My entire life—but most especially in the past five years or so—I’ve been baffled by people who think that all women are averse to violence, or anger, or any kind of sudden and intense physical action. Anyone who had a window into my thoughts for an hour or so would quickly be disabused of that notion. And then they would say something about how I was “different than other women” and I’d kick them in the teeth.
It’s very rare, even in books written by women, for women-identifying protagonists to be really violent or angry and not consistently filter it out, or have it pointed out as a character flaw, or in some other way for it to be a bad thing. In books written by men any violence or anger in a woman is generally a plot device, or is a thing to be “smoothed out” of her before the story is over. We have our traditional examples in works like The Taming of the Shrew, and then there are fun new examples like Cersei Lannister in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.
A couple weeks ago I finished God’s War, by Kameron Hurley, first in the Bel Dame Apocrypha series. In it Nyx, the primary protagonist, is consistently violent and often angry. She’s violent because she exists in a writhing sea of violence and she has no choice but to be violent in order to survive. She’s angry for the same reasons, and many more that I won’t get into because of spoilers. The main point is that all of her feelings and actions are generally justified, in one way or another, even if her specific actions are her choice and not always best-considered. Another character whose name isn’t Nyx might lay down and give up, or try to respond to the violence in their life in another way, and these would all be equally valid choices for whatever those characters construct as their reasoning. But Nyx doesn’t react that way.
And she’s not punished for it, or fridged, or any other method that authors have of “fixing” a violent woman.
Hurley has written more than once about her decision not to write sexualized violence into her stories. And until I read God’s War I never realized how much I appreciated knowing that that type of violence would not occur in a novel.
I am lucky enough to say that I’ve never been a victim of sexual assault. There are many people who can’t say that. Until I came into online spaces, I really wasn’t aware that sexual assault was so pandemic, and that the way we as a society treated victims was so horrible. I never really “played it safe” when I was younger, never thought I ought to change my own behavior in order not to get raped. I’d always been as abrasive and reckless as I wanted to be. I always made decisions based upon what I wanted, not what I didn’t want to happen to me.
Every woman, I suppose, and many people who don’t identify or present as women, know there is always a possibility that they could be sexually assaulted. Not all of us have the luxury of believing we shouldn’t have to think about it. Rape is pervasive in media, in nearly every aspect of our culture. I went to live in Kazakhstan for a year, and though I never really considered it a possibility, many people—people close to me, my own family, even—were intent upon telling me that my rape was going to happen that year. Nevermind that the only thing people knew about Kazakhstan was that they didn’t really know anything, the simple fact they had a hard time pronouncing it meant that it was a thing I ought to be worried about, that I should just expect it. When I joined the Navy a few years before that, my boyfriend at the time tried to use the possibility that I might get raped as a reason not to join.
I’m still baffled as to why those seemed like valid points for them to make.
But then again a lot of authors and creators throw rape around as if it just a thing that happens to women, as if we should expect it, not be surprised and horrified by it. And I have to wonder, when I read a book like Game of Thrones, if writers are so casual in their treatment of rape in fiction, what are they like when they are presented with rape and sexual assault in real life?
There are very few stories in which rape is a good thing to include. Who Fears Death is a notable example, but Okorafor is making a point about how sexualized violence is used as a form of terrorism and control, and her protagonist is righteously angry about the way she is treated because of it. Using rape as just a “gritty” form of violence to show how evil a character is, is sloppy writing. Using rape as the way that a man responds to a violent or angry woman, or exercises control over a woman, is often sloppy writing. Women are not just vessels to receive sexual violence, and men should not be expected to respond to anger in women with sexual violence. This type of writing dehumanizes women, turns them into objects who are acted upon. It should not be normalized.
Even more difficult to parse is writers who treat any violence or anger in a woman as evidence of her sexual urges, another way of normalizing sexual violence against women. No doubt many of us have read the scene in which a woman and man fighting suddenly turns into a man forcing himself on the woman, suddenly turns into the woman willingly having sex with the man, despite evidence previously presented that the woman hates/dislikes/is disgusted by the man. This depicts women as strange emotional beings who don’t even know their own minds, who are not in control of their emotions or actions. It conveniently elides the fact that women can be emotional and yet deliberate in their actions, even if they are violent actions.
Segue back to Nyx.
Nyx gets in a lot of fights, is attacked, is tortured. Sometimes she wins, most of the time not. But however violent or angry or demanding or even irrational she is, she is never made into a victim, is never punished—by the author, by the narrative—for any of these things. She is never sexually assaulted as a way to advance her story arc, or to advance the arc of Rhys, the secondary protagonist who traditionally would be expected to “avenge” her dead and mutilated corpse somehow. And anyway I can’t help but think that if Nyx were raped she would simply take the next opportunity to kill the person who did it to her and move on with her life. And that would be just as valid as any other reaction to being raped. But that doesn’t happen, anyway.
Nyx is jailed and tortured for her part in the novel’s plot, because she acts counter to orders or because she has information that others want, but not as a way to smooth out her character traits or because it is expected because she is a woman. Even when Nyx fights a man with whom she had a relationship, whose mercenary team she had been on before the novel starts, she is never threatened with sexual violence, is never made less human for being a woman who fights. She is free to win or lose as her skills and the situation allows, as a human who has emotion, who is violent.
As a man would, some might say.