Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rape of the Heroine: examining rape as a tool in Sara Douglass' fantasy novels

SPOILER ALERT: This post will examine parallels in Sara Douglass' various fantasy series, including The Wayfarer Redemption, The Troy Game, and DarkGlass Mountain. Though I do not give a plot summary of any of them, I discuss events in the novels that can be considered spoilers. I will try to maintain "the author is dead" examination since I know nothing of Douglass' personal convictions; thus I will only discuss the "facts" as presented in the novels--any topics I challenge or take issue with will not reflect an opinion on the author.

I've been a fan of Douglass' work for some time now, having read all six books of Wayfarer, the first three of Troy, and two of DarkGlass (note that the third has not been released yet).

What all of these series have in common is rape and violence against women. It makes me uncomfortable each time I pick up a novel because each one in the series involves rape and violence. Granted, the novels describe epic battles, and fantastic wars against such enemies as demons, wraiths, and even beings with no real "life," as in the pyramid in DarkGlass, or the labyrinth in Troy. These enemies commit horrific atrocities against the characters (of course, because they're enemies), but we also have characters on the same side hurting one another.

Think of how Axis beat Azhure when he thought she might betray him, nearly killing her. Think how Axis used Faraday for his own gains, which ultimately cost her her life.

Think of how Brutus raped Cornelia, an act that made her his wife.

How many times is rape used to advance the story? Quite a bit, actually. It seems that the heroines in these novels are doomed to experience sexual assault. Cornelia is repeatedly raped by Brutus, her "husband." Faraday is raped by Borneheld (well, she doesn't seem all that willing even though it's her "fate"). Zephyr is raped by WolfStar; WolfStar by the Timekeeper demons; Salome by every man and beast with a dick in Coroleas as punishment; Inardle is raped, given as a prize to a soldier; SummerStar is raped by a wraith (Skraeling).

These rapes all serve a purpose: advance the story so the hero can do his thing. Sadly, even the heroes committing the rapes are portrayed in a sympathetic way, as if saying, "Yeah, he's a rapist, but that's just his flaw." Like Brutus--the conquering hero, rapist of his wife. He's ambitious. Later, he learns that he loves Cornelia, after he's lost her. Oh, and he's lost her (this is me discussing Book Three of Troy) to another abuser of hers, Weyland. Inardle lets herself get raped so she can be rescued by Axis, and thus gain his confidence (nothing turns on a man more than being allowed to play the hero, rescuing the wounded woman in an act of uber-manliness). Inardle is powerful, capable of enchantments that can heal herself; she acknowledges that she could have saved herself, in an admission that she allowed the rape to happen.

What's extremely troubling in all these instances of rape is that the majority of the time the victim eventually comes to love her rapist or abuser. Zephyr loves WolfStar; Cornelia loves Brutus and Weyland, respectively; Azhure loves Axis. For Zephyr and Cornelia, relationships didn't come first--what was first in these interactions was either rape or other physical abuse, and love grew. It reads as if rape is okay, because the women don't seem so affected by it. Certainly, after it has happened, the women carry on almost as nothing happened.

While the victims falling in love with their abusers may be realistic, it is problematic in the novels. The reader is perched on the shoulder of the woman. WE experience her fear, abuse, and humiliation, and so it follows that we experience her eventual love of her abuser. We sympathize with the abuser, recognizing his deep emotional pain that caused him to rape or beat the woman (in the case of Cornelia and Weyland, the cause is the heartbreak of betrayal by another woman). Even Brutus, whose rape of Cornelia mirrors his conquest of the Troy Game, is sympathetic.

I remember my own emotional response when reading these novels. I was disgusted with the rapes and abuse, and nearly stopped reading. But as the woman's emotions changed from fear to love, mine did too. I remember rooting for Cornelia to love Weyland--afterall, his was a sad story and he just needed to be loved--she had to love him to change him. And the Cornelia-Brutus relationship (I use this word loosely) was equally depressing--why couldn't they both love each other?

These were my thoughts (which I didn't challenge or confront for a long time, so oblivious to the rape culture I was (am) in) despite the crimes of Brutus and Weyland. Weyland especially, since he also raped and beat Genvissa in one body, then came to her as the Minotaur and offered kindness until she no longer realized that the two bodies were the same person. In another life cycle (The Troy Game takes place over several time periods, where the main players are reborn) Weyland rapes Genvissa the first time before she's a teenager, then sells her body to other men. And still I actually wanted Cornelia to love him.

This all reads as rape apologism. These men are portrayed in such a way that their abusive tendencies are just their "flaws"; flaws in heros serve as a grounding, something that makes them more human. In this case, what makes these heros more human is they participate in the rape and abuse of women. In the case of the victims in these novels, rape is inevitable, and the only thing they can do is accept their task to "fix" their rapists by loving them.

