speak up meant that, somewhere down the line, he ultimately acted against someone else? In either case, I have no way of knowing. But yesterday, I finally thought to ask The Question, which went a long way towards explaining my unease. Viz:

If the waiter learned my name from my lolly bag, how did he match it to my face?

The only answer is: he was watching me. I wasn’t the only girl at the party; he would’ve had to tell me apart from the others. And he couldn’t have just eavesdropped it, either – then as now, both my actual family and all our family friends called me Foz, and while it’s conceivably possible that one of the adults might have used my full name at some point, it’s also very unlikely given that they spent the majority of the night in a different room. Certainly, the other kids would never have called me Philippa, and in any case, even before the waiter spoke to me, I’d mostly been standing alone. And then there’s the incongruity of him talking to me at all. I’ve worked as a waitress, and when you’ve got a big party taking up two whole rooms of the restaurant plus regular customers in the third, you don’t have time to stop and talk to children. But this man did, and even though it’s taken the power of hindsight for me to understand exactly how odd it all was, my instincts at the time still screamed at me that something was amiss.

There’s a poisonous double standard in our society which says that it’s reverse-sexist and wrong for women to feel threatened by creepy-awkward male behaviour because our fear implies that we hold the negative, stereotypical view that All Men Are Predators, but that if we’re raped or sexually assaulted by any man with whom we’ve had prior social interaction – and particularly if he’s expressed some sexual or romantic interest in us during that time – it’s reasonable for observers to ask what precautions we took to prevent the assault from happening, or to suggest that we maybe led the guy on by not stating our feelings plainly.¬†The result is a situation where women are punished if we reject, avoid or identify creepy men, and then told it‚Äôs our fault if we’re assaulted by someone we plainly ought to have rejected, avoided, identified.

And sometimes, even our rejections are ignored. Here’s another story: when I was twelve or thirteen, a boy at my high school developed a crush on me. He asked me out; I said no. He asked me out again; I still said no. One would think that my feelings had been made abundantly clear by this point, but apparently not: his next step was to follow me around every lunch and recess for over a week declaring that he loved me. During this time, I told him repeatedly to fuck off, go away, I didn’t like him, he was making me uncomfortable; on multiple occasions when he came too close, I even resorted to physically shoving him back. When that still didn’t work, I started running away, literally running, right to the other side of the campus if need be; he wasn’t fast enough to follow in the moment, so he started sending messengers after me, other boys who, amused by the absurdity of the situation, thought it was great fun to track me down, wherever I was, and tell me that this boy loved me, and wouldn’t I come and speak to him, go out with him? So then I had to hide from them, too: the only place I was safe was the girl’s toilets, where they were forbidden to go. At one point, a pair of senior girls saw me loitering by the sink and asked what I was doing; I had to explain that I was being chased by boys, and this was the only place I could hide from them. The situation finally came to a head when some other boys were alerted to my harassment by my female friends, and joined our group one day as a sort of protection detail: when the boy who liked me showed up and started professing his love, two of them physically attacked him – a few hard shoves and punches – and warned him to stay away.

He listened to them.

I’ve written before about my brush with sexual assault at university; two incidents which, despite leaving me unscathed, nonetheless serve as reinforcement for the idea that persistence in matters of sex and romance, even once the girl has said no, are considered a male prerogative in our culture. Indeed, the idea of ‘winning the girl’ – of overcoming female objections or resistance through repeated and frequently escalating efforts – is central to most of our modern romantic narratives. (Female persistence, by contrast, is viewed as pathetic.) And the more I think about instances of creepiness, harassment and stalking that culminate in either the threat or actuality of sexual assault, the more I’m convinced that a massive part of the problem is this socially sanctioned idea that men are fundamentally entitled to persist. Because if men are meant to persist, then women who say no must only be rejecting the attempt, not the man himself, so that every separate attempt becomes one of a potentially infinite number of keys which might just fit the lock of the woman’s approval. She’s not the one who’s allowed to say no, not really; she should be silent and passive as a locked door, waiting patiently while the man runs through however many keys he can be bothered trying. And if he gets sick of this lengthy process and just breaks in? Well, frustration under those circumstances is only natural. Either the door shouldn’t have been there to impede him, or it shouldn’t have been locked.

We tell children – and particularly young girls – to beware of creepy adult behaviour; to identify, report and avoid it. But at some point during adolescence, the message becomes reversed: if you’re old enough to consent, the logic seems to go, then suddenly you’re old enough that being too scared to say no, or having your no ignored, is your fault rather than your assailant’s. When adults behave creepily towards children, our first priority is to ascertain whether a threat is posed, because we’d rather call them out for their inappropriateness than risk a genuine threat being written off as harmless, particularly in instances where the child is visibly upset. Certainly, if a child ever came to you and said they didn’t feel safe or comfortable around a particular adult, you’d treat it as a very serious matter. And yet we don’t extend the same logic to people who behave creepily towards other adults – partly and very reasonably, it must be said, because adults are better able to defend themselves than children, and because, on the sexual side of things, children literally cannot consent to anything, whereas one adult propositioning another is not morally repugnant in and of itself, regardless of how creepily they choose to go about it.

