Can we stop using rape as a plot device?

Looming sexual violence ... Junior and Angie from <i>Under the Dome</i>.

Looming sexual violence ... Junior and Angie from Under the Dome.

Last week, I found myself embroiled in an irritating online argument about the use of rape as a narrative tool. Specifically, I watched gobsmacked as someone tried to argue that the lingering threat of sexual violence in Stephen King’s Under The Dome was ‘sadly necessary’ in order to make the show ‘believable’.

Under The Dome is a science fiction mystery set in a small town in Maine that suddenly finds itself cut off from the rest of the world by an impenetrable dome of unknown origins. The dome appears to have mysterious power over the townsfolk and their behaviour, and is dominant in the face of man made weapons. You can’t even dig under it because SPOILER! as it turns out, it’s not even a dome but a sphere. So basically, it’s either going to turn out to be aliens or some kind of mad government experiment. Or maybe time travel.

But hey. We gotta include the ‘sadly necessary’ threat of sexual violence to maintain the integrity of the show’s realism. Otherwise, how could anyone believe in its premise?


We need to talk about the sexual subjugation of women in art, because this is getting ridiculous. Sexual violence has become the go-to plot device for writers looking to give their female characters substance despite having no apparent understanding or interest in the rounder complexities of women as equal participants. Wannabe artists, repeat after me - rape as a narrative tool is neither new nor edgy.

More often than not, it’s just a sign of lazy writing and even lazier direction. And when it’s played out on screen in ways that border on titillation, it commits the even greater crime of exploiting women’s pain (and I make this point specifically because although male rape absolutely exists and is also represented in cinema, I can think of no examples where it carries the hints of sadistic eroticism that so often accompany the graphic representation of female rape) in order to arouse feelings in its audience. Worse, it does this under the pretence of creating storylines and meaning for its female characters. In the writer’s bag of tools, men are afforded numerous possibilities for growth, narrative arcs and plot points. Women, on the other hand, are repeatedly projected into the same role of victim in order to give their characters some kind of depth and conflict.

Aren’t we bored yet?

Last year, critic Alyssa Rosenberg examined an interview with indie filmmaker Brit Marling in which the sci-fi writer talked about how easy it is to reach for sexual assault as a default motivator for female agency, and how the real challenge is to rise above that and find more interesting, complex avenues for your characters to explore. Rosenberg concurred, adding:

“But rape doesn’t only happen to women, and it’s not the only thing that happens to women. You can lose your job, your house, your car, your kid, your best friend, your business, your family, your faith, your following, your office. If men are reaching for the worst thing that can happen to women and choosing rape out of a deficit of imagination, then that’s having a character be sexually assaulted for shock value. If you want to tell a story that’s about the worst thing that happened to a specific woman character, you should be thinking very specifically about her and less about your and the audience’s default answer to a question.”

I don’t believe sexual violence should be verboten as a literary device. However, I agree with Rosenberg’s view that it’s much more effective when used to examine the consequences of sexism. More often than not, filmmakers and writers use rape to drive the stories of the male characters or viewers that the women are invariably acting as a cipher for while congratulating themselves on being daring and dangerous enough to introduce a plot point that we have literally seen thousands of times before.

Sci-fi writer Seanan McGuire responded last year to a critic who accused her of having no respect for her work because she refused to cast one of her female protagonists in a rape storyline. The fact that her characters include a woman who’s also a ‘hyper evolve parasitic wasp’ seemed to pose no problems for McGuire’s vigilant fan. Like Leviticus, viewers seem able to pick and choose which parts of their narratives they’ll accept as believable or not. But that McGuire has explicitly stated she will not rape her protagonists and does not want to do so?

‘That’s just unrealistic’.

As McGuire says, “I do not understand - I will not understand, I refuse to understand - why rape has to be on the table for every story with a female protagonist, or even a strong female supporting cast. Why it's so assumed that I'm being ‘unrealistic’ when I say that none of my female characters are going to be raped. Why this ‘takes the tension out of the story.’ There is plenty of tension without me having to write about something that upsets both me and many of my readers, thanks.”

We need to start figuring out ways to tell women’s stories that don’t involve them being violently dismantled before us so they can rise phoenix like out of the ashes of their former passivity. We need to understand that rape and sexual violence are realities - that in fact, around one in three women will experience some form of it in their lifetime; that these experiences are real and don’t exist just so a male writer can employ them theoretically to lend some kind of gravitas to his work.

And we really, really need to drop this idea that the rape of women and girls is necessary in order to give artistic merit to an industry that has consistently shown it considers the stories of men more interesting and universal. 

Because if the absence of depicted sexual violence is hampering your ability to accept a storyline as worthwhile or realistic, you really need to take a long, hard look at yourself and wonder where it all went wrong.