Warning: This post will deal with sexual violence against women, and include examples of it from literature, movies, and games. Read at your own discretion.
Plague has struck. It starts slowly. A sniffle here, a fever there. Then it spreads, faster and faster. Soon, everyone is sick. Then most people are dead. The few humans who were immune start to band together and rebuild, but not everyone has the same goals.
Death comes, but it doesn’t stick. The dead get back up and start walking. Start feeding. Soon the world is overrun. Those left alive are no longer living, they’re merely surviving; going from place to place in search of food and shelter from the horde. Of all the limited resources, trust in other people is the most scarce.
War. Two nations are at a standstill and then someone presses a button. It doesn’t matter who fired first, but soon the warheads are dropping and the world will never be the same. Survivors separate into factions based on differing ideals, and soon a different kind of war is underway.
The apocalypse is rife with opportunities for storytelling. There are so many ways that humans can destroy themselves, and just as many avenues to explore about starting over again. Stories about the end of the world usually describe people at their best – banding together to rebuild – and at their worst. Part of humans at their worst that gets shown in these stories tends to be men capturing, subjugating, commoditizing, and raping women.
Apocalyptic and dystopic fiction was always one of my favourite genres so I’ve read/watched/played a lot of these narratives and unfortunately, I can think of more of them that use this device than ones that don’t. Five years ago, this may not have bothered me. But now that I’m aware of the issue and see how prevalent it is, it’s impossible to stop seeing it.
Rape, or threat of rape of female characters tends to be used for one of three, often overlapping, purposes.
To show how bad the situation is, or how evil a villain is.
- In the book Blindness a group of violent infected take control over a hospital and the women are subjected to rape in exchange for food.
- In the movie Waterworld, the male protagonist considers trading the two main female characters to slavers.
- In the show The Walking Dead, threat of rape is used by The Governor to get information from a woman he has taken captive.
So they can be saved.
- In the book Dies the Fire a mother and her children are captured by a group of survivalists. The mother is killed, and one of the daughters is about to be raped before she is saved by the male protagonist.
- In the book The Stand, two of the women who become part of the Free Zone were rescued from a group of other survivors who had repeatedly raped them.
- In the game Dead Rising one of the psychopaths (who is female) has captured a group of women and is torturing and killing them. You must kill the psychopath and save the women.
- In Dead Rising 2 one of the psychopaths kidnaps and tries to forcibly marry a woman so he doesn’t have to die a virgin. You must kill the psychopath and save the woman.
- In the movie 28 Days Later the two main female characters were taken as the “answer to infection”. They were dolled up and handed over to male soldiers to be raped. Ultimately they escape this, saved by the male protagonist.
For character development
- In the game The Last of Us, Ellie is taken by another group of survivors. Their leader tries to take her under his wing, but when she doesn’t cooperate he decides to kill her. When she injures him, it’s suggested that he intends to rape her before killing her. In the chapter after this experience, Ellie is noticeably quiet and withdrawn.
- In the book Dead: Revelations a young girl is captured by a man and repeatedly subjected to rape, physical abuse, and psychological torment.
The severity of the sexual violence against women that is portrayed varies, but the thing most of these examples have in common is that it’s completely unnecessary. It’s not driving the story forward. It’s not adding any real character development.
The use of rape rarely tells us anything we don’t already know about a villain. In The Walking Dead, we know that The Governor is a bad guy. We’ve seen him manipulate and kill. We’ve seen him send his own people into the zombie-fighting arena for sport. Why do we need to see him force Maggie to take her shirt off and threaten her with rape in order to get information when we know the thing that makes her vulnerable is sitting in the next room? This seems like something added for shock value rather than any real narrative reason.
Similarly, adding rape to the all too familiar “save the women” trope is a lazy and gratuitous way to make male protagonists more heroic. In The Stand, Dana and Susan’s backstory of having been part of a harem wasn’t even mentioned in the original release of the novel, it was added in as part of the unabridged re-release. Did mentioning their ordeals before they joined Stuart’s group add anything to either of their stories? Did adding in rape somehow make their characters more understandable? relatable? interesting? Not really. In Dead Rising 2, the woman you save from being forced into marriage and sex isn’t even distinguishable from any of the other dozens of survivors you save once it’s over.
What about adding rape for character “development”? When I was about halfway through The Last of Us, I was ecstatic that I had yet to see any questionable content about women. I knew how poorly the genre could treat women, and given the dark setting I expected to hear something that indicated women were a commodity in the post-infection world. But I didn’t. Then, Winter came. We were now playing as Ellie instead of Joel. Ellie gets taken captive by David, the leader of another group, who tries to assimilate her into it. When he realizes she’d never join them he decides to kill her. When she fights back and injures him, apparently killing her isn’t enough and he attempts to rape her first. Why? What purpose did this serve? We already knew David was a bad guy, this didn’t do anything to change that. We already knew Ellie was strong and could defend herself; her fighting off a rapist rather than just a murderer did nothing to change that. At this point Ellie had been captured, injured, faced with cannibalism, separated from her only friend in the world and feared for his life. She had been left alone – something she had earlier admitted was her greatest fear. If the goal was to emotionally traumatize her, they had done all they needed to do. And then, almost flippantly, with a couple of seconds of cinematic and 2 lines of dialogue, rape gets added to the equation. I guess she needed to be punished for being so uppity? Fucking awful.
While I think most authors add rape to their stories without worrying about the consequences out of laziness, ignorance, or a desire to be edgy, some seem to use the end of the world setting as a sandbox for depravity. The book Dead: Revelations is probably the worst example I’ve seen, where there are more female characters being enslaved and abused than not. That’s one zombie series I will not be reading any more of.
The only one of the examples above where the inclusion of rape adds any nuance or social commentary to the story is 28 Days Later. It raises questions about who the real monsters are and shows how those in charge of the safety of citizens can be the most dangerous ones, especially when it comes to women. That’s 1 out of 10 that doesn’t make my skin crawl too much, not a very good ratio. Incidentally, 9 out of 10 of these examples were penned by a male, with Dead Rising 2 being the exception.
A scary thing about this post is that I didn’t have to go looking for any of the examples I’ve used here. They’re all from books, movies, or games I’ve finished where the violence portrayed against women has stuck in my head. I’m sure there are more examples that I just don’t remember. The amount this happens in fiction and in the dystopic, end of the world genre in particular is staggering. Adding rape to fiction with fantastical elements, which end of the world stories often have, seems especially gratuitous and hateful. The dead getting up and eating people? Totally believable. The hand of God coming down and setting off a nuclear blast? Sure, why not? Women not getting subjugated and violated by men? No, never, not going to happen.
Media affects how and what people think. Lazily throwing instances of rape into dystopic stories in order to show how dark and dangerous the world is, to prop up male heroes, or to “develop” female characters normalizes it. Yes, rape is something that happens in the real world, but casually adding it or eluding to it in fiction is just not necessary and does more harm than good. Many people are all too familiar with it, and don’t need fiction to remind them of the trauma. We also don’t need reminders or reinforcements that men often have power over women’s bodies. We get to see that in the news, and in our governments. We get to hear men comment on a women’s physical appearance before giving any heed to the things she has to say. We get to hear the vocal subsets of small-minded, awful men who think women need to be punished for having sex, or not having sex with them, or wearing certain things, or just existing in their space.
If rape doesn’t add anything to the story… why add it to the story?