But surely the threat of sexual assault is still legitimate and grave enough that it’s better to call someone out for being inappropriate and creepy than to risk a genuine threat being written off as harmless, particularly when the subject of their behaviour is visibly upset? Surely if a friend or colleague comes to you and says they don’t feel safe or comfortable around a particular person, this too is a serious matter? Because even if that person has the best of intentions, poses no threat and doesn’t mean to be creepy, the fact remains that they are still making someone uncomfortable, and that’s definitely worth addressing. As the excellent John Scalzi points out, you don’t get to define someone else’s comfort level with you: sure, it might suck that someone thinks you’re being creepy, but your hurt feelings at that verdict are ultimately less important than whether or not the other person feels safe. If you persist in bothering someone after they’ve made it clear they don’t like you, or in treating them in a manner to which they object simply because you, personally, see nothing wrong with it, then you are being an asshat: you are saying that their actual fear and discomfort are less important that your right to behave in a way that makes them afraid and discomforted, and if that’s the case, then why the hell shouldn’t they call you out?

I’ll never know if the waiter represented a genuine threat to me, or if he was simply creepy and harmless. But my fear was real, and that alone is enough to convince me that his behaviour, whatever his intentions, was inappropriate. Because ultimately, good intentions aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card; you can’t use them to debunk accusations of creepiness any more than writers can use them to handwave accusations of having created racist or misogynist stories. Intention is not the same as effect, and if someone asks a question – The Question – to which you have no reasonable answer, then prepare to admit that you might be in the wrong.

About a week ago, I wrote a post on Penny Arcade vs. Rape Culture, which sent my blog traffic skyrocketing after it was linked on Reddit. However, both in comments on the post itself and elsewhere on Reddit, quite a few people seemed to be missing the point: or, more specifically, misunderstanding what rape culture actually is and how it applies to gaming. One commenter, in fact, responded thusly:

My mind is boggled that you feel righteous in condemning something people enjoy, especially when it’s not even real. Do you realize that’s what you’re doing? You’re standing up and telling all these people, people you don’t know, that what they’re enjoying is *wrong*. You don’t have numbers or statistics or any sort of fact behind you quantifying how what they do is wrong. None. Telling people that what they enjoy in the privacy of their own homes in a virtual reality contributes to a Rape Culture is crazy. What’s next? Telling people what sort of porn they can watch, what sort of books they can read?

Seriously, show some facts. Show a concrete link between this and that, between playing the computer game and a rise in rape statistics. I know, I know, it‚Äôs not ‚ÄúRape‚ÄĚ it‚Äôs ‚ÄúRape Culture‚ÄĚ, so you conveniently don‚Äôt have to show *any* facts. Which is the one saving grace in all this. In the real world, for laws to pass and things to change, you have to show concrete evidence of your position. I remember how they tried to do that with Computer Games and Violence, and how no one was able to draw *any* sort of factual link between one and the other that would stand in any court of law.

Which is what made me decide that, rather than linking to any number of excellent rape culture 101 posts online, there might be a need for an explanation of rape culture tailored specifically to gaming. Because, let’s face it: gaming culture has so often been singled out by lazy politicians as the root cause of society’s ills – which is to say, as being inextricably bound up with violence, obesity, immaturity and so on – that it’s small wonder most gamers, on hearing it simultaneously accused of rape culture, are likely to roll their eyes. After all, those other accusations are only so much hot air, and tend to stem from a deeply prejudicial view of games and geekery besides – so why on Earth should rape culture be any different?

From the outset, we need to acknowledge something critical: that gaming is primarily a digital culture, and that digital cultures – while analogous in many ways to other cultures – happen in venues that lack a physical presence. Yes, there are gaming expos, conventions and tournaments where gamers come together, while many friends who meet up regularly IRL will also game together online or at lans. But the difference between gaming culture and, say, workplace culture is that the latter occurs primarily – if not exclusively – in a specific physical location inhabited by all the individual participants in that culture. What this means is that a Venn diagram of the overlap between social interactions, physical proximity and guiding culture for any given workplace would practically be a circle, as all three elements would, with very few exceptions, happen in the same space. But the same diagram of gaming culture would look drastically different: physical proximity would barely have any overlap with guiding culture and social interactions, which would themselves be separate, because proximity is a meaningless concept in digital environments, guiding culture doesn’t come from a single body but from multiple competing sources, and social interactions are less a byproduct of something else – like being at work – than they are a primary point of gaming.

And what this means for rape culture, which is a term we most often hear applied to cultures that do center on a physical environment – such as, for instance, sports clubs and fraternities – is that right from the offset, people are confused about how it can apply to digital environments in comparable ways. Because for both sports clubs and fraternities, rape is a significant problem; it is an actual, physical consequence that happens in the actual, physical environments associated with their cultures. Hardly a week goes by without some sporting hero somewhere being accused of rape or sexual assault, while the dangers faced by women at fraternity parties are a mainstay of both popular culture and popular knowledge. So when we talk about rape culture being promoted by this football club or that frathouse, we – very naturally, and very sensibly – tend to link the accusation with instances of rape being perpetrated by their members. But when the term is applied to something like gaming, there instantly seems to be a disconnect between the accusation and the reality, because barring conventions, tournaments etc, gaming lacks the physical spaces in which rape can actually take place. Which isn’t to say that sexual assault and rape never happen at cons or expos or tournaments; they do. But obviously, there’s a difference, because the primary mode of social interaction in gaming is digital – and how can you rape someone over the internet?

