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In Which I Revisit Monday’s Post

October 8, 2009

On Monday, I wrote about violence against women in stories, specifically in a horror anthology I’ve been reading, Poe’s Children edited by Peter Straub.

Y’all responded with a ton of wonderful comments-over 50! They were thoughtful, and thought-provoking.

As I see it, and as most of the commentors saw it, there were two issues with the story excerpts I shared. The first was simply that the writing was bad. Even if it had been a totally innocuous topic, the story still would have been cringe-worthy.

The other, of course, is the role of violence against women (and mysgony) in fiction.

I really liked what fozmeadows says about why there’s more violence against women in horror:

That doesn’t excuse misogyny, but part of the reason horror can often fixate on the brutalisation/torture/rape of women is because, in a very Freudian-slash-primal part of the brain, we innately react with more disgust to the notion of a woman being violated than a man. Similarly, any crime committed against a child is another level of vileness altogether. Our animal brains seem to come equipped with a hierarchy of horror, and that means horror stories will tend to have a greater percentage of female victims.
But, as you say, that doesn’t excuse malicious ignorance or genuine misogyny on behalf of authors. That sort of ugliness only rubs salt in the wound. We cease to care about the story and start to be angry with the writer, because it appears that, rather than acting as an objective, third-person purveyor of twisted tales, they are actually enjoying the sadism of their characters – at very least, they seem to be condoning it. There’s a fine line to walk, certainly, but when the disturbing elements are emerging via the third person commentary rather than dialouge or internal character monologues, then I think the reader is within their rights to question the author’s own views, and not just take a disliking to the content of the story.

This idea, that there’s a place for such themes, as long as they’re handled appropriately was echoed throughout the comments. There’s a big difference between rape (or other violence) being a central part of the story vs. extraneous, between it being written in a sympathetic way vs. titillating. Jason put it well:

Horror is, in my limited experience, a particularly troubling genre, because while on the one hand there’s few enough horror stories pretending that the psychopath/possessed person/whatever is a good person, horror is intrinsically wrapped up in human pain, and so much like erotica can easily spill over into pornography (the line I draw is, erotica talks about sex, while pornography exploits sex), it is too easy for horror to spill over into the violence (and sometimes sex) equivalent of pornography.

And what the Literary Omnivore said:

I don’t read horror a great deal, but, as Fozmeadows says, I imagine female dismemberment is a common theme. As with any writing, it must be done well. Simply using rape pointlessly to sensationalize a story is not only lazy but offensive.

Tracie made a good point about objectifying women:

I’ve read about rape in many novels, but what I find amazing about the way it is written is that it is something horrific that happens to a woman who is slightly less than human. Meaning that we (as readers) can distance ourselves from the pain of it because it is happening to an object, but remain horrified by it because the rape is happening to a person.

Chris called it smut, which I think is a great way to describe it.

That being said, Ceri provided a kind of alternative view:

I do think, however, that we need to look at it from another angle. Perhaps the writers aren’t necessarily doing this to demean women. A lot of the time these shocking scenarios, like rape, are used as metaphors for other things. The content doesn’t necessarily reflect what the author himself feels but is used as an ‘out there’ way to speak against something else. Maybe this disgusting way women are being treated in this book is a message about how society sees women as pieces of meat.

Having read the stories, I don’t think that’s what these authors were doing. But even if they *were*, it bothers me that rape can be used as a metaphor. I know that that’s a personal stance, but rape is a horrible, awful thing, and while I can see the metaphor potential, I don’t think it should be used the way.

When all is said and done, I don’t think any of us would ban rape and violence against women from fiction. But there are different approaches to it, and as readers we have to speak up and reject authors who do it the wrong way.

The final issue is sexism against women horror writers. Nymeth provided a great link to a

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2009 10:22 pm

    Super interesting blog post. Somehow I missed Monday’s post… this is a good wrap up. It made me think: I can’t recall the last time I read something that had specific violence against a woman, at least not in a horror setting. Everything seems to happen to men, or teenage boys. I wonder why the books I pick tend to lean that direction? Maybe I’m just naturally averse to books that exploit women? I can’t believe I’m somehow that powerful, but it’s interesting. Now I’m curious about this book you’ve been reading.

  2. October 9, 2009 1:23 am

    I hope fozmeadows won’t think I’m picking on them (I’m not, promise!), but the word “innately” in that comment worries me – as do all theories that try to naturalize the idea that women are more helpless, and that therefore bad things happening to them are more horrifying (I won’t get started on Freud, promise :P). I think I’m going to go with social conditioning, if anything, as an explanation for this.

