Empowerment and victimization in male-coded genres
When I was a small child, I saw enough of action movies and thought enough of action movies (a lot and a little, respectively) to codify with an emotional association the ubiquitous signage of real life, that toughness and even violence were the language of an ideal human. Not only did these movies center-stage their violent hero, they gave them an oversized task: the ultimate actualization in the context of their world. These fucking great guys could do anything, unlike the other, less heteronormative bit players around them (though usually racially homogeneous, it was about gender, body type, or archetype). I know I’m not alone in this, as we were all small children once, and many continue to be. The wild thing was, I didn’t know just how much those movies had impacted my thinking until after I graduated college, and how much that thinking needed to change.
For me, when the Neo or the Robocop reaches their heroic climax, there’s the Trinity and Lewis who didn’t. And those two characters are sterling examples of strong women in scifi. So most examples then don’t live up to the thousands of male heroes we’ve created and enjoyed, and who finish quite alone. I can see, then, how others in my generation, who also take their media very seriously, may have subconsciously concluded that women do not actualize, or do anything “worthwhile” if “worthwhile” is defined by the parameters of whichever monomyth example. Generally speaking, sexism can never be considered “unlikely,” and its origins are diverse like a tropical ecosystem, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to say people who never see instances of women accomplishing things, whether fictional or nonfictional, will proceed to underestimate women, at least, especially when they do have instances of men accomplishing those things.
And what if we push further on that lack of actualization, that it isn’t just ‘the woman is off to the side,’ but that she’s victimized? This is where I diverge from my sexist brethren, but remain sexist, suggesting the blight is multidimensional. The victim of violence immediately falls out of the hero/ideal paradigm, not because the classical hero is never tortured or in pain, but that violence against women reads so specifically, and ought to.
In high school and college, a discussion was brewing around The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its kind, that raping the female lead was finally growing tiring, but still prevalent because someone everywhere believed it was, in fact, necessary, perhaps for the sake of believability in an action/thriller context. Meanwhile, my blood was remembering that my formative heroes, Neo and Robocop and the Terminator and friends, were never, ever raped. The binary was further solidifying between ‘strong’ and weak.’
After college, in 2015, I moved from Milford, MA to North Hollywood, CA, with a friend from high school, Cassandra. Sometime later that year or early next year, it was announced that Nic Pizzolatto, responding to criticism with a grunt, was writing a female lead for the much-anticipated second season of True Detective. Knowing well (and having enjoyed) the first season, I knew that this woman character was a lock for “rape in her past.”
“I know she’s gonna have been raped, or something,” I said to Cassandra. “Guys don’t know how to write strong women without an element of rape.” She cocked her head.
“What’s wrong with that?” she said.
“Well,” as I’m sure I begun, “women don’t need to have been raped to be tough.”
“But it does make them tough.”
And all the sound and color escaped from the room. Of course it does. Now, as a man, it’s a zero divide to admit defeat in a conversation, so I think I just kept talking without making points until the conversation was over. I was upset, and remained upset possibly for years. That is, I’ve concluded, the feeling of cognitive dissonance that comes from new ideas intervening on sexist beliefs: step one on that journey all men must take.
The survivor was the crucial missing piece. It never occurred to me because, consistently, those stories never reached me; not only were they scarce to begin with, I was not interested in them. Hence the scarcity. If Gaspar Noe’s lurid “rape is bad” treatise is a foreign art film outside most notice, depictions of more common types of sexual assault will have zero market. We remember how easily men like me are triggered and feel accused at the drop of a hat (or a pin). And beyond that, my definition of heroism clearly excluded victimization, and consequently, a binary allowed the equation of “victimization” to “weakness.”
But if I then return to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or I Spit On Your Grave or any female-led action revenge movie, the distinction between problematic and not is now blurred? There’s also the curious Tomb Raider (2013), an example of the pagans at the festival for the new gods, which is probably a reference to something, but is to me, just an interesting turn of phrase I heard on a podcast. This gritty reboot was plugging along as one does, grittily, but had its rape scene cut following a negative prerelease prereception. This was a bit of a blowup back in 2012, with developer Crystal Dynamics stepping in at one point to corporately apologize.