Which brings us back to the actual, proper definition of rape culture. Quoting from Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places For Women? by A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade (my emphasis):

“Rape culture is a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape… The term applies to a generic culture surrounding and promoting rape, not the specific setting in which rape is likely to occur.”¬†

In other words, rape culture refers neither to physical locations where rape is deemed likely to occur, does occur and/or has occurred, nor to the specific details of  particular rapes: rather, it refers to a culture Рthat is, a set of values, beliefs, rituals, social codes, language, laws and art Рwhich can be said to promote sexual violence, and particularly sexual violence against women as perpetrated by straight men. Note that this argument neither automatically nor universally implies the existence of a direct causal link between specific cultural artifacts and incidences of rape (though this is certainly possible); nor does it contend that every participant in that culture is or must be a rapist. What it does describe is a culture where rape is trivialized, where both the abuse and sexual objectification of women is normalised, and where, as a result, the sexual abuse of women is more likely to happen. 

But – and I cannot state this emphatically enough – rape is not the sole expression of rape culture. The whole point of the term is that abuse of women doesn’t happen in a vacuum: other sexist, toxic social conditions have to be present first, and so long as these conditions remain unaltered, the abuse itself will continue. The fact that gaming exists largely outside physical spaces isn’t a get out of jail free card; it just means that in the case of digital expressions of rape culture, we have to get ourselves out of the mindset that rape is the only consequence that matters – or, worse still, that unless¬†rape happens, the accusation of rape culture is somehow bunk. Culture is what informs our actions; it is not the actions themselves – which means that rape culture is perhaps best understood as the presence of an ongoing sexual threat. If someone wielding a gun threatens to shoot me unless I comply with their orders, I’m supremely unlikely to challenge them: they don’t have to shoot me in order to change my behaviour. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if they really planned to shoot me, or if the gun was even loaded. The point – the effect – is power and coercion, and only someone who was completely callous, stupid, oblivious or a combination of all three would argue that the threat of being shot – and the subsequent change to my behaviour – was meaningless unless I actually was shot. Similarly, if I’m threatened with rape and violence and silenced with gendered, sexualised slurs every time I disagree with male gamers on the internet, it doesn’t matter if they really plan to rape me, or if they’re even capable of doing so: as with the gun, the point – the effect – is power and coercion, and the logic which underlies their choice of threat. What they want is to shut me up by reminding me that rape happens, that it could and should happen to me because of what I’ve said. And when that is your go-to means of silencing women in a context where men are the majority, where the female form is routinely shown in attitudes of hypersexualisation, sexualised violence and submission, and where men are in majority control of that setting? That is rape culture.¬†

Which brings me to the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian.

Sarkeesian, for those who’ve never heard of her, runs a website called Feminist Frequency, where – among other things – she posts videos deconstructing and criticising the presence of sexist tropes in popular culture. Recently, she went on Kickstarter to garner funding for a new series of videos: Tropes vs Women in Video Games. It should tell you something significant about the popularity of this idea – and of Sarkeesian herself – that, having asked for a mere $6,000 in financing, she has, as of today – with four days left on the clock – been funded to the tune of $44,027 –¬†more than seven times what she initially asked for. Here’s her kickstarter pitch:

I love playing video games but I’m regularly disappointed in the limited and limiting ways women are represented.  This video project will explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.  The series will highlight the larger recurring patterns and conventions used within the gaming industry rather than just focusing on the worst offenders.  I’m going to need your help to make it happen!

As a gamer, a pop culture critic and a fan, I’m always working to balance my enjoyment of media while simultaneously being critical of problematic gender representations. With my video web series Feminist Frequency,  I look at the way women are portrayed in mass media and the impact they have on our culture and society.

THE PROJECT

With your help, I’ll produce a 5-video series (now expanded to 12 videos) entitled Tropes vs Women in Video Games, exploring female character stereotypes throughout the history of the gaming industry.  This ambitious project will primarily focus on these reoccurring tropes:

  • Damsel in Distress¬†– Video #1
  • The Fighting F#@k Toy¬†– Video #2
  • The Sexy Sidekick¬†– Video #3
  • The Sexy Villainess¬†– Video #4
  • Background Decoration¬†– Video #5

1st Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Voodoo Priestess/Tribal Sorceress¬†– Video #6
  • Women as Reward¬†– Video #7
  • Mrs. Male Character¬†– Video #8
  • Unattractive Equals Evil¬†– Video #9
  • Man with Boobs¬†– Video #10
  • Positive Female Characters! –¬†Video #11

2nd Stretch Goal Achieved!

  • Let’s Bump up the Production Quality!

3rd Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Tropes vs Women in Video Games Classroom Curriculum¬†
  • Video #12 – Top 10 Most Common Defenses of Sexism in Games

Each video will be between 10 and 20 minutes long and available online for free for everyone and anyone to watch, share and use.

Pretty benign language, yes? All she’s done is state what should be a fairly uncontroversial and obvious truth – that women are often presented badly in video games – and proposed to discuss this in detail.

And for this crime, she has been threatened with rape, with death and with violence, and had her Wikipedia page vandalised with images of graphic pornography.

This is what rape culture looks like in gaming: the use of misogyny¬†to defend yourself against the accusation of misogyny. It’s like a woman telling an abusive partner that he’s abusive, and the partner being so angered by this that he punches her in the face. It’s doing exactly the thing you’re being accused of in response to that accusation while simultaneously trying to plead your innocence. And you know what makes this even worse?¬†Sarkeesian hasn’t even started her videos yet.¬†All she’s done is tried to get the funding for them – but even the prospect of a popular feminist deconstructing video game sexism has apparently been deemed so threatening, so emasculating and yet simultaneously so unnecessary by this particular misogynistic segment of the gaming population that, as one, they’ve risen up to threaten her with death, rape and physical violence.

