“Remember this too: all bad writers are in love with the epic.” – Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway
[TW: This post does discuss rape as a narrative device and thus if the topic of rape is uncomfortable for some I would advise against giving this a read.]
One of the hot topics of recent months has been the use of rape as a narrative device. The subject shows up more frequently than one would like, but whenever it does, so too does a lot of very poorly thought out defense. The issue is rarely treated with the delicacy such a topic deserves, and is rarely ever treated as something that happens to real people, and probably people one is aquainted with on a daily basis. Its treated as something that only happens to people “in the wrong place at the wrong time” or at the hands of nearly inhumanly depicted monsters, child molesters, and other media stereotypes of what a “Rapist” actually looks like. There are multiple layers of problems to “rape as device,” and the most common one is that its a “great way to show how evil someone is,” a defense is perhaps best summed up by an actual person of “merit” within the narrative field, Mark Millar, who stated:
“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” Millar said. “I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.” http://herocomplex.latimes.com/comics/mark-millars-rape-comments-superheroes-tca-panel-the-comics-world-responds/
For which he was summarily pilloried for, and with good reason. But this same defense reared its head once again with the release of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, in which the fate of Paz Ortega is relegated to that of becoming the Woman in the Fridge, to borrow from Gail Simone. Paz spends the entire (short) length of GZ being an objective, and then an object, and finally a (presumable) “motive” for revenge in the upcoming main game, Phantom Pain. In similar fashion people rushed to defend Kojima’s decision to include the rape of Paz as a “great” way to show how “evil” Skullface, the villain seen for less than 5 minutes, is.
We get it. He’s a bad guy. He’s named Skullface.
The issue with this defense is that Kojima already successfully shows the player that Skullface is evil: He keeps people locked up in cages at a military prison camp, he uses a fake FOX logo that’s literally just the mirror image of Snake’s FOX logo down to inverted colors, and at the end of the game we infer that it was Skullface and his soldiers that destroy Motherbase. From the perspective of the player, there really isn’t much else we need to know he’s “bad,” because we’ve seen him do bad things. His voice and his mannerisms (what little we see) reek of “bad guy” imagery from movies, games, and comics–Skullface doesn’t need more indicators that he’s a Villain and Evil Person than we already have been given. If anything, its almost shockingly out of character for Kojima to have a character that comes off so “blatantly” evil: his “villains” tend to be overly cartoonishly evil (Volgin), or with shades of “deeper motives” (Boss, Ocelot, Liquid) that give them the perception of depth; Skullface is the most boring villain Kojima has ever constructed simply due to the fact that as far as GZ is concerned he’s just a “bad person.” There’s very little to redeem his motives in game and there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the player to consider his viewpoint as “misquided,” just that he’s simply evil. And, being simply “evil,” that makes it easy to include rape as one of his crimes–and if you notice that seems to be a very large jump in logic, then I hope I got your attention.
The biggest problem with rape as a plot device in narrative works is that it focuses on the Rapist and not the Victim, and the Rapist is rarely ever anything but a “evil person we are not supposed to like.” What’s interesting is, going back to Millar’s quote, is that if the villain simply decapitated a woman, the audience would likely not view him as instantly “evil” as they would if he raped her. Millar’s own argument falls apart because of the gravity of the act at play, but in further examination it shows much of the weakness behind using rape as a “motive” to hating a villain. Without even talking about the Victim of the act, using Rape to show us “this is a bad person” is an exceptionally weak and “easy” method of making a character “hateable” to the audience–instead of fleshing out a character and giving them motives, desires, or modus operandi for the things they’re doing, rape simply allows the writer (and thus the audience) to toss the person into the “Bad” pile, quicker even than if they had murdered a handful of people on screen or robbed an old lady.
If you’ve ever seen the show Law and Order: SVU, you may be familiar with how television tends to depict rapists: gross, sweaty, usually middle-aged white males, fitting almost every stereotype on the “sexual predator” sheet. The second thing one might see is that these men are depicted as those who simply “can’t control” their desires: they see an attractive woman and, unlike normal, non-monstrous men, must sexually dominate their target. There are numerous problems with this depiction, but the biggest is that it relegates rape to an act of sexual indiscretion, an act in which men simply “can’t control” their animal urges, like the Big Bad Wolf from Red Riding Hood (which is apt, as the entire story is basically warning girls not to talk to ‘strange men’ once they reach puberty and put their Purity at risk of being Devoured). Rape is not a crime of “sexual passion,” its a crime of power, dominance, and control–Rapists seek to control their victims, and while sexual pleasure may be a part of that process, the idea that rapists are simply people who can’t keep their penis in their pants when a woman says no is as unrealistic as it is pushing the blame towards female characters/people: “why didn’t you defend yourself better against this man who couldn’t control himself,” etc.
