Rape in Fiction: Can It Ever Be Funny?

OK, hands up! Who’s judged me already because of the emotive title?

Can we please just try and get through this blog post with everyone being mature about a sensitive and difficult subject, and without anyone getting accused of being worse than Hitler?

Thank you. On with the blog.

*     *     *

There are a couple of writers’ forums I visit occasionally and a recent hot topic on both has been the issues confronted by men writing female characters.

It’s a subject that certainly inflames the passions – I’ve been absolutely astounded at how intelligent people claiming a deep interest in the mechanics of literature can start ranting and screaming at the merest provocation – and rape especially is a subject that inspires the ‘four-legs-good-two-legs-bad’ brigade.

To some extent, the irrational anger and vitriol is a product of the desocialised nature of the internet (ie, people wouldn’t behave so impolitely if they were facing each other in real life), but it may also indicate that a large proportion of would-be writers do not know where to draw the line between reality and fiction.

Let’s be clear about a few things:

  • rape in real life is bad;
  • having a rapist in your story does not make you a vicarious rapist;
  • having a rapist in your story does not mean that he (or she) must have no redeeming features;
  • having a rapist in your story does not mean that he (or she) must come to a bad end or otherwise get their come-uppance;
  • the subject of rape does not always have to be handled tastefully and sensitively; and most importantly
  • if you have a personal experience of rape or know someone who has, that makes you deserving of much compassion. It does not entitle you to an axiomatic right to tell writers how they ought to deal with the subject in fiction.

Context is critical and if it suits your story to include a rapist who is otherwise charming, or funny, or an apparently loving family man, then that’s fine. There are plenty of such people in real life so why shouldn’t there be in fiction? You are the writer – it’s up to you how the rules of your world work – but if you are going to feature rape in your story, you’d better make sure that the actions and consequences are appropriate to the context.

For example, if your story is a comedy about 9th Century Vikings, the way you deal with rape will be very different from a contemporary drama. The opening scene to Terry Gilliam’s Erik the Viking was a raid on a village. All the men were being brutally murdered and the women were being raped. Young Erik flings his potential victim onto a bed but then gets flustered and tangled up and can’t get his kit off. The victim complains that he’s ‘hopeless’.

It’s a funny scene, but the humour is not the (attempted) rape. The humour lies in how Gilliam manipulates the audience with the girl’s surprise response to an apparently desperate situation.

Similarly on Family Guy, 16 year old Meg gets excited when she thinks she’s about to be raped by a pair of burglars, but the burglars are profoundly shocked and offended when they realise what she expects of them. (Meg is later charged with being a sexual predator.) Once again the humour lies in the way our expectations are reversed – it is the context that is funny, not the rape.

It is interesting to compare rape with murder. What percentage of books or films would include at least one death? I’ve done no research, but off the top of my head I’d estimate more than 95%. And many such books and films have multiple deaths (sometimes thousands), deliberately inflicted and very gory. How affected are we by these fictional deaths?

Now compare that with real life – in my own local community there was recently a tragic accidental death of a teenage boy. Hundreds of people were affected. Some will take years to recover. His parents, of course, will never be the same. Yet despite the tragedy, most (if not all) of these people will continue to enjoy murder mysteries, Star Wars or even Saving Private Ryan in the knowledge that fictional deaths (even those representing historical reality) are exactly that – fictional. Hordes of extras being mown down by light sabres, or even machine guns on Omaha Beach, will not cause bereaved viewers to connect those fictional deaths with real world tragedy (in most cases).

What this reveals is the fact that we are so inured to fictional death (even fictional murder) that it fails to affect us at all.

Why is rape different?

I can think of a few possibilities – the horrific enforced ‘intimacy’; having to deal with the consequences of violation as opposed to the finality of death. But I think the main reason is the fact that rape is so rarely dealt with in fiction, in comparison with death/murder, that we are not inured to it as we are to murder. We retain the best part of our real world revulsion when confronted with rape in fiction which enables some writers or film makers to manipulate that revulsion and shock us into laughing.

One of the saddest things about this world is that people everywhere can easily see the problems inherent in other cultures, or other peoples’ lives, but cannot see exactly the same problems in their own (am I right Salman Rushdie?). Part of our job as writers is to bend the rules – to challenge people into examining their most fundamental concepts or cherished values by testing those values in unusual contexts. Serious writers (whether of comedy or drama) ought to be holding up a mirror to their own culture, forcing their readers to examine both the beauty and the flaws. In order to do this a writer must be able to see through the distorting filters of their own conditioning and must be able to comprehend the difference between reality and the mechanics of fiction. This is the sort of thing I expect to discuss on writers’ forums, in a calm and rational manner, all of us understanding that if the subject of rape crops up (or any other subject for that matter), we are talking about how to deal with the subject in fiction. Writers’ forums are not for therapy.

When personally attacked for my views on one particular forum, I was forced to reveal a part of my real persona in defence. As well as being a writer, I am a lawyer, married to the love of my life, and the idea of rape (in real life) is incomprehensibly hideous to me. I’m about as socialised and well-adjusted as it is possible to be in the post-modern industrial/military complex, and yet there will still be people (including some who regard themselves as writers) who will read this article and somehow form the impression that I am in favour of rape.

By the way, in case you were wondering, there is quite a lot of sex in my novels but nearly all of it is consensual.

Yes, that was a joke. And if I am worse than Hitler, then it’s not by much.

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