And I can’t help but wonder: how many of Sarkeesian’s attackers use rape language when gaming? How many of them have inferred that because it’s apparently OK to talk about raping other players in-game, it’s OK to issue rape threats against women out of game? What are the odds that the men who vandalised her Wikipedia page with pornographic images – who decided that the quickest, easiest and most universally effective way to insult, demean and punish a female adversary was to hypersexualise her – are the same men arguing that the hypersexualisation of female characters in video games is normative,¬†desirable, harmless? I’ll say it again:¬†rape is not the sole expression of rape culture,¬†and the fact that it exists foremost in gaming in nonphysical spaces – forums, online, in game, on the other end of the microphone, in game design itself – doesn’t make it any less toxic to women than the unsafe frat houses of Boswell and Spade’s study.

Critics within gaming seem to think that, unless we can prove definitively that rape culture acts like some sort of Hypno-Ray to turn otherwise normal men into rapists and sexual harassers, the whole idea of social settings that are inherently toxic to both female safety and healthy gender relations is bunk. But what else do you call it when gamers defend sexism in gaming by threatening a woman with rape? What else do you call it when a prominent figure in gaming says that “sexual harassment is part of the culture” and counts this as a defensible, necessary thing? What else do you call it when the combination of hypersexualisation and violence against women are so deeply embedded in gaming culture that a significant portion of developers and fans don’t see it as problematic? What else do you call it when the default form of insult used by and against male players is, as Penny Arcade’s Tycho once called it, ad mominem –¬†that is, a way of insulting men by sexually impugning the women (mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends) with whom they’re most closely associated? There’s a reason, after all, why such jokes are used primarily against men, and why their subjects are never fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends – what misogynistic male gamer would bother leveling sexually loaded insults at a female player’s mother when he could just level them at her? Show me a female gamer who’s played online or at tournaments, or even one who has simply participated actively in male-dominated gaming forums, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I will show you a female gamer who has at some point been called a bitch, a cunt,a slut or a whore by male players, or who has been crudely sexually propositioned by male players, or who has otherwise been sexually threatened or intimidated by male players, because this is how rape culture is primarily expressed in digital contexts: through the abusive language, gendered slurs, sexual threats, silencing and exclusion that are levelled at women generally, but which are specifically and intensely used to punish women like Sarkeesian, who dare to point out that this is what’s actually happening.

The core argument of rape culture isn’t that exposure to¬†yet another instance of highly sexualised violence against women¬†will turn every man who sees it into a rapist, and that therefore we should censor everything that even vaguely references women and violence together; the point is that in a healthy culture, there would be no need to censor such images, because participants in that culture would have enough respect for women to neither create nor demand them as mainstream in the first place.¬†Because ultimately, the big objection to the charge of rape culture in gaming seems to boil down to fears about censorship: that by criticising creative output and language as being problematic, sexist and offensive, people like me are arguing for less art all together, when what we’re actually arguing for is more¬†good¬†art. Sexualised violence and the sexual objectification of women should be to gaming like¬†The Human Centipede, a film which is horrific in absolutely every sense of the word, is to cinema: something that we all understand is vile, but where a desire to confront that vileness is the motive for watching – as opposed to a scenario where almost every film produced contains elements of¬†The Human Centipede, and has done for so long that cinemagoers treat those elements as normative rather than vile, because they’ve become so commonplace that they can’t properly imagine films without them, reacting with bafflement and outrage and cries of ‘Censorship!’ every time some critic were to suggest that maybe, just maybe, not every film needs to feature graphic depictions of the forced ingestion of shit.

In other words: it is not censorship to suggest that gamers and game corporations should increase their collective respect for women, or to try and encourage the creation of a gaming culture that would nominally reflect such respect in both its output and its language.

Returning to the Boswell and Spade paper about rape culture in fraternities, it’s extremely important to note the differences between houses which were identified as ‘safe’ – that is, houses where women felt comfortable and which had lower levels of sexual assault – and those which were ‘unsafe’ – where women felt more vulnerable and which had higher levels of sexual assault. To quote:

“At high-risk houses, parties typically had skewed gender ratios, sometimes¬†involving more men and other times involving more women. Gender segregation¬†also was evident at these parties, with the men on one side of a room or in the bar¬†drinking while women gathered in another area. Men treated women differently in¬†the high-risk houses. The women’s bathrooms in the high-risk houses were filthy,¬†including clogged toilets and vomit in the sinks…¬†

Men attending parties at high-risk houses treated women less respectfully,¬†engaging in jokes, conversations, and behaviors that degraded women. Men made¬†a display of assessing women’s bodies and rated them with thumbs up or thumbs¬†down for the other men in the sight of the women. One man attending a party at a¬†high-risk fraternity said to another, “Did you know that this week is Women’s¬†Awareness Week? I guess that means we get to abuse them more this week.” Men¬†behaved more crudely at parties at high-risk houses…¬†It was rare to see a¬†group of men and women together talking. Men were openly hostile, which made¬†the high-risk parties seem almost threatening at times.”

In other words: the high-risk environments that were toxic for and dangerous to women were characterised by skewed gender ratios, poor respect for female spaces, offensive jokes made at the expense of women, the hypersexualisation of women themselves, and male hostility towards women – all of which is representative of rape culture. The fact that these behaviours are also representative of many digital spaces in gaming culture should not be any less alarming simply because they happen online: the misogyny, sexism and disrespect which underlie their usage is, at base, identical. Similarly, it’s worth noting that in another recent paper, Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace by Sreedhari D. Desai, Dolly Chugh and Arthur P. Brief, the authors found that employed men in traditional marriages – that is, marriages where the wife stayed home and the husband was designated as the sole breadwinner – tended, when compared to men in non-traditional marriages, to:

“(a) view the presence of women in the¬†workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female¬†employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as¬†relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees¬†opportunities for promotion.”

