Today in Rape Culture

[Content Note: Sexual violence; rape jokes; misogyny; Game of Thrones spoilers.]

This past weekend, there were two major incidents of rape in entertainment: Louis CK hosted the season finale of Saturday Night Live, and spent a large portion of the intro doing a "comedy" bit about child rape; and Game of Thrones featured a rape scene of a central female character, which served as a plot point for a male character.

On their face, the two incidents may seem to have very little to do with one another—or may appear to be simply another two typical instances of the pervasive rape culture that turns sexual violence into fodder for eager audiences. But what these two incidents particularly share in common is that they were both content created by straight white men who have previously been criticized for rape-related content, who have now clearly drawn lines about where they stand on sensitivity to survivors—and there is, as always, an aggressive phalanx of fans who have mobilized in their defense.

Louis C.K. on SNL

Louis C.K., like many stand-up comedians who host SNL, used the host's opening to do some straightforward comedy, rather than indulge in the song-and-dance numbers or staged audience question segments favored by other hosts. He started with a bit about how he's a "mild racist," then moved on to a piece about parenting (during which he compared his two daughters to Israel and Palestine and referred to them as "bitches"), then closed on an extended riff about child molestation.

Among the "jokes" featured in this bit was victim-blaming, in the form of suggesting that smart children avoid being raped simply by avoiding sexual predators' homes, as well as the old "rape is a compliment" narrative, in the form of saying that he's a little offended he was never assaulted by a known predator in his neighborhood when he was a kid.

The segment culminated with his commenting about the tenacity of child predators and observing that child rape "must be amazing to risk so much."
If someone said to me, you eat another Mounds Bar and go to jail everyone will hate you...I'd stop doing it. ...There's no worse life available to a human than being a caught child molester ...You could only really surmise that it must be really good...for them to risk so much.
Predictably, people with a modicum of sensitivity and a functional sense of decency criticized Louis C.K.'s onslaught of rape jokes. (And some of his fans expressed surprise that he would "go so far," despite the fact that he has repeatedly defended rape jokes.) And, like clockwork, Louis C.K.'s fans defended the routine as "humor" and "free speech" and hurled tired accusations of oversensitivity and humorlessness at anyone who found it insensitive, inappropriate, and/or a normalization of rape and a perpetuation of the rape culture. Insert Boilerplate 101: The Edgy Comic Response here.

I don't know if there's anything I can say that I haven't already said literally hundreds of times before about rape jokes and rape culture that could convince Louis C.K.'s defenders to reconsider their reprehensible position. But I will observe this: As has been discussed in this space previously, it is an open secret that Louis C.K. sexually assaults female colleagues. His defenders are not merely defending a comedian telling jokes; they are defending an accused sexual predator who tells jokes about sexual predation.

When the allegations about Bill Cosby finally gained traction, after years of being diligently ignored by the public, and dozens of women came forward to share their stories of being assaulted by Cosby, people gasped and wondered how it could happen—but he had joked about drugging and raping women right in his comedy act.

When Dylan Farrow finally told her story, in her own words, about Woody Allen assaulting her, people gasped and wondered how it could be true—but narratives of predation on girls runs through his work.

When charges were brought against Jian Ghomeshi, first by one woman and then more, people gasped and wondered how could he have gotten away with it for so long—but it was known; it was known and people who didn't want it to be true simply ignored it. They defended him.

There are always fans to defend these men, even when they tell us right in their work that they are predators. It's art; it's comedy; it's unfounded rumor.

And the women, we women, we survivors, we Cassandras who dedicate our lives to deconstructing the rape culture and understanding rapists, sound the alarm over and over, and are drowned out by a cacophonous chorus of defenders who marginalize us as crackpots and hysterics.

This is not defending art, or comedy, or free speech. It's aiding and abetting a predator.

The Rape Scene on Game of Thrones

Last night's episode of Game of Thrones ended with Sansa Stark being married to Ramsay Bolton, who established her virginity before raping her and commanding his torture victim Reek (nee Theon Greyjoy) to watch. The scene was filmed so that the rape happens out of view; instead, the camera focuses in on Reek's quivering face, as he watches a young woman, with whom he was raised as a virtual sibling, being raped by a man who has intensely tortured and sexually mutilated him.

Because of the way it's filmed, the entire rape is framed as just another terrible thing Ramsay is doing to Reek. It is his reaction we see. There is no close-up of Sansa's face. We only hear her being raped. (The captions on the scene merely read: "Sansa cries.")

We have already seen Ramsay harm women: We have seen him rape, hunt, and kill women, and we have seen him mercilessly torture Reek. There was no need to establish that he is monstrously cruel. If the entire point of the scene was to prompt Reek to reclaim his identity as Theon, the mere threat of Sansa being raped could have sufficed. The rape scene was, in every conceivable way, gratuitous. Just a vicious sacrifice of a female character without even centering her in the experience.

I am not reflexively averse to sexual violence in movies and TV shows, but, as I have said many times before, rape must be more than a plot point for character development of male characters.

(At The MarySue, Jill Pantozzi explains how "Using rape as the impetus for character motivations is one of the most problematic tropes in fiction," and why this scene was so unfathomably gross from a plotting standpoint.)

In the books on which the show is based, there is another character who is Ramsay's wife, and the showrunners for the television series collapsed that character and her story with Sansa's, to streamline the series. Many people have described the scene in the book as "even worse," because Ramsay forces Reek to participate in the rape, thus sexually victimizing him in the process. But, in that version, Reek draws the line with his torturer and captor at being forced to hurt another human in the way Ramsay does. In that version, he is a simultaneous victim, reacting to his own victimization. Here, he is a "savior" (at best, and only after the fact), and snaps out of his thrall only when he is forced to witness Ramsay raping a female character who "matters."

I am certainly not arguing that I wanted to see another character raped—but the fact that Reek is not raped in the show, despite being raped in the books, fundamentally changes the scene and, quite literally, means that Sansa was raped just so his character could experience growth. And that the writers wanted to make the scene about him without his actually being raped via forced participation is really telling.

Further, Ramsay not only violates Sansa's consent, but, now, care of the show's shitty nightmare writers, has now stolen her agency—because everything that Sansa does now will be seen as being motivated by that rape. Her entire character arc from here forward will be a direct line back to that moment: If she's strong, it's because she's a survivor. If she's weak, it's because she's a victim. If she's powerful, it's because rape magically turns women into superheroes. If she's evil, it's because rape magically turns women into monsters.

One man, a rapist, has now been given the entire responsibility for her character growth.

And what did one of the writers responsible for this fucking mess have to say about it? That the responsibility lies with Sansa:
"This is Game of Thrones," he said soberly. "This isn't a timid little girl walking into a wedding night with Joffrey. This is a hardened woman making a choice and she sees this as the way to get back her homeland. Sansa has a wedding night in the sense she never thought she would with one of the monsters of the show. It's pretty intense and awful and the character will have to deal with it."
This is a hardened woman making a choice. It is deeply problematic, to put it politely, to be using the language of "choice" in an explanation for how a female character came to be raped for the character development of a male character.

Meanwhile, the writer of the books, George R.R. Martin, merely observes that it's okay when the show deviates from the books. Super.

* * *

My position on rape in entertainment has long been clear. I am angry that I have been obliged to write about rape jokes and rape being used as a plot device once again, but I am writing about it because I want to validate the feelings of those who are also angry and provide a space in which there will be a zero tolerance policy on defense of this despicable shit.

Those of us who react to this with anger, horror, contempt, righteous indignation are not oversensitive. The people who create this sort of content, and the people who defend it, are not sensitive enough.

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