‘I Mean, Look at Her’: On Harassing Women in Fiction

originalUnless you’ve been totally unplugged from the news for the past several weeks, it’s been highly justified wall-to-wall thinkpieces on sexual assault and harassment. Perhaps the most perturbing thing about the entire story (besides the fact the proud perpetrator of several sexual assaults is still running for President) is the idea the idea that assault is directly correlated  to a woman’s attractiveness*. This idea doesn’t just exist in the conspiracy-addled imagination of history’s worst Presidential candidate. It’s everywhere, and I’ve seen some particularly disturbing manifestations of it in allegedly ‘feminist’ fiction. Because fiction is part of the cultural ‘water’ we swim in, I think it’s worth addressing how this utterly obnoxious trope rears its head and how to avoid it in our own work.

More explicit discussion of sexual assault under the jump.

In general, it goes something like this:

  1. A female character exists. She is usually a cishet white lady, and is often the lonely white lead in a sea of racialized Others (variants include being the Only Woman, the Only Non-Poor Person, etc.)
  2. Everybody wants to get into the female character’s pants, even though she’s not interested (again, my critique is explicitly excluding escapist genres where consensual promiscuity is intentional and part of the fun).
  3. At least one character crosses the line from flirting or verbal propositions to assault. This will typically be someone coded as Other, most likely an LGBT person and/or a man of color, although there are examples where the assailant’s cis-male-ness is front and center.
  4. Woman finds the one dude who isn’t awful and they couple up.

Most tropes, even the cheesiest ones, can often be resuscitated with a bit of self-awareness, creativity, and critical thinking. However, this is one of the tropes that I think should be purged from our collective repertoire. But this is one of those exceptional tropes that manages not only to be sexist against men and women, but to drag race and sexual orientation into its twisted internal logic. Let’s break down the disturbing takeaways:

  1. Women are assaulted because they’re hot, not because rapists are awful humans.
  2. Sexual harassment and assault are ‘compliments’, and women should be flattered by being verbally degraded or physically violated, because it proves they’re ‘hot’.
  3. The ‘compliments’ of grotesquely antisocial men establish your female character as sexually desirable, and that this is one of her key features
  4. Cishet white upper-middle-class women are superior to women of color, poor women, etc., hence every character with a compatible orientation drooling over said white woman in spite of having many other dating options. This also veers into the Mary Sue zone, in which your character becomes a black hole into which other characters’ motivations are subsumed.
  5. Men have no impulse control, and being in the vicinity of an attractive women will turn them into rape monsters. This is beyond insulting to all the men who are (*gasp!*) functioning adults and not menaces to society.
  6. ‘They can’t help it, dudes are just inherently horrible and shouldn’t be held responsible or experience consequences for being horrible!.
  7. Who cares about the female character’s actual traits?  No, let’s get to the important business– can she facilitate boners?.
  8. Men of color/ethnicity are a menace to white women. Besides being insulting, this trope literally gets men of color killed. Expunge it with fire.
  9. Queer men are a menace to everybody. See above.

So what do we do as writers to dismantle this trope?

First of all, stop doing mental gymnastics about how it’s okay when you use it in your stories, because you’re a special snowflake, and you know you didn’t mean to be racist, sexist, biphobic, or whatever.

Second, think about what makes your female character sympathetic and interesting– is she funny? Smart? Loyal? Find some of her positive character traits and demonstrate them, and don’t waste time telling us whether or not random creeps find her sexy. Sure, there are a few scenarios that call for character attractiveness to be established, but most of the time it can be cut with no harm to the plot.

Third, let the male side characters act like complex adult humans, not boner monsters. This is particularly true when you’re writing about maginalized groups, such as men of color and/or LGBT people who are framed as both hypersexual and a threat to white cishet women. Let these characters be flawed, let them be complicated and ‘differently good’, but don’t lean on creaky old stereotypes to populate your world with bit-part antagonists.

It’s the year 2016 people, not the year 1620. Let’s write like it.


*Obviously people of any gender can be the perpetrator or victim, but the most common narrative is around cishet female victim and cishet male perpetrator, so I am going to focus on that.
**I say ‘racialized’ because this scoops up variants where a light-skinned and/or European-based group is othered and viewed by the society/narrative as being of a separate racial/ethnic group.

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