I vividly remember the first time I encountered the presence of rape in a young adult novel. I was 11, I was obsessed with modern adaptations of fairy tales, and I was completely taken aback by the graphic rape scene in the adaptation of Snow White I’d checked out of our middle school library. I can’t remember the name of the book at all, but I still vividly remember the details of that scene. I was the type of kid who finished everything she read (even "Little Women," for god’s sake), but I turned that one back in.
I wanted to read about Snow’s triumphant return to her homeland, but even opening the book made me feel sick to my stomach. At that point, I didn’t know the powerlessness and horror involved with sexual assault; I just knew that the character had suffered immensely, in a way I didn’t understand or want to read about anymore.
Little did I know, of course, how common the trope of rape-as-origin-story really is. I was lucky enough to be knee-deep in teen lit at a time pre-Twilight, when most stories about girls involved genuine badassery.
But the frequency at which I did encounter rape scenes gradually made me internalize the possibility of sexual assault as a constant danger. The stories I was reading didn’t bother to examine the societal trappings that permitted the assaults in the first place -- why would they? Bad guys raped, and good guys either rode in to the rescue or watched helplessly from the sidelines. And the women added “assault” to their character development sheets.
I can’t express how damaging this normalization of assault was for me and my friends as young teens. We constantly encountered rape and assault as part of the self-actualization experience; according to the books we were reading, these acts were wreathed in shame and secrecy. The woman, her rapist, and (possibly) her love interest kept the knowledge of the act amongst themselves. It became part of their heroic or villainous story, respectively, and there was no need for justice beyond that of the occasional broadsword.
Everyone deals with sexual assault in different ways. But I know that for many of my friends, assaults later in life became inextricable from the narratives we’d grown up with. Secrecy was expected from us, as well as stumping along bravely to defeat our responses to assault. And if we couldn’t defeat them, well, then we weren’t meant to be heroes.
I’m writing about this now because according to Google and its advertisers, these tropes that I grew up with are apparently too obscene even to comment on. The popular site TVTropes, famous for meticulously cataloging the myriad commonalities of a whole slew of media, was recently pressured into briefly taking down its entire Rape Trope Index due to its “explicit content.” According to TVTropes’s moderator, this index, which included such recurring tropes as “Attempted Rape,” “Near Rape Experience,” and “Rape as Back Story,” was too “creepy” to remain on the site.
As expected, there are a hell of a lot of triggering things in that index. Even clicking through some of the examples made my skin crawl. Some days, even reading about characters’ rape is too much for me to handle. I do understand why some advertisers would hesitate to slap their ad beside “It’s Not Rape If You Enjoyed It.”
But on a site that also features tropes like “Child Eater” and “Memetic Molester,” to name a very scant few, why is it the rape tropes that are being targeted for deletion because of their supposed sexual content? As Alyssa Rosenberg points out at ThinkProgress,
“Rape is obscene. But that’s not because it’s dirty, or sexually alluring, something that needs to—or could be—confined to people at a certain age or a certain stage of life. Rape is obscene because it’s a violation of community norms and standards, not in some settings, but in all settings.”
And given that most of these tropes seem to deal with rape victims rather than rapists themselves, this censorship seems disproportionately focused on taking the victims out of public eye. Again.
It is very reasonable to dislike the prevalence of rape tropes in fiction and media, particularly when they’re addressed as ham-fistedly as the vast majority of them seem to be. But denying the presence of those tropes, as The Mary Sue argues, just denies the possibility of discussing and subsequently deconstructing them as dishonest and misogynistic.
TVTropes is one of the best indicators of recurring cultural memes on the Internet; brushing aside hundreds of examples of sexual assaults used as plot devices robs commentators, viewers, and creators of the chance to address these issues head-on.Something tells me that a young writer-dude who thinks he has a lot of Great Original Ideas about sexual assault as female character development would be more likely to take a step back when faced with all the examples of how that has gone very, very wrong.
As of now, the TVTropes rape index is sort of back up. I’m not sure how long it will stay that way. According to its forums, many of the wiki’s users are currently working to rename the “Rape is Okay”-style tropes (like the aforementioned “It’s Not Rape If You Enjoyed It”) to labels that are more explicitly anti-assault. But it concerns me that Google’s (and, by extension, TVTropes’s creator Fast Eddie’s) first move was to delete the rape index entirely for the sake of advertiser comfort. In response, Fast Eddie reportedly said, “No big deal.” Well, not quite, Eddie.
By pointing specifically to the “Rape Tropes Index,” Google and its advertisers are doing the same goddamned thing that the in-text tropes themselves did and continue to do. They label sexual assault as a secret, dirty thing, inappropriate for any sort of public discussion. But as we all know, refusing to discuss rape doesn’t make it go away; refusing to discuss rape tropes doesn’t mean that the next Big Bestselling YA Novel won’t be dripping with them. Yet mentions of sexual assault continue to be silenced in the name of decorum.
Welp, forgive me, everyone, for being unwilling to cater to the apparently delicate comforts of Google’s advertisers. I, and a lot of people I know, spent too long trying to conform to the silencing narrative to which we knew zero alternatives. So I’m not going to shut up about this stuff anytime soon. Sorry if Google tries to shut us down because of it.