On the surface, this has nothing to do with rape culture – and yet I mention it by way of demonstrating that the way men treat and think of women in their private lives has a direct impact on how they treat them professionally and elsewhere. This doesn’t even have to be a conscious process – as the authors point out, the majority of such sexism was implicit rather than overt, meaning that the men didn’t even realise they were doing it – but either way, the impact on women remains the same. Given this evidence, then, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that male gamers who disrespect women online, who threaten women with rape, who call women bitches and sluts in anger, and who view both women in games and women gamers through the lens of hypersexualisation, will be much less likely to respect women generally and elsewhere.¬†And that really is significant in terms of analysing the elusive physical, real-world implications of rape culture in gaming, because even though gaming itself is a primarily digital culture, gamers themselves still inhabit the real world, where they must necessarily interact with women in physical spaces and contexts that have nothing whatsoever to do with gaming.

Or, put it another way: parties, clubs and bars are universal spaces, places where people of all different cultures and subcultures meet – as, for that matter, are workplaces, offices, shops and streets. If a group of footballers sexually assault three women in a hotel, for instance, we aren’t wrong to ask about the influence of rape culture in football, even though the physical location of the assault is a public place with no specific ties to either the sport or its culture. But this is where things become tricky, because gamers – unlike footballers – aren’t celebrities; and unlike fratboys, their subcultural identity is unlikely to be mentioned in the event that they’re involved in an incident of sexism or sexual assault. And there’s the additional problem of making the nomenclature accurate: while it’s very easy to identify footballers and fratboys – do they belong to a club or frat house? then yes – it’s less easy to tell who, for the purpose of analysis, is a gamer, and if so, what their level of participation in gaming culture actually is. It’s exactly this sort of subtle point that so easily gets lost in public discourse, but which becomes exquisitely relevant when we start talking about preventative strategies and the real world consequences of rape culture in gaming. Saying gamers are is a vastly less accurate and more problematic notion than saying gaming is: even though there’s a massive intersection between the two concepts, the former is still a generalisation about types of people, while the latter is an assessment of culture that may or may not be relevant to individual participants in that culture. But still, I have to ask: if gaming itself lacks the physical spaces we usually associate with the most dramatic consequences of rape culture – but if this doesn’t invalidate the fact that many sexist male gamers are nonetheless learning from and actively participating in a rape culture they refuse to acknowledge as negative – then what happens when those men interact with women in other areas of life? On the basis of the evidence, they seem deeply unlikely to respect them, and however subconscious their sexism may be at such times, the fact that any physical consequences, such as abuse or assault, would happen outside of gaming-oriented contexts does not free gaming as a community – as a culture – of the responsibility to reinforce the fact that abusing women at any time¬†is completely unacceptable.

So: gaming culture is – or at least, contains many problematic elements of – a rape culture. It is frequently hostile to women, toxic in terms of both the hypersexualised, violent content and the hypersexualised, violent language it uses to demean and belittle women. Even if, for whatever reason, you’d hesitate to use the term rape culture, it should nonetheless be apparent that gaming, en masse, has deep-seated problems with its treatment of women, and that this ought to be addressed. The horrific backlash against Anita Sarkeesian is unacceptable. The Hitman: Absolution trailer is unacceptable. Aris Bakhtianians’s comments are unacceptable. Saying so¬†is not censorship: it is simply a call to treat women with respect. But so long as gamers refuse to acknowledge that rape culture is an issue which applies to gaming, the situation will not – cannot – get better.

Warning the First: The following views are those of a disgruntled person. Long-term conclusions may be more moderate with hindsight.

Warning the Second: Spoilers for All The Things.  

Internets, I have finally snapped on the subject of YA dystopias.

Half an hour ago, I ran myself a bath and settled in with¬†Fever, the sequel to Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, which I read last year and particularly enjoyed. Rather than recap the story so far, I’ll refer you to Goodreads should you require a detailed plot summary, but in brief, the setting is a romantic/sexual dystopia, and at the end of Wither, protagonist-narrator Rhine had just escaped her forced marriage with the help of her love-interest Gabriel.¬†Fever¬†picks up their story immediately after this point, with our two young lovers scrambling out of the ocean to – they imagine – freedom. Heading inland, they encounter a carnival and are quick-smart captured by Madame, the proprietor, for whom this title is also a job description. Within about ten seconds, Madame has given Rhine a new name – Goldenrod – and taken her up in the still-operational Ferris wheel to talk about becoming one of her girls, where, despite her fear, Rhine can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the world seen from on high:

The seat rocks a little as I settle into it. Madame sits beside me and pulls the overhead bar down so that it locks us in. We start to move, and I’m breathless for an instant as we ascend forward and into the sky.

The earth gets father and farther away. The tents look like bright round candles. The girls move about them, shadows.

I can’t help myself; I lean forward, astounded. This wheel is five, ten, fifteen times taller than the lighthouse I climbed in the hurricane. Higher even than the fence that kept me trapped as Linden’s bride…

Even my brother, who is all practicality, would have his breath taken away by this height, these lights, the clarity of this night sky.

And that’s when I stopped reading.*

Because all of a sudden, it hit me: I’d seen this device before. In the opening scenes of Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves,¬†the second volume in her YA zombie dystopia series, protagonist Gabry and her love-interest Catcher defy the rules to enter a zombie-infested amusement park. Not unsurprisingly, things go wrong pretty quickly; nonetheless, there’s still time for some opening nostalgia about carnivals:

The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves…

Even after the Forest was shut off, one last gasp at sequestering the infection and containing the Mudo, the carousel kept turning, the coasters kept rumbling, the teacups kept spinning. Though my town of Vista was far away from the core of the Protectorate, they hoped people would come fly along the coasters. Would still want to forget.

