Rape as Backstory: Not Buying It
I have a problem with certain Strong Female Characters. I, as much as the next feminist, would like to see strong, complex, interesting female characters. However what I find unfortunate is when we are reduced to “strong” female characters, and those characters are given some very predictable backstories that play into certain extremely sexist stereotypes about cold women or women who hate men. One of those backstories in particular drives me completely bonkers- the recurring story of: “woman is raped, woman becomes Strong.” Off the top of my head I can name Daenerys, Lisbeth Salander, and The Bride from Kill Bill. This particular form of character development is particularly common in video games, but is by no means limited to them.
Now some of you might be out there saying, “But come on, that’s a real thing that happens and isn’t it good to see women overcome that and isn’t it good to have Real Backstory that has Real Trauma?” That would be all well and good if this trope weren’t so common, and if it didn’t seem to be the only thing that writers could think of that would create a strong woman. Once again in the media and popular culture, women are reduced to their sexuality.
It’s telling that the only way that many writers can think of to develop a female character is to relate to their sexuality and to objectification. Women can actually become strong without any sort of trauma at all, and some women (gasp) do it without it being related to sex! Women do in fact have personalities COMPLETELY unrelated to sex or how they behave sexually (although sometimes that does play a role). Additionally, this trope always seems to imply that being raped is some sort of really rare event, like being bitten by a radioactive spider. Fun fact: that’s not true! Rape is common, and women have to deal with it in average everyday ways EVERY SINGLE DAY.
An intensely creepy element of this trope is the assumption that hurting someone will make them stronger. This seems to be similar to the Pearls’ method of child discipline, and is very much in line with the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” school of thought. Unfortunately, this is blatantly false. Research with rats and rhesus monkeys shows that brain chemistry will change for years after a single traumatic event and leave the sufferer more sensitive to similar events. It literally damages your brain to suffer trauma or intense stress.
But my biggest problem with this trope is not that it continually reduces women to only their sexuality or implies that women can’t be strong unless they’ve had damage done to them, but rather what it says about how women should react to sexual violence and harassment. Generally when women are raped, they do not get revenge. They are told to shut up because it’s their fault. In the real world, serious trauma doesn’t lend you superhuman strength- it does in fact hurt you, and leave you needing comfort and recovery. Beyond that, even if it DID result in some sort of amazing revenge story, society would not applaud the woman who kills the man who assaults her: she would be put in jail, labelled crazy, and her life would be ruined. These tropes seem to be another form of victim blaming, but after the fact: “get over it and move on with your life”, because it should make you stronger. This is a horrible thing to tell women. No, being raped does not make you stronger. Just like being beaten or stolen from or abused or any other bad thing does not make you stronger. You can react with strength to it, but that is not the only appropriate response, nor is there anything wrong with those who react in other ways. And indeed, murdering the man who perpetrated the rape is not, I would argue, the appropriate response.
I would like to see female characters that are allowed to be strong, and are allowed to react in human ways to horrific, tragic happenings in their lives. These are people who may or may not break when they go through trauma because that is in fact what real human beings do. One example of this that I can point to is Buffy, who is deeply hurt and traumatized after an attempted rape. She was strong before it, and while she continues to be strong after it, it’s a blow. It destroys one of her relationships; it leaves her hurt and afraid; and it’s something that she overcomes only with time. This is realistic.
It doesn’t diminish women to see them reacting with pain or struggling with difficult situations. It is far more damaging when women see that they’re expected to just get up and keep going when they go through horrible trauma- that they’re not allowed to suffer or be at all broken.