On The "Rape As Backstory" Trope

On The "Rape As Backstory" Trope

A few weeks ago, after I'd (finally) gotten around to finishing season one of Top Of The Lake, I had some thoughts about the rape as backstory trope, and my distaste for it. I figured that while it could be an instance of the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon gone awry, there seemed to be far too many fictional women who'd been raped or sexually assaulted in some way.

 I have this conflict: I truly, viscerally, despise the "rape as backstory" trope. It's so reductive to imply that every woman's problems can be distilled down to some past sexual trauma. But when we look at what the stats says about the frequency of sexual assault, is it unrealistic that so many female leads have been raped? I guess I just hate the 1:1 correlation these women's stories always seem to have with their abuse. "Became a cop because rape" etc. Honestly the only example I can think of where a rape plot was handled with the necessary sensitivity was on Private Practice. And even that show fell into the "rapists are abhorrent people who are mentally ill" trap, when we all know that that's not the case.

I dunno. I think rape is unfortunately a pervasive part of our lives as women and it's a subject that should be tackled. I just hate that now whenever I watch a new drama, I'm counting down the days until one of the female characters discloses a past rape. I feel like I watch TV now and all I can think is "all the women have been raped..." But so many women HAVE been raped in real life. Is it unrealistic to represent that on-screen? Is it that we shouldn't have fewer rape plots, but simply better handled ones? I don't know.

So many of these fictional women are compelled by their trauma for the rest of their lives; defined by it, rather than surviving it. It's 1:1 like I said. They choose careers based on it, they start or end relationships based on it. Think of Olivia Benson or Mellie Grant. For once I'd like to see a depiction of a woman who manages to get back to her life after trauma rather than redefining her life around it.

I also hate how often rape is used to punish unlikeable women. Rape in fiction is often used as a means to penalize women for being unladylike, domineering, or in any way displaying traits most often associated with masculinity. There are countless examples of women in fiction who are viewed as "ball busters" being raped as penance for daring to not be traditionally feminine. From House of Cards's steely and calculating Claire Underwood to Private Practice's "bossy" head of the ER Charlotte King, to Scandal's conniving First Lady Mellie Grant, women are routinely "taken down a notch" by being sexually violated.

Charlotte King's character specifically softens dramatically after her attack and is no longer the unapproachable and unapologetic bitch that she had been before. While some measure of personality change is certainly understandable and even expected after a trauma, the extent of her reboot seems to suggest that her rape was a means to start remolding her into a more sympathetic and likable character. In instances like Claire Underwood, where the trauma occurs before we have met the character, the implication then becomes that this woman's closed off demeanor is as a direct result of her rape, an issue that is problematic in its own right.

But the most egregious way that rape is used in fiction is to motivate a male character. While the examples above are not at all desirable, they are still a step above using a female character as a plot device in a man's story. There's a quote floating around the internet that goes something like "If you want to hurt a man, hurt his woman" and it shows just how disposable women can often become in fiction; that even men's pain and anguish is expressed through a woman's suffering.

While I definitely think that the issue is complex, I do think that we need to be critically examining the way that we represent rape in fiction. Rape is a real part of life, and the statistics show that it is an all too common part. But it is also a deeply traumatic part that should not be exploited for shock value and ratings, but rather in service to a larger for nuanced exploration of the realities of rape in our world.