[This is a big fat trigger warning. Some or all of these links may be very triggering, as might be the tone of some of the stuff I say here. Also, this is long. You’ve been warned. Lastly, thanks to the GaW crew for vetting multiple drafts and letting me steal their words in some places.]
I recently had a male acquaintance email me about a social media conversation in which I alluded to how rape is horrifyingly prevalent in all genres of geek media. He said (politely!) that this wasn’t something that he had ever noticed, and could I possibly send him a link or two so that he could do some reading up on the matter.
Because I’m incapable of being concise, I wound up sending him a long list of links. However, it was pretty incomplete, as it was comprised only of links to examples that I could think of off the top of my head in about half an hour. Afterward, I wondered if it would be beneficial to fill out the list with some more diverse examples and to expand a bit more on the examples I did provide, since the commentary was pretty limited. But before we get any further, let me address two important things:
First: Why is this important? (or: why is rape any worse than assault, murder, etc)
“But, wundergeek!” you might be saying. “The examples you list are all dark and gritty settings. Rape is just an awful thing that happens!” Or perhaps you might saying, “why are you picking on rape when all of these things are full of murder and violence? Isn’t that worse?”
Let’s be clear. I could write an entire post about why the extreme prevalence of rape in geek media is terrible, and that’s something I might do later. For now, though, I’ll be brief, though and summarize:
- There’s a meme in geek culture of making female characters “strong” by raping them, to the point where strong female characters who haven’t been raped or otherwise assaulted can be hard to come by. And that says so many very fucked up things about women. Like women are only allowed to be strong if we’ve been raped? The only reason we could possibly buck gender norms and become heroes is because we’ve been “damaged”?
- A lot of the time, rape gets used in geek media as a short-hand for “evil”. Writers want to establish a character’s evil cred, so they have that character rape someone. That trivializes the reality of rape – that around 80% of rape victims are raped by people who are known to them, people whom they should be able to feel safe around. The reality of rape is far more nuanced than geek media would have you believe.
- From a creator standpoint, this points to a deficiency in how women are viewed by the creators of geek media:
“Rape is such a common trope in geek media because of a failure to imagine women as human beings. Instead, a woman’s vagina (and how it’s used by others) defines who and what she is. If women are not human, then human tragedies don’t apply to women – only special “woman” tragedies. And that means vagina tragedies.”1 – Jessica Hammer
It becomes a self-perpetuating loop. Creators of geek media create media that portray women as sub-humans with tragic vaginas, which influences how new generations of geeks think about women, which breeds new creators who create more media that perpetrates this model of female “story-telling”.
- The extreme prevalence of rape against female characters in geek media marks geekdom as a male space, a space where women cannot have the assumption of safety. This impacts REAL LIFE WOMEN who get harassed and assaulted at geek conferences and conventions. This bad behavior isn’t coming from a magical thought vaccuum, and the extreme prevalence of rape in geek media just makes this worse.
Second: Liking any of these things does not make you a bad person who likes rape
Liking a geek media property that has problematic elements does not make you a bad person. If the media you consume is sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic/etc, that doesn’t mean that liking it makes you any of those things! But it’s important to not dismiss the problematic elements in a media property you like. Saying that you like it and you are not a terrible person is not enough to make those thigns go away. (A great resource that delves into this in more detail is “How to Be a Fan of Problematic Things”.)
Now that that’s out of the way…
Let’s get on with the links! You’ll note that I have a lot of non-game media on here. That’s because gaming is hardly a distinct segment of nerddom, especially with all the licensing tie-ins you see with games like the Marvel RPG and the Game of Thrones RPG. That and the diversity of geek media consumed by the average gamer makes all of this fair game in my books.
It should go without saying that this list, as the title mentions, is by no means an exhaustive catalog of rape in geek media. I’m sure that there is an astonishing amount that I’m missing here. Also, because of the sheer length, I’ve broken it out into a few loose categories, since not all rape depictions are created equal and it’s useful to differentiate.
Lazy writing: villains
[This one comes first, because this is honestly a sin against writing just as much as it is a sin against not failing at rape culture. There is a tendency for writers to say to themselves “I need to establish this villain as evil. How do I do that? I know! RAPE!” It’s seriously the laziest thing ever, because in addition to being awful and perpetuating rape culture, it’s also just plain unoriginal and cliche. It doesn’t make your villain hardcore evil. It makes them into a not-scary two-dimensional cardboard cutout.]
- In Firefly, some of the main villains are the Reavers, who explicitly are called out as raping their victims: “If they take the ship, they’ll rape us to death, eat our flesh and sew our skins into their clothing. And if we’re very very lucky, they’ll do it in that order.” The Reavers are supposed to represent horrifyingly inhuman barbarism, sure. But is the rape really necessary when you have murder and cannibalism on the list? Not really.