Mary Hamilton writes this on fictional sexual assault in The Guardian: “In too much media, its use is a lazy shorthand that allows a writer to paint a bad guy as particularly bad, and a woman as particularly vulnerable (the genders are rarely reversed), without dealing with the consequences or meaning of such an act for any of the parties involved.” This mirrors a brief note by Becky Chambers at The Mary Sue: “Do I think that rape-as-backstory is overused and unnecessary? Yes.”
On Kotaku, we hear an offhand rationale from one of the Tomb Raider producers, Ron Rosenberg: “She’s literally turned into a cornered animal. And that’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s either forced to fight back or die and that’s what we’re showing today.” If a guy’s immediate go-to for “survival” is “because of sexual assault,” then perhaps we’ve identified our problem: male writers.
“Do I think that the game’s executive producer said some very poorly thought-out things, not just about rape, but about how players (read as: dudes) can’t connect to a female protagonist unless they can protect her? Yes,” Chambers writes. This is also in response to Rosenberg’s myopic contention that “You start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character.”
As critics would find upon the game’s release, the vulnerability of 2013’s Lara Croft was effective, to where she traded silly combat rolls for desperate dashes, and could unlock “thrown dirt” along a skill tree. But a sentiment like Rosenberg’s and the game itself raise the question of whether this vulnerability comes from the island survival theme or the fact of the protagonist’s gender. And by “raise” the question, I suppose I mean “answer.”
Rosenberg doesn’t just speak of “rooting for,” but “protecting,” and just as Irreversible’s hideous raison d’etre is the engine for Vincent Cassel’s maniac and rather entertaining rampage through France, or that the French-Canadian fur traders rape of an Indian woman in The Revenant powers a revenge detour, scary men assaulting a woman pushes male buttons. So if we’re going the refrigerator route, we see how the narrative of overcoming trauma doesn’t fit in the avenge-or-protect framework, and if the woman doesn’t overcome, she doesn’t survive, and she isn’t strong. Enter this easy lie of victimhood as weakness.
In the end, Tomb Raider (2013), much more so than its follow-up, maintained a fair bit of atmosphere, though much of that atmosphere was the foreboding, rocky beaches, where you could attack scuttling crabs with shotguns.
So what’s the answer, then? Should we cut victimization out of these narratives if we’re feeling fatigued of undermined strength, or be more open about the reality of the numbers? Well, I don’t know, but I think no matter what, women writers should be the one to answer.
Cut, print, but of course, like Derek, I do have some interesting thoughts on the matter.
This is, among other things, an issue of representation, and like all representation, the long-tail baseline is correlative. If, for example, five percent of the American population is made up of people of Asian descent, then the starting number for meaningful representation of Asian-Americans in media is five percent. In the beginning though, let’s say, around 2016 through the near future, we need much more than that. Race and gender-bend as many characters as possible, because we’re playing catch-up. But when things have evened out, correlative makes enough sense to me.
So if we apply that to victims of sexual assault, about 90% of leading roles for women are characters with assault in their pasts, regardless the impact on the story. And this also means, for my Neos and Robocops, that 10% of leading roles for guys will also have assault in their pasts.
And then, as storytellers, we ask why. Representation shouldn’t, theoretically, prompt debate, but it is becoming decreasingly theoretical, which is *squints, reads card* scary. And so here, we question the purpose of the representation: is this character meant to reflect our existing reality or suggest a better one? And that’s where I’d always gotten stuck, because in a utopic work of media, sexual assault itself wouldn’t exist. But if that’s true, then survivors of sexual assault wouldn’t exist, either, and that’s being exclusive in a horrific way, as well as ignorant of important social considerations. So how does a hypothetical utopic work of media then contain both?
Well, I realize now that the two approaches, reflective and suggesting, are the same. And this is despite the inelasticity of my mental framework of strength which wouldn’t allow a nuanced understanding of victimization, which extends well beyond fiction:
Systemic forces work alongside any other imbalance to maintain victimhood’s singular, seemingly passive face. Sexual assault does not, in fact, characterize a fictional woman as we’ve thought, any more than it does real world survivors.
We coded the genres of action, scifi, and horror as male, and while the conflicting messages of Tomb Raider (2013) backlash and tweets like you saw at the top spark ludicrous musings like mine here, the prospect of more responsible representation in these genres could be the difference for incoming males, still interested in these stories. If the frame meaningfully lingered on the victim in question, different narratives would emerge, and the traditional model of hero would finally meet a real challenge.