Harmful story elements

Gonna go meta for a few, please bear with.

Trigger Warning: references to rape and rape culture beyond the cut.

If you haven’t read Apple Cider Mage’s excellent write-up of "rape culture" artifacts in Pandaria, you should take the time to do so, since it’s relevant to this essay. Go ahead. My ISP bill’s paid up, I’ll be here when you get back.

Back?  Okay.

Generally speaking, I’m copasetic with what she’s saying, with one possible exception, and that is the bit at the end when she references a Dave Kosak (senior-level quest designer) interview.  He’s talking about the origin of Wrathion, and mentions that, in order for Wrathion to even be possible, the Red Dragonflight basically raped Wrathion’s mother, Nyxondra.

All of a sudden he’s so compelling. Because let’s see, his father was crazy and tried to destroy the world, his mother was basically raped by the red dragonflight, then his egg was experimented on to sever his ties with his own family – so how do you view the world at that point? Well, you don’t really view the world as a friendly place. You’re probably eager to take control of your own destiny, which he does, even before he hatches. And then you kind of have this thing to atone for – your father tried to destroy the world. Your father went crazy. Are you crazy? How do you not be crazy, how do you make up for what your father did. Suddenly he’s such a cool character! I really want to explore that character. We kind of went nuts with it. So we kind of asked people — well if you can already buy in to the idea that he hatched from his egg and already started hatching schemes, then there’s a whole cool story that can come from that. And we really rolled with it.

In my mind, it stands out as an anomaly among all the other examples offered in Apple Cider’s article.  Yes, it demonstrates a Blizz employee referencing rape as a plot element in the creation of the character, but not once does it actually hold up the rape as a "cool" element of the story.  He does mention that Wrathion’s a "cool character", but that’s hardly the same. It’s a matter of "all this rotten crap happened, thus giving our character direction and meaning and stuff."  Whereas other examples are plain sleazy examples of threatened rape as sometimes a humorous element of the story, which is just plain creepy. "You should see what they made me do with those carrots. Ugh!" as if it’s nothing.

On the one hand, gratuitous rape "humor". On the other hand, rape as a bad thing that a character is fighting to overcome in some way.

Now, as a long-time fantasy and sci-fi reader ((A more apt term may be "devourer of words.")), I have often encountered rape as a story element. It goes a lot further back in literature, of course, back at least as far as ancient mythology ((Zeus, you randy bastard. Oops, there’s that humorous shtick again. I guess that’s been around forever, too.)), and almost always used as a plot point that forged a character in some way, and almost never in a positive light ((Again, Zeus, you got a pass somehow. WTF.)).

The use of rape in WoW as a story element, as in the genesis of Wrathion and the imprisonment of Keristrasza, often appears as a necessary element to move the game’s story onward. But are they, really? Is it possible to have a female character in a story and have her wronged and yet NOT let it be rape that is the wrong? 

Rape as a crime against woman characters appears in two of my favorite series, both by the same author.

In The (various) Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, rape figures in many guises. Thomas Covenant himself loses control and rapes a young girl named Lena, thus setting into motion events that threaten to destroy the universe itself. In the second trilogy of that series, Dr. Linden Avery isn’t outright raped in the way that we understand it, but her body, mind, and spirit are violated in a way that is described as rape. The Land, which is where this is all set, is described as being raped metaphorically, and often characters are subjected to violations that are labeled as rape in one form or another.

In The Gap Cycle, rape is mentioned here and there in terms of crimes committed in the far past or in proximity to some of the characters, but the lead character, Morn Hyland, is raped right in front of us as a central part of the first book (which I do not recommend to anyone that may trigger on this topic), and it appears to fuel her through at least half of the series (protecting her illegitimate son takes precedence later on).

So the question applies here as well. How important is the act of rape to a story, can the story be told without it?  How much is too much?

In the case of the Thomas Covenant books, I think the story of The Land (which won’t be completed until 2013) centers on the acts of violation that occur. Violation is a theme; the Ravers (this milieu’s version of Nazgul, more or less) possess people and leave them with a profound sense of violation afterward. Avery has to possess Covenant at one point to save his life, and that itself is described as a violation of his mind. The Land itself was profoundly violated in the 2nd trilogy (imagine everything about Middle-Earth being turned into goblins and orcs), and the aftermath of the final four books borders on that.

At any rate, violation is a central theme, and Covenant’s initial violation of Lena can possibly be linked to the current situation. 

That act in itself was not told with great detail, and thus I was a lot less queasy about it.  Reluctantly, I conclude that the story being told has this core element to it, and it serves some purpose.

The Gap series, on the other hand, is one of those that I feel should have been done differently. The act of rape, while not described in the sort of detail you might find in your typical internet erotica, is clear enough.  You know what is being done to who and by whom. It isn’t that we get to leave the room just before, and re-enter just after to see the wreckage. No, Donaldson rubbed our faces in it.