- Dungeons & Dragons: Why do orcs rape women and create so many half-orcs that they’re a separate and distinct race in the D&D universe? Because they’re EVIL. DUH. How do you know that the drow matriarchy is evil? Because when they want babies they rape their partners! D&D manages to come at it from both directions.
- The Penny Arcade dickwolves fiasco: There’s a Really, really long summary here, but in a nutshell they made a comic that joked about rape, then made fun of the rape survivors who complained about the comic, then SOLD SHIRTS based on the rape-joke comic, then stopped selling the shirts when it started hurting attendance at PAX but never really properly apologized. Or rather they did, but it was a “we’re sorry you were offended” sort of apology, which actually isn’t a real apology at all.
(For the record, I was in the camp that thought the original comic was funny but that their subsequent response to objections was completely unacceptable and Not Okay.)
Anyhow. The point they were making with the original comic was a good one. Did they need to make that point with rape? Nope. Not at all.
[It's worth noting that we intend the phrase 'vagina tragedies' to be critical of the notion that all women have vaginas, or that rape only affects vagina-possessors - not to mention the lazy writing and characterization behind these assumptions. The tragic vagina narrative works to erase the experiences of trans people, in addition to the awful fates suffered by the few trans characters to appear in geek media.]
Comic books are far and away the biggest perpetrators of the “vagina tragedy” school of rape portrayal in geek media. It was comic books that actually spawned the “women in refrigerators” trope (so named for the Green Lantern’s girlfriend, who was killed and stuffed into a refrigerator). There’s an entire website devoted to the phenomenon, as well as a more concise list of fridged women in comics here. There’s also a great collection of posts about rape in comics over at Girls Read Comics (and they’re pissed) under the tag “rape: it’s awesome”. Also, here’s a good look over at Comic Book Resources at rape of female characters as a trend that goes back pretty far in comic books.
Strong female characters
[This is one of my least favorite kinds of rape depictions - the tendency to say “this female character is strong. What made her strong? RAPE.” At first blush, the “strong female characters” school of rape portrayals seems like it might make sense to just lump it in with “vagina tragedies” rape portrayals. And it would, were it not for the fact that “strong female characters” rape depictions are so. Fucking. Common. It is seriously, seriously depressing how common it is to take a female character who is strong, competent, and badass and then “explain” that strength as being a reaction to rape, or to show her “being strong” by having her react to being raped. As such, it’s its own particular subset of awful, awful vagina tragedies.]
- Comic books: What, again? Yes, again. There’s a reason I don’t read mainstream comics. But also deserving of special mention is how comic books sometimes like to turn the tables by turning strong female characters into the people who commit rape. Edgy! Case in point, Tarantula rapes Nightwing (scroll down to #2). Also, the recent New 52 Wonder Woman #7 turns all of the Amazons into a race of raping black widow baby-killers. Literally. Like, I can’t emphasize enough that this isn’t a metaphor. They are LITERALLY raping men and killing babies.
- The Paksnarrion Trilogy by Elizabeth Moon: This is an example of one of the most offensive variants of “strong female characters rape” – the female character who receives special powers as a result of rape. Paksnarrion, the series’ eponymous main character, is tortured for five days by a group of evil cultists who finish off the whole thing by gang-raping her. It’s this event that marks her as blessed by her god and leads to her getting special powers as a Paladin. And, you know, that’s okay because she’s already lost the only man she would have considered saving herself for.
WHAT. THE. FUCK. IS. THAT. SHIT.
Seriously. “Strong female characters” rape is bad enough, but “rape gives you magic powers” is the worst. I can’t even begin to articulate how angry this bullshit makes me.
- Joss Whedon(yes he’s his own genre) (shut up): Full disclosure: I love Joss Whedon. Like, really, really, love pretty much anything that comes out of his brain. The best way to get me to pay money for something is for it to have Joss’ name on it. Remember what I said above, re: how to like problematic things? Just because I love him doesn’t mean he doesn’t fall on his face too.So the biggest, most rape-y title of Joss’ is also the only title of his that I haven’t consumed – Dollhouse. The series premiere left me kind of cold and I never bothered to keep up with it. I’ve read a fair amount of critique about the portrayal of the dolls and sex, since they are not capable of consenting. Since I haven’t seen it, I’ll just say that a lot of smart people have said smart things about why rape is really, really a problem in Dollhouse.Touching on stuff I have seen, there’s some really sketchy stuff in Season 6 of Buffy dealing with Buffy’s relationship with Spike. The fact that Buffy consents early on in the relationship to some pretty rough sex does not obviate the rape-y-ness of events that happen later in the season. And while arguments could be made that the Buffy/Spike dynamic is Joss’s attempt to take a hard look at intimate partner violence, it’s also the season he had the least involvement with, which makes me suspect that it was probably more ‘we need bad stuff to happen to Buffy, I know, let’s have Spike almost rape her’.And let’s not forget Faith, the bad-girl Slayer who is strong but oh-so-damaged. Her history of being sexually victimized isn’t as clear in Buffy, but it’s hinted at more strongly in Angel and pretty explicitly in the Buffy Season 8 comics. I’m less apt to be forgiving on this one because it falls right into the “woman who is strong because she is damaged goods” trap that so much other geek media (especially comics) falls into.
