Content Note: Rape, Victim Blaming, Profanity
Twilight Recap: Bella and Edward are having dinner in Port Angeles.
Twilight, Chapter 8: Port Angeles
And so here we are. The last day of Chapter 8 and do you know what? I don't want to talk about it. No, don't look at me like that, not with the puppy eyes. You've no idea how dull and repetitive I feel over here. Oh, look, Edward is victim blaming Bella for her own near-rape. Oh, look, Bella is ignoring her own near-rape and Edward's crappy behavior to focus on her personal self-loathing and to slut-shame the waitress for doing her job. Oh, look, these are terrible people and they richly deserve each other and their dull, passive-aggressive romance. *YAWN*
So, there you go, these are terrible people and they richly deserve each other. We've known that, to a certain extent, from the start, and no matter how hard I and others (you know who you are, bless your beleaguered hearts) try to rehabilitate them within the confines of the narrative, we'll still always have Chapter 8. And Italy.
Instead of doing my usual thing where I quote some text, talk about it, quote more text, talk about it, etc., today I'm going to quote some text, YELL ABOUT IT, and then talk about something more interesting: Rape Narratives and the differences between Authorial Approaches and Reader Responses! Because that interests me.
"Usually you're in a better mood when your eyes are so light," I commented, trying to distract him from whatever thought had left him frowning and somber.
He stared at me, stunned. "What?"
"You're always crabbier when your eyes are black -- I expect it then," I went on. "I have a theory about that."
His eyes narrowed. "More theories?"
IT CANNOT JUST BE ME THAT 90% OF ALL EDWARD BODY-LANGUAGE SIGNALS ARE ANGRY AND/OR VIOLENT ONES.
Chapter 8 contains a rape narrative, more specifically the Rape Rescue. And we've gone on at length about why this is incredibly cliche, harmful, packed-with-unfortunate-implications writing, but I'd like to summarize those a little. (I'll probably miss some.)
"I hope you were more creative this time . . . or are you still stealing from comic books?" His faint smile was mocking; his eyes were still tight.
"Well, no, I didn't get it from a comic book, but I didn't come up with it on my own, either," I confessed.
"And?" he prompted.
But then the waitress strode around the partition with my food. I realized we'd been unconsciously leaning toward each other across the table, because we both straightened up as she approached. She set the dish in front of me -- it looked pretty good -- and turned quickly to Edward.
"Did you change your mind?" she asked. "Isn't there anything I can get you?" I may have been imagining the double meaning in her words.
YES, BELLA, YOU ARE IMAGINING THAT THE WAITRESS IS TRYING TO STEAL YOUR MAN JUST BECAUSE SHE'S POLITE TO HIM. STOP PERPETUATING HARMFUL PATRIARCHAL MEMES.
1. Rape Narratives are cheap to use and can cheapen real rape. Rape narratives were aptly compared in the comments to a "Random Personal Tragedy" chart in a dice-based role playing game, because it's quick and easy to reach for (Rape is a thing that exists, right?) and can be inflicted on pretty much any (usually female) character for immediate drama. Drama To The MAX! Except that this cheapens the narrative impact of the event, if it's something that everyone uses as a sort of "tragedy shorthand" and which either doesn't affect the character at all (Bella) or affects them deeply and permanently (Rosalie).
Basically, as an author, you're in a Tragedy of the Commons situation where all the other authors are using rape flippantly, and you have to decide whether or not to participate. My advice is that if you're going to use rape, use it carefully and wisely, and understand that rape usually has some effect on the victim, but may very well not change their entire character or become a defining life moment. And that the repetition of rape either being meaningless or a character event horizon is considered by many rape survivors to be insulting.