More recently still, a decaying carnival appeared in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, another YA dystopia about which I had very mixed feelings. Midway through, heroine Tris and her love-interest Four climb an abandoned Ferris wheel to use it as a vantage point during a wargame:

Four sits down on the edge of the carousel, leaning against a plastic horse’s foot. His eyes lift to the sky, where there are no stars, only a round moon peeking through a thin layer of clouds…

When I stare up at the Ferris wheel from the ground, my throat feels tighter. It is taller than I thought, so tall I can barely see the cars swinging at the top. The only good thing about its height is that it is built to support weight. If I climb it, it won’t collapse beneath me…

When I look at the city again, the building isn’t in my way. I’m high enough to see the skyline. Most of the buildings are black against a navy sky, but the red lights at the top of the Hub are lit up. They blink half as fast as my heartbeat.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with three separate YA dystopias all including amusement parks. After all, they’re dystopias! It makes sense that the characters would encounter the ruined edifices of modern times, and from an aesthetic point of view, there’s something particularly powerful and haunting about the imagery of an abandoned Ferris wheel. But what jerked me out of Fever was less the presence of a repeated motif than what its usage seemed to represent: the romanticising of our present, and therefore a softening of the pertinent social criticism that ought to be an inherent part of dystopian fiction.

That’s a big claim, I know. But before I go on to defend it, I’d like to present a fourth except in contrast to the previous three, taken from yet another YA dystopia: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. Here, protagonist Tally and her friend Shay are hoverboarding along the tracks of an old roller coaster – something Shay has done before, but which Tally has not.

It was like a hoverboard course made solid, complete with tight, banked turns, sharp climbs followed by long drops, even loops that took Tally upside down, her crash bracelets activating to keep her on board. It was amazing what good shape it was in. The Rusties must have built it out of something special, just as Shay had said…

Tally followed at top speed, rocketing up the spindly track. She could see the ruins in the distance: broken, black spires against the trees. And behind them, a moonlight glimmer that might have been the sea. This really was high!…

Suddenly, the board dropped out from under her. It simply fell away from her feet, leaving her flying through midair. The track below her had disappeared…

Then Tally saw the framework of the roller coaster ahead. Only a short segment was missing… Her momentum had carried her to the other side of the gap! The board must have sailed along with her, just below her feet for those terrifying seconds of free fall.

She found herself cruising down the track, to where Shay was waiting at the bottom. “You’re insane!” she shouted.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“No!” Tally yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me it was broken?”

Shay shrugged. “More fun that way?”

“More fun?” Her heart was beating fast, her vision strangely clear. She was full of anger and relief and… joy. “Well, kind of. But you suck!”

At first glance, it might seem fairly arbitrary as to why I’ve chosen this final scene as a contrast to the others. All four excerpts show female protagonists either experiencing or thinking about the decaying rides of modern-day theme parks; all four mention the height and the view – which is understandable – and all four ladies are in places they shouldn’t be: Rhine has been captured by Madame for trespassing, Gabry is going into a forbidden area, Tris is risking her neck to climb a rickety structure and Tally is breaking multiple laws to follow Shay’s lead. Stylistically, there’s an obvious divide in that DeStefano, Ryan and Roth are all writing in the immediate first person, while Westerfeld uses omniscient third, but that’s vastly less important than the subtext of each scene. Neither is it divided along romantic lines. True, Tally is the only one not thinking about or travelling with a boy, but that’s only because she hasn’t met her love-interest yet, and this is a long-game point.

No: it’s¬†that Westerfeld’s characters are the only ones to find a new use for their carnival, and whose appropriation therefore makes us critique its original purpose. Tally and Shay are the only ones having fun.

Rhine rides her wheel passively – she’s been forced onto it, after all – but takes the chance to reflect on how carefree our world used to be, before it broke into hers. Gabry’s thoughts run down similar paths, despite the fact that she never actually makes it onto a ride. Tris and Four turn their own wheel into a vantage point, true, and there’s a moment prior to their¬†ascension¬†when another character jokes about what a present-day version would entail –¬†‚ÄúA Dauntless Ferris wheel wouldn‚Äôt have cars. You would just hang on tight with your hands, and good luck to you.‚ÄĚ –¬†but this introspection ultimately goes nowhere: the scene is about Tris’s bravery and her relationship with Four, not a commentary on funfairs, and though their climb is dangerous, the Ferris wheel is not forbidden territory.

But in Uglies, there’s a double subversion to Shay and Tally’s scene. Not only have they broken the rules by visiting the ruin, but their use of the tracks as a hoverboard route is much more dangerous than if they’d found and ridden a still-functional roller coaster. Where the original ride was safety masquerading as danger, Shay turns the tables on Tally, tricking her into doing something genuinely risky: jumping an unknown gap. And while Tally’s first reaction is anger, she’s also a bit elated, too – her success is thrilling, empowering, and all the more so because the threat of mishap was real. While DeStefano and Ryan invoke a deliberate nostalgia for the present day through the inner thoughts of their characters, and where Roth’s narration makes us consider the image of a decaying past without offering hope for the future, Westerfeld makes his audience realise that, compared to Shay and Tally’s world, our own is safe – but perhaps, in some fundamental way, less satisfying because of it.

