This post contains discussions of sexual violence and may be triggering for some people.
Have you guys ever heard of “Woman in Refrigerator Syndrome?” It’s a phrase that writer Gail Simone coined in the late 1990s, and it’s about the most hackneyed device that a writer can use to give his male characters “depth.”
Though the trope originates from a Green Lantern comic issue where the hero returns home to find his dead girlfriend stuffed in a refrigerator, it’s grown to mean any female character that seems to exist just to have violence inflicted on her. If this deeply figures into her nearest dude counterpart’s origin story, so much the better. Sound familiar? It’s probably because you’ve seen more than one action movie in your whole life.
I love explosions and grand heists and quests and all that jazz, but it’s gotten to the point where I can’t look at any action movie hero’s cute first girlfriend or his doting mother without wincing. I’ll watch them chucking the hero lovingly under the chin and think nervously about how I’m going to have to cover my eyes during their inevitably gruesome murder scene 30 minutes in. I spent most of the new Spider-Man movie in a state of heightened anxiety, just waiting for Emma Stone to get killed off so that Andrew Garfield could continue in his super-growth with a renewed sense of vengeance.
Even in books, television and movies where the main character isn’t a dude, many lazy writers still feel that the violence their female characters must overcome is shorthand for how complex they must be, particularly if they’re supposed to be a “badass.”
Recently, bestselling science fiction author Seanan McGuire wrote on her personal LiveJournal about a question she’d received from a reader about some of her characters –- namely, when they were going to get raped. She continues:
Not "if." Not "do you think." But "when," and "finally." Because it is a foregone conclusion, you see, that all women must be raped, especially when they have the gall to run around being protagonists all the damn time.
That reader went on to defend their original question, claiming that if McGuire were trying to be realistic, she’d mirror the same sexual assault statistics as occur in the universe, particularly since her characters face a lot of “unsafe situations” (read: being urban fantasy heroines).
I’ve written before about the ubiquity and callousness of many rape tropes, but I find this one to be particularly gruesome. The idea that all badass female characters must either eventually face sexual violence or draw their motivation from it paints all bold, risk-taking women as natural targets. As McGuire points out, “Rape in fiction can…be a problematic and belittling thing, used to put cocky heroines in their places.”
But the use of sexual violence as “punishment” for brassy women in fiction isn’t even the element of this trope that I find the most disturbing. It’s that sexual violence has increasingly become the standard trauma for strong female characters to overcome.
Take “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” for example. It’s not enough that Lisbeth is a (bisexual!) girl genius with scary-ass facial piercings; no, we apparently can’t tell she’s really capable until she’s raped mid-book by her would-be foster father before she carries out some vengeance-flavored sexual violence of her own. Or Veronica Mars, whose whole backstory hinges on her pre-series date rape. Or Molly Millions and her arguably compassion-killing quasi-sex work in “Neuromancer.” Or Sookie Stackhouse, for god's sake. They’re all at varying points on the heroine spectrum, but they carry their sexually violent pasts with them like talismans.
It’s actually the direct opposite of the Refrigerator Woman trope, where the characters and the violence surrounding them tend to slip away in a flurry of plot and bright male vows of vengeance.
Maybe I’m ascribing too much of my own experience to these characters. But to me, the defining traumas of these female protagonists’ lives aren’t fleeting. Their assaults hang around the pages like a dark, choking cloud, waiting to (falsely) remind readers that in order to have depth, one must have faced horror at its most basic form. For male protagonists, it’s the indignity of failing to protect “their” women; for female ones, it’s sexual violence.
By constantly subjecting these heroines to assault in order to mark them as complex, authors are placing all of the character-developing agency onto their protagonists' attackers. In that moment, they entirely reduce these women, whom audiences have observed kicking ass and solving crime and generally being incredibly fucking awesome, to their rape and their subsequent responses to it.
Do I think this is important to portray in fiction? Yes. Absolutely. I am thrilled that there exist media that depict women experiencing sexual violence and dealing with it in a variety of ways. But do I think that gratuitous violence should be the go-to dividing line between complexity and vapidity when it comes to female characters? Fucking no.
Because when it comes down to it, I don’t want sexual assault to be what defines my own badassery or the badassery of my friends or family. I consider myself to be a pretty capable individual, overall; I may not be able to Krav Maga my way out of a knot of wizard-vampires, but I can hold a job and make friends and feed myself nutritious meals, so I think I’m doing pretty okay.
I was raped in 2010. But if people thought that was the single most interesting thing about me, I would be severely unhappy. I want to be interesting because of my conversation skills or my erotica or my mania or my addiction to dumb screamo music, not because some fuckwad decided that “passed out and bleeding” meant “go for it” in terms of consent. It's part of my table of contents, obviously, but it's not the only chapter. And I would want the same for the female protagonists whom I have the privilege of watching, reading, or writing.
There are a frillion different ways to signify that a female character has more personality than a bucket of rocks. Rape doesn’t always have to be one of them.
You can follow Kate on Twitter at @katchatters.