The second, less obvious problem with these types of depictions is that it removes “humanity” from the Rapist Character Sheet, and that is a problem rarely, if ever, considered. A man who rapes his daughter or coworker will not scurry into the sewers afterwards–he might simply put on his clothes, go to work, and act as if nothing happened, feigning innocence of threatening unseen violence if the victim makes any sort of attempts for help. The rapist might be an awful person, but on the outside they do not become “visually” obvious–thus, when the news interviews someone in your area for rape, see how many times you will hear people on the TV or news source state things like “He didn’t seem like / He didn’t look like / I never pictured him / He was such a nice man.” Take a look at the defense many rapists gets from media after their convictions for how “good” of a person they are, to not “stigmatize” them for a moment of indiscretion–basically, “Don’t turn this person into a caricature of a human,” which is kind of the same argument being made here, but from a different, disingenuous angle. Rapists don’t run around in “costume,” and yet the belief (mostly reinforced by multiple aspects of rape culture and media depictions / beliefs /norms) remains that they are, somehow, different from the rest of humanity not only psychologically, but physically.
So, returning to Skullface, all his being a rapist accomplishes is to give the player more “ammo” to hate him. But, that ammo is blank; the rape happens off camera, and the player has to go out of their way to find out the reality of what happened to Chico and Paz. Plus, there’s no real indication that Big Boss would actually care about Paz enough to want “revenge” for her death, and even in the coming attractions for Phantom Pain, he makes very little inference that Paz’s death is even on his mind in the 9 years following GZ. But, this has more to do with Paz losing her role as “human” and becoming that of “object,” which we’ll move on to in a second. To close the book on Skullface, and Kojima’s writing of him, “rape” as a motivation for hating a character is weak writing, plain and simple. Removing the objectionable content or sexual taboo of rape, the act being attached to a character to simply make them “more evil” is wasted effort by the writer since it is rarely, if ever, focused on the actual narrative character that it could serve in any fashion: the victim. The rapist simply becomes “bad,” whereas the victim becomes “the thing that was raped” instead of having that event become integral in any meaningful way to their character–all to often, the victim of rape in media also becomes the victim of murder, suicide, or simply dies somehow shortly afterwards, giving the writer an easy escape for dealing with the psychological, physical, and social trauma that follows sexual assault. The rapist gets to simply remain who they were–a bad person–in a story, where as the rape victim usually becomes a prop.
And with that, let’s move the discussion to just how Paz Ortega becomes a prop in GZ, while also talking a bit about how objectification works.
A common misconception about Objectification is that fictional characters cannot be objectified because they’re “already” objects–they don’t exist, they aren’t real, etc.–but the word doesn’t actually mean the character themselves as an OBJECT of the writer’s creation, but instead that their existence and presentation to the viewer is that of an Object, not a Person. Another way of putting it is that an Objectified Character is one that is Passive, while an Active Character is one that has Agency, or is the character who possess the Gaze as opposed to the one that is the object of the gaze. (Agency meaning they can change, or have the ability to change, their existence within their world instead of being forced to accept it due to any number of outside influences. In video games, the PC almost always has Agency, since the player is the one controlling them, and thus makes it one of the easier ways to see Agency in action. For further reading: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_%28philosophy%29 is a good start, as well as: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaze).
The Gaze is an exceptionally powerful tool and critical concept, but it is sometimes hard to quantify to people unfamiliar with it. In basic means, the Gaze is the way in which something is seen–if the person is doing the viewing, they posses the gaze. If they are the one being viewed, they are the object of it. In media, the narrator is usually the possessor of the gaze; in film, comics, and video games, the “camera” (or POV) is what gives the reader the gaze prescribed to them by the creator of it–so, if a film you are watching seems to take an uncomfortably long time panning over a woman’s body, its because the director, in control of the Gaze, has decided that you, the viewer, should view this Object (a woman) in extreme, intimate scrutiny, and (this being the most important part) the Object cannot do anything about it; the woman on film could not object and cannot stop you from looking at her the way the director has demanded, and thus lacks agency in the process–you, the viewer, do possess agency, and thus become complicit in the director’s methods (for ill or for will, depending on why they were doing so)–your agency is that you could always close your eyes, or not watch, or do something else.