He and I can argue all day on this, I’m sure, but in my mind the story after would have been no less compelling.  He feels strongly that we have to share the same revulsion for Angus Thermopyle as Morn does.  Instead, my revulsion was directed at the book.  I didn’t read the 2nd part of that series for years, the first book being so repugnant to me.

So here’s the hard question.  Does rape have any place in storytelling?  Is there a line to draw and where is it?

I do find it disturbing when an author is asked when one of her characters will eventually be raped, because, I guess, it’s an accepted trope if you have a female character?  I don’t know where to start with that.  The misogyny of that question is just plain offensive, the idea that it’s an expected idiom.

Nevertheless, writing about it isn’t promoting it or making it an "okay" thing.  We can’t go around pretending it doesn’t exist when it happens to so many people ((It’s disturbing to me, though, that actual misogynists will use this argument to excuse using it in sleazy manners. "We not be misogynists. We be realistic!")). We need to keep perspective on it, and remember that this affects very real people in very real ways.

Storytelling is affected by real events. It’s how we connect the stories to our own lives. But are there events that must never be mentioned, that are truly taboo? Dark storytelling goes into those uncomfortable places and makes us squirm. Should it be forbidden to go there?

I think I would have been less perceptive and sympathetic to certain things associated with rape culture if I hadn’t read those two series. I benefitted, even though I felt a bit dirty in the process. Is that good storytelling, or a cheap way to get a reaction? 

And is it different, somehow, when you tell a story ensconced in an MMO like WoW?  The artiste may claim that his integrity can allow no less.

But a book and an MMO are not the same thing.  I had a choice to read those fourteen books I mentioned.  Playing WoW, I had no choice about seeing the story of Keristrasza and Wrathion if I wanted to experience Nexus and Badlands fully. That is the fundamental difference, I believe. Stories in literature are one thing. But stories within an MMO are not, despite anyone’s protestations, high literature.

There is, however, in my mind, a huge difference in how rape is insinuated in a lighthearted way vis-à-vis  Mina Mudclaw versus how it can drive a character’s development ala Nyxondra. I’m not advocating the latter, but I refuse to paint the two with the same brush.

I don’t think that either is "cool", and I doubt Mr. Kosak does, either. But as a dramatic mover of plot … sometimes, if you have a certain story to tell, it’s difficult to avoid.

The online webcomic Penny Arcade is known for its rough humor and pointy satire. It’s also often targeted as a hive of misogynistic jerks. A good example is the Dickwolves episode, in which a player character (clearly a Worgen) is running a quest to save five slaves, and a sixth approaches him.  The "hero" refuses to save the sixth slave, because he’s already done his five.  The slave pleads, describing how each morning they are woken by beatings, and at night raped to sleep by "Dickwolves".  The hero refuses, and goes on his way.

Elements of the online community erupted at the way that they perceived rape being treated. Even though the PA characters made it clear their stance on rape, they were not pardoned.  Not respectful enough, it was said.

The amazing thing, in my eyes, was how the first comic satirized the total callousness of our PCs in the game universe – i.e. "I got my five, so long, poor rape victims!" – and yet this (to me) criminal disregard for the plight of others was completely overlooked because the crime that was being overlooked was, in fact, rape. Rape was presented as a bad thing, but since it was presented in the way it was presented, the entire message of that strip was overlooked.

The fact is, our characters walk blithely past one atrocity after another every day, in that game world.  Tycho and Gabe are right. Sure, they could have used any crime to illustrate what bastards we are.  They chose rape because it’s pretty much the worst thing possible that can happen. But then "dickwolves" tried to put a clown suit on it, and that was a step too far.  So, off with their heads.

Satire is a hard thing.  Go too far and you’re Daniel Tosh. Not far enough, and you maybe don’t get the punch you wanted.

Does rape belong anywhere close to satire?

Rape isn’t the worst crime in the world, based on our scales of justice.  Murder is. However, there are no murder survivors trying to cope with the aftermath of being dead, zombie fans of the world’s wishes to the contrary. We make jokes about murder all the time, and the dead do not object.

Rape, on the other hand, has survivors ((If it didn’t, it’d be murder.)), and those survivors have to cope with the aftermath all the time.

The point isn’t that we refrain from referencing rape because it’s the Worst Thing Ever.  It’s because the people that suffer from it are all around us, all the time. Some statistics suggest that one in five – that’s 20%! – of all women around us right now have endured rape at some point in their lives. So the odds are pretty high that if you’re talking about rape, somebody in earshot (virtual or actual) is flinching inside.

Can’t turn a blind eye to it, and when writing about people, it’s a thing that can happen and often changes things significantly in the story. But there has to be consideration for who might be seeing, or hearing, about it.  And it shouldn’t be considered a joke.

It’s clear to me that the quest writers at Blizzard are either ignorant or uncaring.  Unlike my respected colleague Apple Cider,  I haven’t yet seen evidence that it’s the latter. I’m hoping that feedback over the last two expansions will begin to have some positive effect.  Otherwise, we might as well all play Tera and enjoy the pole-dance caster animations.

Posted on October 18, 2012, in Game mechanics, Geek culture, Lore, Meta. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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