    Having said that, I’m really not sure if it’s true of all cultures that it’s more shocking to see violence against women than it is to see violence against men – at least sexual violence. I think it has become so normalized that it can, unfortunately, be used in entertainment in an almost lighthearted way (example).

    A movie where a man got raped would probably get stronger reactions out of people, simply because our societies tell us this is uncommon, while women being raped is commonplace. I think it’s horrible that it works this way, of course, but sadly it does.

    I agree with you about rape being used as a metaphor. I also wouldn’t want to ban any book where this happens or anything, but I probably wouldn’t be too happy to read it either. This is actually an issue that was discussed in one of my lit courses – we read a text by a feminist critic who put it nicely – “get your metaphors out of my body”. Sure, it can be an effective way to convey an idea in writing, but it also can lessen what is very much a REAL experience for countless women.

    Anyway…just my two cents :P I hope I didn’t sound overly argumentative there.

  3. October 9, 2009 5:03 am

    You made such a brilliant point, Eva. I’m glad you posted about it – that’s what makes your blog great. So many people had different reactions to it and, hopefully, you’ve raised some awareness of the issues women still face in today’s society. :)

  4. October 9, 2009 5:50 am

    I think you have really opened people’s eyes by publishing these posts this week and it was an important point to make. I actually abandoned a book after reading your first post, which was a book that basically degraded men completely. I could see no reason to write such things about them,which included necrophilia and beastiality, as neither added to the story. I found it all shocking and distasteful.

  5. October 9, 2009 6:56 am

    I just read Monday’s post. The excerpts are pretty shocking. Doesn’t show laziness on the part of the writer? When wanting to shock the audience female violence is the first place to go? It’s like those Saw movies, I’m sorry if people enjoy them, but I can’t see myself spending $10 to watch people being tortured for 2 hours. And they’ve made 6 of them. Give me old fashioned psychological horror any day!

  6. October 9, 2009 1:06 pm

    I’m sure I could add something, but it seems like you’ve pretty much said it all. I do like your last sentence, though: rather than fighting to ban the depiction of rape or violence against women in books, to speak out against authors who depict it in a misogynistic way.


  7. Jenny permalink
    October 9, 2009 5:15 pm

    I also think it makes a difference whether the woman in question is an object or a subject. Can we/ do we see it through her eyes? Is she fully human or just a victim/ thing to be raped/ sexualized? In one of the stories in that book, “Cleopatra Brimstone,” there’s a rape, but the entire sequence (and aftermath) is through the woman’s point of view, making her fully human (or anyway mostly, given the context of the story!) That is SO rare. Many women in horror stories are cardboard cutouts. I think this changes the way I read such a scene.

  8. October 11, 2009 6:10 am

    Daphne, that’s interesting! I wonder how that is too.

    Nymeth, I already e-mailed you. ;) I think you make a good point about how ‘rape culture’ and I LOVE that quote from the feminist critic! That’d make an awesome t-shirt!

    Ceri, thanks so much!

    Vivienne, thank you! That sounds like a very disturbing book-good for you for abandoning it!

    Chris, I agree-it’s definitely lazy writing. And I think my two fave ‘horror’ genres are ghost stories and gothic style. The more explicit violence just upsets me, and not in a good way.

    Melissa, thank you!

    Jenny, I agree completely with that crucial difference. I wanted to bring up “Cleopatra Brimstone” in this post, but my fibro brain forgot! So I’m glad you did. I thought it handled rape really well (and it was written by a woman instead of a man), but I wonder what men would think of what she starts doing in England. It didn’t bother me, but then…I’m a woman.

  9. October 11, 2009 9:26 am

    I think I’d have to agree completely with Nymeth when she says that sexual violence against women has become almost normalized. We see it so often in movies, tv shows etc. that society has come to accept it as “just one of those things.” So when writers use violence against women for shock value, it is shocking but not so shocking that people can’t put the book aside and go on with their day.

    On the topic of sexual violence in film, using women victims is so common across all genres. But change the roles and have a male victim and the films impact/focus changes quite a lot. Hard Candy is a psychological thriller about a young girl who meets up with a suspected internet pedophile, who she then holds captive, taunts, and tortures. It received wide acclaim, was nominated for 6 different awards, and won 5. Hard Candy was a powerful movie, filled with tension. But what made it different was that the violence had meaning behind it, and was meant to provoke thoughts on a controversial subject, which is what is lacking in most movies/books featuring violence against women. I think it all has to do with context – if the violence is used as a tool to promote thinking, then yes it may be valuable to the overall plot.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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