So, when a game, movie, novel, or comic uses rape as a device, so too does the idea of Object and Objectification become apparent: the victim is rarely the protagonist, and thus becomes a “prop” or “motivator” for the protagonist to act upon. In many ways, this relationship shares quite a bit with Sedgwick’s Homosocial Triangle, in which the relationship between 2 men and 1 woman (in which the men are competing for the woman’s affection) is actually about the relationship between the 2 men, with the woman being a “prize” that one of them gets to laud over the other. She doesn’t have any agency and rarely exists as a character of any merit (Fans of Twilight might begin to see some uncomfortable reality in the relationship between said series protagonist, Bella, who simply seems to exist solely for 2 men to fight over, and the Woman-Object of the Triangle). In terms of the Rapist, Victim, Protagonist relationship, it works somewhat similarly:
The Rapist wishes to punish/damage/take something from the Protagonist, and does so by Raping the Victim, thus motivating the Protagonist to seek revenge upon the Rapist for the loss/injury/punishment inflicted upon them by the Rapist.
If you notice, the above description could easily be changed to:
“The Thief wishes to punish/damage/take something from the Protagonist, and does so by Stealing the Object, thus motivating the Protagonist to seek revenge upon the Thief….”
And, while you could also change that to “the murderer,” that still doesn’t change the fact that the Victim is not a “person” in this equation, but is a target, trophy, or goal for the other two parties–their feelings amount to nothing and their own personhood doesn’t matter; Paz could be replaced with a car and the gravitas would be the same in regards to the dramatics surrounding the event from the way the player/viewer/audience sees it.
It is at that moment that a “person” becomes an “object,” and in the case of Ground Zeroes, the moment that Paz Ortega goes from being a Character to a Prop: Paz (supposedly) serves no purpose other than to incite Big Boss’s anger at Skullface, and before the discovery of the violence inflicted on her, the retrival of Paz and Chico are the literal Objectives of the game: Chico retains some of his “character” abilities, despite also being an object, but Paz loses them all; ironically Paz has the most “speaking” role of Ground Zeroes in the form of cassette tapes and diaries, but these are collectible artifacts–objects–instead of Paz herself actively doing anything; they’re passive–players can listen to them while actively doing other things. And in almost further irony, the player already has a much more obvious object be destroyed/removed/torn from the Protagonist in the ending movie: Motherbase. Paz is almost an afterthought to the narrative–she could have been dead and accomplished the same amount that she does in game–because Villain has already removed Object of Desire from Protagonist, and does so in a much more demanding, obvious, and visually depicted way–the scene at Motherbase makes up nearly the entire ending cutscene of GZ, and the slow motion “death” of Motherbase and a few soldiers eat up more time than Paz spends being awake in the entire game. Her death (and the conditions leading to it) are simply window dressing, played for shock, than they are narrative merit of display of masterful writing craft.
So, where does one go from here? Many times this argument is met with indignation, either from artist or ardent fan of artist, with complaints of censorship; that critiquing and analyzing how absolutely poorly rape is used in narrative is some form or attempt to force them to “remove” said scenes from fictional works entirely. And, sadly, that is probably an EASIER answer to the issue than the actual one, but its not the one anyone wants, just the one that would probably solve issues like this from occurring as frequently as they do. Because the most unfortunate reality of this is that many times rape scenes in fiction are created and envisioned by men, men who are not victims or rape, in the vicinity of rape, or even understanding of the trauma it causes–many times they simply replicate other similar scenes that have played out in countless forms of media before they arrived on the scene, and have chosen to use it like any other plot device like “accidental crossdressing” or “misunderstood neighbor causes wacky comedy,” as if “rape scene” were just another interchangeable “dramatic” scene.
The reality of “fixing” rape in narrative is that it either needs to go away (due to the writer being incapable of using it for anything more than showing how bad someone is / giving the Protagonist reason for revenge) or to focus on the complexities and trauma the victim suffers due to the event. And in many cases that second part is impossible without having been party to it; it is not a sequence of mental events that makes logical sense for many people, nor is it universal–each victim has their own story, their own path, and it is not something that can be so easily universalized as it is in media. If that seems like an inconclusive place to stop, that’s because it is. Rape in narrative is a weak plot device at best, and a callous disregard for the humanity of victims at worst–if it is the only way one can show how “evil” a character truly is, perhaps one should instead find a new avenue of expression. And if a writer cannot stand to have their works criticized, it is perhaps best that they keep their works private; in the words of Samuel Johnson,
“I would rather be attacked than unnoticed. For the worst thing you can do to an author is to be silent as to his works.”
If we, the audience, want better writing, we need to make sure the author knows it. And if we, the authors, wish to become better at what we do, we need to start listening before picking up the pen (or keyboard) and writing off an ill advised tweet/screed/essay about how one’s “rights” to express oneself as an artist are under attack–if people really thought one’s work was absolute trash, they probably wouldn’t spend time being upset about it, which, in short form, means they at least took the time to read and reply to it. And it is with that in mind that things like rape as a plot device need to be buried long well past, to allow newer, better things to take its place–not simply because its “taboo” but because at this point, its eye-rollingly dreadful to have to sit through.