Even Firefly is guilty of this. In the episode with Saffron, there’s some really, really skeevy stuff that happens with consent, which – while not rape – is still really awful. Like, seriously. Consent is important, people.
Rape as setting
[Rape as setting tends to be something that is mostly a problem with RPGs, although it certainly pops up in different forms of geek media. You see this in setting materials that are defining specific subcultures within a fictional world, often either as products of rape or as groups that engage in rape as part of their default practices. Frequently this rape is justified as “part of the culture”, as if it came from a magical thought vacuum. In fantasy settings based on crypto-medieval Europe, you also will see people make the argument for “realism” as a justification for rape as setting while simultaneously ignoring that dragons and magic are inherently unrealistic.]
- Dungeons and Dragons: A lot of “canon” setting in D&D has historically been based on rape. Look at the existence of half-orcs, for example. I’ve played in a campaign where they were a result of intentional interbreeding, but that’s a rarity. Usually it’s pretty explicit that half-orcs are the product of rape. Then there’s the issue of the drow, an entire culture of evil matriarchal elves. I’ve seen some pretty sketchy things about the portrayal of reproduction within drow society that come off as pretty rape-tastic too.
Before this past week, I would have said that this was largely a historical problem for D&D. 4E, while still pretty loaded with racism and sexism, was actually quite a large step in the right direction. There was a lot less stuff that made me cringe in the 4E artwork I encountered. D&D Next, however, it seems represents perhaps a step backwards, as indicated by Jon Schindette’s blog post about how worrying about sexism is haaaaaardand he just doesn’t want to do it. (Keep in mind Jon Schindette is the art director for D&D Next.)How is that relevant? Well it wasn’t more than a week after that before this post popped up here with, um, a super-awful title image – a mostly-naked woman who is tied up and surrounded by very obviously leering orcs. It made me very uncomfortable as I remembered how often the trope of rape as the cause of half-orcs has come up in D&D canon. And now this image for D&D Next published as part of D&D Insider of a bunch of lizardmen forcing a snake into the mouth of a bound, helpless, female elf adventurer.Obvious rape metaphor is obvious.
So while previously I would have said that Wizards was overall getting better about rape-y-ness in their setting material, I take all that back. It’s still very much an issue.
- World of Darkness: WoD’s art is largely pretty good. (Being a product initially more targeted toward women.) But when it’s bad, it can be really, really bad. Like this cover for a supplement called The Danse Macabre, which was actually nominated for an Ennie last year and basically features a vampire gang rape. (The image is pulled from my blog, so ignore the other half there.)
There’s also Werewolf, which has an awful amount of rape in the setting material. I haven’t played it (I stuck to Vampire), so I’m going to quote a smart person who was summarizing one particular rape-y thing in Werewolf:
In Werewolf the Forsaken, two dogs can’t have babies together. Procreation results in evil spirit babies and the culture often kills the mother (possibly father) of said evil spirit babies IF evil spirit baby doesn’t kill her first. As a result, mentioned in the either War Against the Pure, or The Pure, the evil meany head werewolves will capture female werewolves and instead of killing them, leave them alive, rape them until they get pregnant and then send them home to deal with their fate. – Filamena Young
Charming. Also, pretty consistent with my knowledge of WoD lore, which is just plain depressing.
- Warhammer: I don’t play minis games, but thankfully I know people who do and who are conversant with the setting material:
Fimir, a race of chaos monster from early editions of Warhammer and Warhammer Fantasy RolePlay, couldn’t procreate on their own, so they had to kidnap and rape human women to make more baby fimirs. This was explicit in the background material. They were removed from later editions, possibly because GW’s focus shifted away from older gamers and towards a younger demographic, and a rapey race of monsters would be inappropriate for that market. But they remain a fan favorite among players from those earlier editions, and people continue to use them/develop fan-material for them/call for their re-inclusion into the game. – Renee
Another part of the Warhammer setting material is Slaanesh, a gross and terrible hermaphroditic chaos god of pleasure and pain. So there’s rape and then making you like the rape, which is nice.
- Cthulutech: This is a game that has won some awards and enjoyed some commercial success and also includes… lots of rape. Including, I shit you not, rape chairs. Not only is there rape, but there’s rape furniture. Over on RPG.net (a place I generally avoid), someone asked one of the writers what was up with all the rape? Apparently his response went something like “well it’s only, like, 6 pages so that works out to only 2%”.