And another thing: using rape as a bad thing that happens to all your female characters is lazy. Women have lots and lots of bad things available to happen to them; if you really want a dark, grim, gritty novel, try using a little variety. Yes, 1 in 4 women are victims of sexual violence and yes, that's a really horrific number. But you'll note that it's not 1 in 1. I can kind of buy this for Bella and Rosalie because they're so obviously literary foils for each other, but in general if a novel has a critical mass of raped female characters for no self-selected reason (i.e., they all met in a survivors group meeting), then something has gone terribly wrong.
2. Rape Narratives are (often) unrealistic and can perpetuate falsehoods about rape. Most authors aren't willing to handle rape realistically; if your book is an escapist novel -- as Twilight undoubtedly is -- there's very little that is escapist about Bella's Best Friend Mike or Dear Father Charlie being her rapist, no matter how much more likely those scenarios are than, say, gang rape in the middle of the street in the early evening of a small tourist town. So what, right? Vampires aren't real, either!
But the thing is, rape is a real thing. So by contributing to the avalanche of rape narratives that only portray a very specific type of relatively rare rape, you're also contributing to the persistent and systemic invisibling of rape victims who have been raped by family, friends, and close acquaintances. Yes, stranger-rape happens, but it's not anywhere close to comprising 90% or more of rapes, which is a rough guesstimation of what we see in fiction. This is a problem.
Furthermore, when we have roving bands of working-class men committing the majority of rapes in fiction, we lose sight of the fact that a good number of rapists are "respectable" white, older (as in, older than teens and twenties), married-or-partnered men who are, yes, known to the victim. When the only rapists we see in fiction are young men in their early twenties, prowling the warehouse district in flannel shirts and cut-off jeans, we are seeing the perpetuation of a number of ugly classist stereotypes.
"Okay, then." I glared at him, and continued slowly. "Let's say, hypothetically of course, that . . . someone . . . could know what people are thinking, read minds, you know -- with a few exceptions."
"Just one exception," he corrected, "hypothetically."
"All right, with one exception, then." I was thrilled that he was playing along, but I tried to seem casual. "How does that work? What are the limitations? How would . . . that someone . . . find someone else at exactly the right time? How would he know she was in trouble?" I wondered if my convoluted questions even made sense. [...] "Let's call him 'Joe,'" I suggested.
He smiled wryly. "Joe, then. If Joe had been paying attention, the timing wouldn't have needed to be quite so exact." He shook his head, rolling his eyes. "Only you could get into trouble in a town this small. You would have devastated their crime rate statistics for a decade, you know."
"We were speaking of a hypothetical case," I reminded him frostily.
ARGH, EDWARD, YOU ARE THE WORST. YOU ARE SERIOUSLY BLAMING BELLA FOR THE "CRIME RATE STATISTICS" IN THIS FICTIONAL TOWN BECAUSE SOMEONE NEARLY RAPED HER?
BEYOND ALL THE AWFUL IN THAT, WHY DON'T YOU EVER BLAME YOURSELF FOR ALL YOUR MURDERY MURDERS? OH, RIGHT, YOU ARE A SPECIAL VAMPIRE BUTTERFLY. F! O! A! D!
3. Rape Narratives (often) misrepresent rape in ways that reinforce victim-blaming. Twilight is some kind of poster child for this; it's Bella's fault for being nearly-raped because she should have known better to be young, attractive, unaccompanied, and not "paying attention enough" to keep from stumbling into the clearly-marked Rape Zone. All of which assumes that Bella has control over her age and attractiveness, all of which assumes that companions aren't also rapists, all of which assumes that rapists obligingly remain in their clearly-marked-by-classism districts and never venture beyond the warehouse limits, all of which assumes that Bella has the ability to "pay attention enough" to all these things.
That's a LOT of assumptions that victim-blamers push on women and it basically adds up to one big Rape Is Your Problem being levered onto the shoulders of women. Raped? Your fault. You shouldn't have been dressed so attractively. You shouldn't have been in the wrong place. You shouldn't have been with the wrong person. You shouldn't have been alone. You shouldn't have stopped policing every little detail of your environment for even a moment. You shouldn't have left the house without a weapon. You shouldn't have had the weapon with you. You shouldn't have gotten raped.