As a subgenre, dystopia has its roots in social criticism. The big adult classics – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – all end bleakly for the protagonists: their purported futures are warnings, and at least part of their purpose is to make us wonder what horrors our own bad, real-world decisions could ultimately engender. This is not to say that all adult dystopias are concerned with social what-ifs: Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning The Road is unremittingly bleak, devoid of human society – an apocalyptic vision more than a twisted take on human folly – while William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a study of children breaking down into violence, barbarism and anarchy in the absence of any higher moral guidance. By contrast, the archetypal YA dystopia – Lois Lowry’s The Giver –¬†ends on an ambiguous note, leaving its young protagonist, Jonas, hovering somewhere between death and salvation; either way, though, he is free. While Orwell’s Winston is crushed into conformity, Huxley’s savage driven to suicide and McCarthy’s nameless father murdered, Jonas’s story ends on a vision of hope. The closest comparison is with Atwood’s Offred – we don’t see whether her escape succeeds, though the epilogue assures us of her world’s eventual¬†recuperation¬†– but even then, this knowledge is divorced from Offred’s voice. If the job of adult dystopia is to caution, therefore, it seems fair to suggest that the role of YA dystopia is to reassure: not, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, because they tell us that broken societies are¬†survivable, but because they tell us broken societies can be changed.

Which tradition is now upheld by Fever, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Divergent and Uglies¬†alike: even in the case of any as-yet incomplete series, the narrative arc is such that progress is definitely on the agenda. And yet, for all that, there’s a maddening dearth of danger and consequence both in the bulk of YA dystopias – danger, which is here distinct from action, and consequence, which is here distinct from loss. Battle scenes and dead companions are staples of YA dystopia, and yet they tend to feel like punches pulled, potential roundhouse blows swerving away from successive protagonists and into their nearest and dearest. Loss¬†is the moment when Divergent’s Tris loses both her parents and keeps on fighting; consequence,¬†though, is where Katniss Everdeen – the battle-scarred heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – is left to live with PTSD, irrevocably haunted by the catastrophe of war. Loss, to draw a comparison with another recent bugbear of mine, hints at romanticised damage; consequence does not. Similarly, action is successive protagonists being thrown into battles where the stakes are either death, which seldom afflicts main characters, or the sort of coercion that leaves no marks (and which, when combined with loss, is typified by an absence of psychological scarring). Danger¬†is when the risks involve actual physical and/or mental change – and when the protagonist doesn’t emerge unscathed.

For reasons which are complex and fascinating enough to merit an essay of their own, a staggering number of YA dystopias with female protagonists are concerned with sexuality and romance. In these stories, partners are chosen by higher powers (Matched and Crossed, Ally Condie), love is branded a disease (Delirium and Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver), teenage pregnancy is a way of life (Bumped and Thumped, Megan McCafferty), and brides are stolen freely (Wither¬†and Fever,¬†Lauren DeStefano). At the other end of the scale are female warriors: gladiators-turned-revolutionaries (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire¬†and Mockingjay,¬†Suzanne Collins), questing cage-fighters (Blood Red Road, ¬†¬†Moira Young), face-changing dissidents (Uglies, Pretties, Specials¬†and¬†Extras,¬†Scott Westerfeld), soldiers-in-training (Divergent¬†and Insurgent, Veronica Roth) and zombie-fighting survivors (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead-Tossed Waves¬†and The Dark and Hollow Places,¬†Carrie Ryan).¬†All of these books provoke questions about identity and agency;¬†all of them, too, relate to ongoing political discourse about the role of women in society, whether in terms of sexual freedom or women as front line fighters. But while some of them actively embrace this critical aspect – seeking, in the spirit of dystopia, to make us question both the real world and the fictional – others instead provoke only a sense of gratitude for our distance from their settings. They might still be reflective of current issues, but they shy away from making us make the connection, because their ultimate purpose isn’t to encourage questions.

And this, to return to my opening statement, is why I’ve finally snapped. It’s the Ferris wheel effect: a nostalgia for the present day rooted in being grateful for what we have, rather than in asking where we’re headed. It’s dystopia with the safeties on¬†– and that is, to me, an alarming inversion of how the genre should work. I have nothing against stories being written purely for escapist purposes, but dystopia is not the ideal genre for it. Of course, as in all things, your mileage may vary,¬†in which case you’re wholly entitled to disagree. Yet I’d ask that you ask yourself: what, exactly, is escapist about an uncritical dystopia? While critical protagonists set out to change society, allowing us the fantasy of ¬†being world-altering revolutionaries, uncritical protagonists remain wrapped up in themselves, dealing with immediate, personal obstacles rather than tackling their root causes. Such characters can still change the world, of course – or rather, be instrumental in its change – but the difference is one of intention: their rebellion stems from a desire to be left alone, not to combat injustice, and this difference shows in how the story treats them. They are kept safer than their critical counterparts – exposed to action and loss, rather than danger and consequence – because if something sufficiently bad were to happen or be realistically threatened, then their stories would no longer stand as purely escapist fictions: the audience would no longer want to share in their experiences.