SIX. PAGES. Of RAPE.
That is a weird and creepy amount of detail to put into the details of rape in your setting. For real.
[This is a category reserved for those tabletop RPGs that actually have a rape mechanic as part of the system. This is a special kind of disturbing above and beyond rape as setting because not only is it part of a game, but it involves a mechanic that theoretically had to be tested and balanced with the rest of the system. Think about just how messed up that is for a second.]
- Game of Thrones RPG: With the massive amounts of rape that happen in Game of Thrones, it’s not surprising that the licensed RPG would feature rape as well. But does the game really need a rape mechanic? The designers must have thought so. One of the standing orders you can give an army is “Slash and Burn”, which in addition to ruining the countryside will also cause your soldiers to “rape the smallfolk”. Because it’s so important to specify these things mechanically. Or something.
- Vampire (World of Darkness): So we all get how Vampire could be a game pretty much about rape, right? I mean, the setting material specifies that for most vampires, feeding replaces sexual desire. Only there’s all kinds of ways like blood bonding and Domination and other forms of control that can force someone into these situations against their will. I don’t think that was the designer’s intention – especially because the WoD games were pretty targeted towards women when they were initially released. However, there’s a lot of potential for this to get abused at the table.
Rape, eggs, and rape
[Sometimes a media property manages to capture all or almost all of the above reasons. These are generally things in which the creators seem unhealthily obsessed with rape, to the point where it’s difficult find aspects of their work that don’t involve rape. This is a special kind of fucked up, because then you get rabid fans who say things like, “well sure it’s got lots of rape, but once you look past all that...”, which is all kinds of horrifying. And often when you say you’d prefer to stick to consuming media without rape, the responses are rather reminiscent of the Monty Python spam sketch. “Well how about the rape, eggs, and rape? That’s not got much rape in it.”]
- Game of Thrones: Oh man. Where to start. First off let me say that I have read the series excepting the most recent book, and man. GRRM really loves him some rape. You’ve got your “strong female characters” rape (Daenerys). You’ve got unbelievable doses of “how do I make this villain evil — I know — RAPE” from, really, just about all the villains. Especially Gregor Clegane, for whom the first scene in which the reader sees him features him raping a woman literally because he is bored. You’ve also got plenty of “vagina tragedies” rape/assault (Sansa), and a bit of “rape as setting” in GRRM’s descriptions of the countryside after various invading armies have passed through.
There’s a really, really great look at the many, many, many ways in which Game of Thrones fails at rape here, and a followup post about the rage that criticizing GRRM inspires in a subset of male nerds here.
- Before Game of Thrones, there was the Sword of Truthnovels, which have an astonishing amount of rape in them. For those keeping score, the female main character, Kahlan, gets assaulted or raped at least once per book. (Strong female characters with a hint of vagina tragedies) Book 2 on features actual, honest-to-god rape camps. (Rape as settings) In Book 1, there are teams of assassins called “quads” who rape their victims, who are always female, before killing them. (Villianous rape) And don’t even get me started on the Mord-Sith. (Strong female characters)
In fact, it would be accurate to say that every “strong” female protagonist important to the story in the first 5 books either gets raped or has rape established as part of their history. Yikes. (I stopped reading after book 5, but more because that’s when the series turned into The Adventures of Gary Stu The Super Libertarian.)
- Alan Moore is also a member of the “seriously loves him some rape” club. (ONLY read the first post. Seriously, don’t read the replies. You’ll regret it.) Though in the interest of fairness, I’ll note that the only title of his that I’ve read is Watchmen, which features a pretty prominent rape-as-plot point. (That was, I felt, not well done. Silk Spectre gets raped, only then she kind of likes the guy who raped her and has a kid with him? Um, what?)
I’d like to thank the other GaW contributors who gave feedback on multiple drafts of this and submitted many great examples. Big thanks especially to Renee, Jessica Hammer, and Filamena Young who let me quote them. I know that there’s bound to be lots that I’m missing, but that’s a whole lot of stuff that I just threw out there and this post is long enough as it is. Still, I hope that this will help to illustrate just how pervasive rape is in geek media.
Let me end, then, with this last note. To the creators out there – the artists and writers, the designers and publishers – I ask the following. Rape is a real issue that harms real people of all genders and orientations. For the love of god, please take time to really think about including rape in your work. Is rape part of the human experience? Sure. But by contributing to the overwhelming flood of rape that already exists in geek media, the odds are that you’re helping make a bad situation worse. So please ask yourself this – is your freedom to write about/portray rape in your work more important than the feelings of those who are triggered, marginalized, or otherwise harmed by careless depictions of rape in geek media?
- Obviously the cultural equation of “woman” with “vagina-having” is problematic, even if the vagina in question is not tragic. ↩