And that -- pardon my speech -- is fucking bullshit.
If you were raped, the only person(s) responsible for that rape is the rapist(s). That's it. Period. Anyone who wants to hem or haw differently about how well, technically, yes, but for future reference is a person who has absorbed toxic patriarchal attitudes and needs to immediately read up on victim-blaming and how not to do it. And if that anyone is also a mind-reading vampire, then they are a terrible person because I refuse to believe that it is possible to be in the minds of more than 10% of the population (including a close family member who was raped to death) and not come to a more enlightened view of rape than this.
His voice was almost a whisper. "I was wrong -- you're much more observant than I gave you credit for."
"I thought you were always right."
"I used to be." He shook his head again. "I was wrong about you on one other thing, as well. You're not a magnet for accidents -- that's not a broad enough classification. You are a magnet for trouble. If there is anything dangerous within a ten-mile radius, it will invariably find you."
"And you put yourself into that category?" I guessed.
His face turned cold, expressionless. "Unequivocally."
"I GENUINELY BELIEVE I AM A DANGER TO YOU, BUT I AM GOING TO HANG OUT WITH YOU ANYWAY AND TALK MYSELF INTO BELIEVING THAT I'M JUST BEING COMPELLED BY A MAGNETIC FORCE I CAN'T RESIST. I'M EDWARD AND I SUPPORT RAPE CULTURE!"
4. Rape Narratives obscure why rape happens. Rape doesn't happen because men can't control their penises when presented with desirable women. Rape doesn't happen because women walk into vulnerable positions that they could have and should have avoided. Rape doesn't happen because women have magnetic personalities that draw danger and penises and dangerous penises inevitably toward them. Rape doesn't happen because of any of these reasons.
Rape happens because rapists want something -- power, sex, gratification, acceptance, prestige, respect, whatever -- and they've absorbed a message from society that their desires are more important than the safety of their victims. They don't care that their victim is being seriously and deeply harmed by their selfish actions. Many of them are convinced that they don't need to behave differently, and will even admit their crimes when presented with detailed descriptions because obviously they were justified in their actions. And this is why many people view rape as a hate crime, because so many rapists Other their victims and de-personify them into Un-Persons whose needs and consent and autonomy do not have to be acknowledged.
And this Othering and Un-Personing is pretty much precisely what Edward is doing here. He's treating Bella as a magical magnet for trouble, rather than a normal young woman in a world with teen drivers and buckets of rape culture. And he's doing that othering precisely so he can justify the gratification of his own wishes (dating her) at the expense of her own safety.
Edward and Bella's relationship is complicated. I assert that she should and does have a choice to agree to be with him, that she can and should be told the risks and give her judgement on the situation. (Which isn't to say that if she wants to take the risk, Edward should be forced to comply. He has a choice to not risk murdering the woman he loves. Choices for everyone!) But that choice should be treated openly and honestly between them as a couple, and not justified in this overwrought othering that Edward just can't help himself Because. Because pretty. Because scentsy. Because sexy. Because magic. Because that shiz is rape culture, plain and clear.
Make a choice, Edward. Own it. You are an adult. Act like it. Stop blaming Bella for your decisions. NOW.
"I followed you to Port Angeles," he admitted, speaking in a rush. "I've never tried to keep a specific person alive before, and it's much more troublesome than I would have believed. But that's probably just because it's you. Ordinary people seem to make it through the day without so many catastrophes." He paused. I wondered if it should bother me that he was following me; instead I felt a strange surge of pleasure. He stared, maybe wondering why my lips were curving into an involuntary smile.
"Did you ever think that maybe my number was up the first time, with the van, and that you've been interfering with fate?" I speculated, distracting myself.
"That wasn't the first time," he said, and his voice was hard to hear. I stared at him in amazement, but he was looking down. "Your number was up the first time I met you."
