When is rape ‘OK’?

Well, that’s a bit of a shocking heading to show up here in my blog. Bobbing corpses and squished skulls, yeah. Fiberglass, leaky decks, engine work, mice under the hood, sure. But rape? OK, no less? On what planet? Planet fiction. Come, let’s visit.

I once read that in order to create a sympathetic character that readers will embrace, you need to ensure that they first suffer undeserved misfortune. Readers who are shocked by what a character has suffered empathize more, and this is especially true for female characters. During the time I was searching for an agent I was told this on more than one occasion. I was breaking a critical rule by not having my protagonist first suffer some type of devastating harm. I was informed that you can’t have a tough, capable female character simply because she is tough. No matter how epic she may be, we must first see her broken, humiliated. Simply put, in order to make Hazel a more sympathetic character, I should adhere to a time tested formula: I should have her raped and/or brutalized early in the story. Let readers see her suffer, and she’d win more hearts in the end.

While I see the logic in this approach, there’s something I find particularly troubling about the underlying concept. It makes rape ‘acceptable’ within the guidelines of the plot, because we know the poor victim is going to get her vengeance by the end. I’ve been told The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander (in both the book and movie, neither of which I’ve read/seen,) is FAR more violent and vengeful than Hazel, though each time, the standard “it’s because she was brutally raped,” disclaimer applies. Translation: her violence is acceptable and understandable, as is the, so I’m told, extremely graphic sexual violence she first suffers. Don’t let it upset you, it’s just a plot device, and our fair maiden will be stronger for having endured it. So long as she’s first been force-fed a large helping of brutal but plot driving violence, our delicate little hero can now fight back – though I was also advised that she should be very troubled and remorseful by her actions, no matter how justified.

Perhaps I might have won over more fans if I’d gone that route. Maybe it was advice I should have followed. I didn’t. But it does raise the question: is sexual brutality acceptable when it’s not necessary to the plot but used simply as a device to gain a character sympathy?

Genre Stereotypes and Gender Double-Standards

I’ll preface this post by stating that I’m well aware, as with everything else in life, there are exceptions to what I’m about to discuss, and those exceptions are a good thing. But a stereotype, by definition, is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified concept of a particular type of person or thing. And when that thing is a book, when it comes to reading, a majority of readers will make choices based upon some basic, commonly accepted conventions of plot and formula for a specific genre. For example, whether tame or steamy, romances revolve primarily around two people who initially can’t see eye-to-eye but ultimately discover their romantic love for one another, and the story will end on a happy, optimistic note. Fantasy novels usually occur somewhere imaginary, and while they often include subplots ranging from mysterious to romantic, magic of some sort or another is a key element. Readers turn to erotica primarily to be turned on. They pick up cozies, expecting a light, even humorous mystery with bloodless, off-screen murders, minimal sex and violence, featuring an amateur, often female sleuth in a small-town setting where she can turn to family, friends and authorities, though often she’s dismissed as being ‘nosy and meddlesome.’ Hobbies such as knitting, baking, and scrapbooking are popular themes. Thrillers, memoirs, science fiction – the list goes on and each of these genres carries with it certain accepted guidelines.

And then there’s hard-boiled. Lean, unsentimental, gritty. A genre where the protagonist goes head-to-head with the ugly realities of a dangerous world, and they frequently go it alone. Faced with a darker side of life and forced to survive, they fight violence with violence, often far from the assistance or the eyes of the authorities. It’s a bloody, vicious world of “be tough or be killed.” And for decades, this world has been the domain of the American tough guy. Donald Westlake’s Parker and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee are superb characters and perfect examples: physically and emotionally scarred, square-jawed, hard-hitting, hard-drinking and hard-loving men of action, cynical, calculating, and capable. The “shoot first, ask later” types who operate outside the law and follow their own moral compasses. And in these tales, the majority of the female characters fall into certain specific roles. They’re either a love interest, a victim in need of rescue and/or avenging, a femme fatale, or all of the above.  And often, they have a low survival rate.

Again, I know exceptions exist, but what I’m discussing here is the stereotype of the traditional hard-boiled mystery. The stereotype that leads some readers to see the word ‘Hardboiled’ in a description and go into a book with certain gender-specific expectations. And conversely, for readers who see the protagonist’s age and gender, then expect a cozier story.  The first lines of the description should make it clear that isn’t the case. Nice young ladies really shouldn’t be dumping bodies at sea. Then again, that isn’t stopping Hazel Moran, and she can’t figure where anyone got the idea she was nice to begin with.

Despite the fact that she’s faced with a threat, even as she has been left no choice and it’s a case of kill or be killed, even as Hazel does whatever it takes to survive, protect herself and her family, refusing to be a victim, some readers have stated both in reviews and letters to me that they were shocked by the violence from this “young girl.” It seems ironic that within the setting of a more traditional hard-boiled with a more traditional (male) protagonist, these same actions wouldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow. In fact, they’d be expected and approved. Apparently, stepping outside the traditional, more accepted genre and gender formulas established generations earlier makes some readers uncomfortable, and double standards continue, even to this day.