Trigger warning for this paragraph, because we’re going to talk about rape and sexual assault – which are, for me, the crashing, trumpeting elephants in the room in far too many dystopias. On the one hand: these are big issues that ought not be treated lightly. I can understand entirely why authors shy away from mentioning them. They are dark themes, frightening and raw, capable of completely transforming the tone and scope of a book. On the other hand, though: if you build a dystopian society based around the capture, sale and slavery of women – and particularly if the reason for this is tied to pregnancy – then you are automatically inviting this threat to exist. More, if your protagonist is female and she’s trying to escape this world, then you have guaranteed the relevance of this threat. This doesn’t mean your character must be assaulted. It does mean, however, that you need a convincing explanation as to why. Not mentioning it at all, even in passing, strikes me as a form of erasure; a denial of consequence, and a dismissal of the very real trauma suffered by millions of women. If the audience can reasonably infer that rape is a thing that happens in your dystopia, then you are doing a disservice both to us and to the intelligence of your heroine to keep it hidden. The real world has a vile enough culture of silencing without extending a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to fiction, too.

To be absolutely, brutally clear: I am in no way saying that what YA dystopias need is for more teenage girls to be raped. I am saying that in instances where the plots of YA dystopias are heavily concerned with the control of women’s bodies and female sexuality, failing to even mention rape or assault as part of those societies is not only unrealistic, but an undermining of discourse.

In Delirium, Lauren Oliver does an excellent job of pointing out the perils of her society – all save one. In a world where everyone is effectively lobotomised at eighteen to ‘cure’ them of amor deliria nervosa – love – it makes perfect sense that kindness, hugging, casual touching, kissing and other such tactile displays of affection would all be taboo, reclassified as symptoms of the disease. She mentions, too, the reality of cured parents sometimes killing their children out of anger or exasperation, unable to form the usual parental bond, while married couples – forbidden to choose each other for emotional reasons – consent to be matched by the state. The book is beautifully written and world-built, exquisitely characterised and absolutely compelling. Yet there’s a hole in the heart of it, a question I can’t quite shake: the cure erases love, yes, but what about sexual desire? The two are not synonymous, and though there’s some overlap in which areas of the brain control them – both involve the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to the amygdala – sexual brain-mapping lights up multiple other regions. Which begs the question: in a world without love and greatly reduced compassion, where emotions are muted but where – we assume, given that people still reproduce the traditional way – human beings continue to experience sexual arousal, what sort of horrors go on behind closed doors?

Oliver’s world is totalitarian. Its military forces are cold and unyielding, freed from the usual human compassion for their charges. Love might be impossible among the populace, but as the story continually demonstrates, violence is not – and at least for me, that opens the door for a society rife with sexual abuse. Incorporating that possibility into the story, however, would have radically changed its scope. I understand why Oliver chose instead to tacitly infer that the cure, as well as erasing love, also eliminated rape. Delirium is still one of the best dystopias I’ve read in years, and a book I heartily recommend. For all that it doesn’t treat with societal sexuality, it nonetheless counts as a critical dystopia, commenting powerfully on freedom of choice, totalitarianism, propagandising, religion and individualism, inviting direct contrast with present day issues. Yet it, like far too many of its fellows, shrinks from discussing institutionalised misogyny and the specific issues of female oppression.

And this is a problem for me, because it seems to cut to the heart of a different discussion: the perennial questing after strong and varied female characters in SFF. I dislike the oft-floated image of YA books didactically Teaching Lessons To Teenagers; dislike, too, the inference that writing for young adults inherently entails a greater moral responsibility than writing for adults. The primary point of fiction – any fiction – is not preaching. But the lack of a moral burden is not the same as an absence of critical thought, and it strikes me that maybe one of the reasons we’re still having this conversation about the merits of various female characters is because, despite our best efforts, we’re still stuck in a mindset of gender protectiveness, particularly in YA. By which I mean: if you consider the image of a little boy hitting a little girl to be inherently worse than if he were hitting another boy, then we have a problem.

To be clear: targeted physical violence against women is still as much of a global epidemic as sexual violence. It would be hypocritical to suggest that YA dystopias ought to tackle the latter but ignore the former, especially given their penchant for producing physically aggressive heroines who are just as strong or stronger than men, and seemingly without effort. Quite the opposite: I’m actually starting to wonder if, rather than representing an idealised physical equality, such warrior-heroines are really gifted with strength in order to keep them safe, in much the same way that their romance-seeking counterparts are protected from sexual violence by the pretense that it doesn’t exist. In both cases, it seems like the fictional solution to two of the biggest women’s issues going – our physical and sexual vulnerability – is not to confront them, but to erase the reason they exist. That’s what I mean by protectionism: we’re afraid to have our heroines suffer the same dangers as real-world women, and so we keep them safe, bestowing on them unnatural strength if they’re going to fight battles, or removing the threat of rape if they’re going to encounter sexual prejudice. This is by no means a problem exclusive to YA or even dystopia, but my suspicion is that this combination of genres in particular serves to magnify it.

Under such circumstances, then, is it any surprise that we’re still asking ourselves how best to write a wide and gorgeous range of women? It’s not that we don’t understand female versatility – it’s that deep down, we still shy away from having our female characters confront real danger and consequence. Fearful of writing victims, we pretend that victimisation doesn’t exist, and so disengage from the dialogue about how such victimisation might be halted; but of all genres, dystopia shouldn’t shrink from ugly truths – regardless of the age of the audience.

By the end of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Tally Youngblood has undergone multiple transformations: from her natural self to a cosmetically enhanced Pretty, and last to a fearsome Special. Offered the chance to return to who she originally was, she refuses and finds herself imprisoned: her allies want to indoctrinate her into thinking such a reversal is for the best. But Tally is stubborn. As dangerous as she’s become, the only way forward is for her to rewire herself, alone: to become something new, no matter how uncomfortable her self-acceptance makes other people.

And if YA dystopias are serious about offering social criticism – if they really want to discuss the role of women in society – then they need to do the same.

* For now. I do plan to finish the book!