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There are other issues I have with Douglass' novels. I'll try to be brief:

  • The Icarii are male-centric, so much so that the very births of them are dependent on the father, or should I say the life of the woman giving birth is dependent on the father of her child. If the father is not present to sing to the baby as it's born, then the mother will die in childbirth.
  • Though the women are powerful, the stories are often hinged on that one male hero: Axis (Starman); Maxel (Lord of Elcho Falling); DragonStar; Brutus; etc. Axis couldn't have won his battle against Gorgrael without Azhure, yet he's still the hero.
  • The heros are not just conflicted with their tasks: they also have lady troubles. Axis is torn between Azhure and Faraday; Maxel between Ravenna and Ishbel; Brutus with Genvissa and Cornelia. The man uses both women for his gains, casts one off, loves only one. There's also a clear virgin/whore dichotomy in them, the "good" one being the one the hero keeps (though Azhure and Faraday are both sort of good, so that doesn't really work here--but it's understood that Faraday is expendable in the first half of Wayfarer). However, Genvissa and Ravenna are the more "treacherous" women, using their sexuality for their own gains.
  • In The Twisted Citadel, the One represents perfection incarnate, and is gendered male.
  • The Lealfast are a race created by the Icarii mating with Skraelings, but this is pinned to one father and one mother; one "mating" created an entire race. This "mating" is really the brutal rape of SummerStar, who then bears more than 200 Lealfast before dying from exhaustion.
  • Events often depend on taking or not taking a woman to bed (as in the case of Maxel and Ishbel). Trusting women and sleeping with them is risky because they could be the hero's downfall.
  • Unrelated to gender, the irritating word "literally" appears 12 obnoxious times in Citadel. I'm not sure if it's in the other novels, since it's been some time since my reading of them, but due to the prevalence of the word in Citadel, I'm sure it's there too. I think this has something to do with why I hate that word so much.
Sara Douglass' novels are riveting stories. The reader is made to experience what the characters experience. However, the portrayal of women and the rape and abuse of women to progress the stories is a damaging sort of apologism--nothing more than a tool for the stories. The uplifting of abusive heros is equally damaging.

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Barbara Fisher said...

I always thought that using rape as a storytelling device more than once or twice by an author was either nothing more than sloppy storytelling showing lack of imagination, or an expression of conscious or subconscious misogyny. The exception, of course, are the rape-revenge stories which can be cathartic for female authors to write, but which tend to be so predictable as to be in general--literary junk.

I notice that a lot of fantasy authors use rape or sexual degradation or abuse of women and girls as almost a shorthand--and in some authors' writings--once you meet a female character--whether she is strong or not--you can predict that she either has been raped, was a sex slave or abused sexually in her past and is a secret deep in the dark recesses of her psyche, and this is what drives her, or that in the course of the story, she will be raped or sexually abused in some way, directly or indirectly.

It is part of why I have given up on reading much fantasy literature these days.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree with your point - I haven't read Sara Douglass books in a long time, but I have read Threshold several times. It made me so angry that Boaz raped Tirzah and beat her nearly to death, but it was 'ok' because he was under the influence of the One when he did it, and his Elemental side actually loved her. Again, he is the Hero - although Tirzah seems to be the heroine at first, it is only through her love and care that Boaz can reconcil his two heritages and defeat the One (vomit.) Although the One in this is male, and the priests can only be male, it is set up to be the villan, while the opposing Elementals are arguably genderless and people of both sexes are able to be Elemental mages.

The White Mare by Jules Watson is a fantasy/historical novel in which the main female character was raped. While it's not the best novel, in my opinion it deals very well with the trauma and aftermath of rape, unlike many other fantasy novels.

Anonymous said...

I want to suggest Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth books as fantasy novels that deal with rape in a less harmful way (imo). In his novels, rape is seen as unambiguously terrible, and is often used as a weapon of war (by the 'bad guys', that is), which is very realistic. Other notes- rape is portrayed as part of a cycle of violence: the lead character is raped by a woman who is holding him hostage for her commander, who also rapes and abuses her, a common abuse cycle in real life. Also, as you may have noticed from the last sentence, the lead male character is a victim of rape, and it's never played as sexy or anything except bad.

Gnatalby said...

I've never read the books, but it sounds to me like the woman in the refridgerator syndrome that afflicts comic books-- the traumatic experience of the woman is used merely as a plot device to move a male story along.

Anonymous said...

I've read the first of George Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels and they read much the same way as what you describe here. I plan to review it in the future.

I hate so much when rape becomes a plothook like any other and has greater effect on the male characters' plotlines than those of the female characters.

Fossick Book Reviews said...

I know this is an old post, but I wanted to say you've pretty much nailed exactly my issue with Sara Douglass' work. It's a shame because she did create beautiful fantasy, but this one particular issue I keep tripping over. The number of female characters who underwent some sort of sexual violence or had control of their sexuality taken away from them vastly outnumbered the woman who didn't.