I felt a spasm of fear at his words, and the abrupt memory of his violent black glare that first day . . . but the overwhelming sense of safety I felt in his presence stifled it. By the time he looked up to read my eyes, there was no trace of fear in them.
HOW SICK AM I THAT ONCE AGAIN WE ARE MORE WORRIED ABOUT EDWARD'S FEELINGS (WILL HE SEE THE FEAR IN HER EYES?) THAN BELLA'S (DOES SHE HAVE A FALSE SENSE OF SAFETY FROM GLAMOR?)? SO SICK.
So now that I've ranted about all the ways to not write Rape Narratives, I want to talk about my thoughts on why readers (and authors) find them appealing and why that's not necessarily a bad thing.
A. Rape Narratives can point out the elephant in our lives. Women get raped. Even those of us who haven't been raped live under the threat of it, whether it comes in the form of patriarchal "advice" on how to protect ourselves or if it comes in direct "how dare you be female in public" threats deliberately framed in rape language. Rape Narratives point this out in an attempt to confront reality -- rape exists, it affects women and their lives, and it sucks. Rape ended Rosalie's life; it could have ended Bella's. Rape is serious, and narratives like this attempt to take it seriously.
There exists a subset of Privileged People who don't realize this. I have absolutely known people who believed that rape was something that happens in other countries, in other cultures, by other people. Certainly not here! When confronted with personal narratives and solid statistics, these people can react with anything from shock to denial. And so narratives like these also attempt to get in those peoples' faces and aggressively point out the elephant in the room: that we live in a culture saturated with rape and with contempt for consent and bodily autonomy.
This doesn't mean that rape narratives are automatically feminist and awesomesauce. A badly-written rape narrative, as pointed out earlier, can cheapen rape by making it seem like something easily avoidable (just don't go to the warehouse district!) and obvious. But it does mean that a reader can and may see a rape narrative -- even a badly written one -- as a wake-up call to those dense people who persist in believing that rape just isn't a thing that happens, not really, not often, not here.
"I started to drive in circles, still . . . listening. The sun was finally setting, and I was about to get out and follow you on foot. And then --" He stopped, clenching his teeth together in sudden fury. He made an effort to calm himself.
"Then what?" I whispered. He continued to stare over my head.
"I heard what they were thinking," he growled, his upper lip curling slightly back over his teeth. "I saw your face in his mind." He suddenly leaned forward, one elbow appearing on the table, his hand covering his eyes. The movement was so swift it startled me.
"It was very . . . hard -- you can't imagine how hard -- for me to simply take you away, and leave them . . . alive." His voice was muffled by his arm. "I could have let you go with Jessica and Angela, but I was afraid if you left me alone, I would go looking for them," he admitted in a whisper.
YES, LET'S CONTINUE TO MAKE THIS ALL ABOUT EDWARD! THERE IS NOTHING I LOVE MORE THAN HAVING A WOMAN'S FEELINGS ABOUT HER NEAR-ASSAULT TAKE A BACKSEAT TO A MAN'S ANGST AT NOT BEING ALLOWED TO TRAUMATIZE HER FURTHER BY COMMITTING BRUTAL MULTIPLE MURDER IN FRONT OF HER.
B. Rape Narratives can let us confront the worst -- and win. Because rape really is a threat that women face, and a threat that can come from any place at any time, rape narratives provide readers an outlet to face this threat and defeat it. Whether the woman breaks out with the martial arts, or hoofs it successfully for the hills, or is rescued by the Hot Guy from school, or even -- yes -- raped and left with all the scars that can leave, the reader has voyeuristically confronted something terrible and survived. That survival in the face of the hate crime that is rape is a form of triumph.
