On The “Rape As Backstory” Trope

A few weeks ago, after I’d (finally) gotten around to finishing season one of Top of the Lake, I posted some thoughts about the rape as backstory trope, and my distaste for it. I figured that while it could be an instance of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon gone awry, there seemed to be far too many fictional women who’d been raped or sexually assaulted in some way.

Picture of a blonde woman with a swollen black eye and bandages on her face.

Another thing that I neglected to mention when I was tweeting about this is how often rape is used to punish unlikeable women. Rape in fiction is often used as a means to penalize women for being unladylike, domineering, or in any way displaying traits most often associated with masculinity. There are countless examples of women in fiction who are viewed as “ball busters” being raped as penance for daring to not be traditionally feminine. From House of Cards‘s steely and calculating Claire Underwood to Private Practice‘s “bossy” head of the ER Charlotte King to Scandal‘s conniving First Lady Mellie Grant, women are routinely “taken down a notch” by being sexually violated.

Charlotte King’s character specifically softens dramatically after her attack and is no longer the unapproachable and unapologetic bitch that she had been before. While some measure of personality change is certainly understandable and even expected after a trauma, the extent of her reboot seems to suggest that her rape was a means to start remolding her into a more sympathetic and likable character. In instances like Claire Underwood, where the trauma occurs before we have met the character, the implication then becomes that this woman’s closed-off demeanor is as a direct result of her rape, an issue that is problematic in its own right.

But the most egregious way that rape is used in fiction is to motivate a male character. While the examples above are not at all desirable, they are still a step above using a female character as a plot device in a man’s story. There’s a quote floating around the internet that goes something like “If you want to hurt a man, hurt his woman” and it shows just how disposable women can often become in fiction. That even men’s pain and anguish is expressed through a woman’s suffering.

While I definitely think that the issue is complex, I do think that we need to be critically examining the way that we represent rape in fiction. Rape is a real part of life, and the statistics show that it is an all too common part. But it is also a deeply traumatic part that should be being exploited for shock value and ratings, but rather in service to a larger for nuanced exploration of the realities of rape in our world.

One thought on “On The “Rape As Backstory” Trope”

  1. But what did you think of Top of the Lake (outside the rape backstory)?

    I find this a tough subject. I think rape in fiction very much shows the one-minded way of thinking our society does about rape, rape victims and offenders. You’d think that being a writer of fiction, you can come up with new ways of delivering the subject, if you have to deliver the subject.

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