Rosalie survived her rape and took slow vengeance on her rapists. Bella escaped her rape by the timely intervention of Edward. Both of these narratives offer an escape clause, of a kind: rape and the threat of rape is not the end. You don't have to be afraid. You'll either escape or you'll survive. That doesn't make the situation any more pleasant, but it does give it an air of manageability. The loss of control that accompanies rape has been literarily wrested back by the author and reader: This is my narrative to make, not yours.
This "rape fantasy" is essentially about taking something that threatens women with a loss of their control and it's putting them in ultimate control. Whether the women emerges from the experience stronger (Rosalie, Red Sonja) or battered-but-breathing, she still emerges having faced the worst and survived. And since vicarious experiences can potentially build our self-esteem and confidence, this is something that can be very powerful indeed.
"We're ready for the check, thank you." His voice was quiet, rougher, still reflecting the strain of our conversation. It seemed to muddle her. He looked up, waiting.
"S-sure," she stuttered. "Here you go." She pulled a small leather folder from the front pocket of her black apron and handed it to him.
There was a bill in his hand already. He slipped it into the folder and handed it right back to her.
"No change." He smiled. Then he stood up, and I scrambled awkwardly to my feet.
She smiled invitingly at him again. "You have a nice evening."
He didn't look away from me as he thanked her. I suppressed a smile.
He walked close beside me to the door, still careful not to touch me. I remembered what Jessica had said about her relationship with Mike, how they were almost to the first-kiss stage. I sighed. Edward seemed to hear me, and he looked down curiously. I looked at the sidewalk, grateful that he didn't seem to be able to know what I was thinking.
YOU ARE BOTH TERRIBLE PEOPLE.
EDWARD, YOU ARE TERRIBLE FOR BEING PERSISTENTLY RUDE TO THE WAITRESS AND TREATING HER LIKE A SERVANT. BELLA, YOU ARE TERRIBLE FOR BEING PLEASED THAT EDWARD IS RUDE TO THE WAITRESS.
I HOPE YOU ENJOY YOUR PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE RELATIONSHIP OF RUDE RUDITY.
C. Rape Narratives can establish a person as Not-a-Rapist. This one doesn't carry over to real life very well, but in fiction a character who is genuinely appalled at rape is usually not themselves a rapist. And this is kind of important, in a world where 73% of rapists are known to their victims. In the real world, there's really no way to tell in advance whether the waveform will collapse into rape until it's actually happened, but rape narratives provide a way to single out a potential friend / suitor / mentor as most definitely not a rapist.
This is important. Handled badly, it comes across like the gut-churning no-no-no-no mentality that men should be given cookies for meeting the bare minimum bar of Not Raping People. But handled carefully, it can be a way to establish that this man is a man of character, who not only won't join in on a rape, he'll also take on risk to himself to help a victim rather than silently drive by and console himself that there was probably more to the situation than was immediately apparent. Rape narratives can be a way of establishing, clearly and upfront, I am an ally and I will fight this fight with you.
The narrative can't stop there. It's not good enough, not be far, to simply be Not-a-Rapist. Narratives which do stop there and proclaim the person a noble soul and gentle spirit and truly worthy of All The Things merely because they haven't raped anyone are highly problematic indeed. But for narratives that are written with that in mind and with careful judgment, the act of stopping the rape -- or of truly deploring it if it cannot be stopped, and of making it about the victim and not about the Very Upset and Super Angry man-confronted-with-the-existence-of-rape -- can be a valuable starting point to show that this person can be given a bare minimum of trust and allowed to earn more from there.
Of course, and again, this doesn't carry over into real life very well. But that's why it's a fantasy.
Once inside the car, he started the engine and turned the heater on high. It had gotten very cold, and I guessed the good weather was at an end. I was warm in his jacket, though, breathing in the scent of it when I thought he couldn't see.
Edward pulled out through the traffic, apparently without a glance, flipping around to head toward the freeway.
"Now," he said significantly, "it's your turn."
And that's the end of Chapter 8.
THANK ALL THE TREES AND MOST OF THE ROCKS.