6 of the Worst Rape Culture Tropes, From ‘Asking For It’ Author Kate Harding

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Kate Harding’s Asking For It is a smart, witty summation of many of the issues we talk about at Flavorwire, from high-profile cases like Bill Cosby and Dominique Strauss-Kahn to depictions of rape and torture on TV to the over-hyped specter of false rape accusations and panic over date rape on campus to convicted rapist Mike Tyson playing a sexual abuse victim on Law and Order: SVU. (“I’m not saying Tyson should never be able to hold a job again, but maybe that’s a part that should have gone to someone who wasn’t a convicted rapist,” Harding tell Flavorwire.)

Harding has been researching the book for several years, and the culture at large has provided her with dozens of examples of harmful tropes that filter down from TV shows to court cases to campuses, creating an environment where women’s bodies are treated like trophies and women’s desires are sidelined. Flavorwire spoke to the author about some of the most harmful and pervasive of these tropes. Some of the examples she uses come from her most beloved shows. “Sometimes even the shows you love can have a terrible misstep,” Harding says. “Instead of trying to make excuses, as consumers of pop culture, we have to say, ‘I love this show or this actor whatever, but this is rape culture.'”

1. Attempted rape indicates a compliment.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, there’s a scene long before any of the kink begins, in which Anastasia awakens in Christan’s bed, having passed out, and realizes he’s “been a gentleman with her.” She worries that he doesn’t find her attractive and left her alone for that reason, and feminist readers have flagged this scene as one of the most disturbing in the book. “That’s the kind of subtle thing that does a lot of damage,” says Harding. “It reinforces the idea that rape is a compliment.” Rape is actually, of course, an act of violence.

2. Rape humanizes a female character.

Harding is a big fan of Shonda Rhimes and Scandal, but points to its use of one of the worst rape culture tropes with the character of Mellie, once a “total bitch,” who is humanized by a secret backstory: she was raped by her father-in-law and kept it a secret so as not to mess up husband’s chances in politics. “Suddenly she’s a more interesting and likable character,” says Harding. Rape shouldn’t just be a shortcut to garner sympathy. “Too often a rape backstory is what makes you feel for a character if she’s female,” says Harding.

3. If audiences don’t see rape, they won’t believe it happened.

One of the reasons critics applauded Mad Max: Fury Road was because even though its characters had survived sex slavery, the movie focused on their current status and didn’t sexualize the abuse, or make it titillating. Yet “the comic book depicts a brutal rape of Furiosa,” says Harding. “Apparently one of the co-creators felt that you have to see them raped to believe they were raped.”

Indeed, the creator told critics that “without it, the story could be viewed merely as a bunch of young spoilt girls whining about being kept in relative luxury by an older man” — which reinforces the idea that we can’t trust survivors to tell their own stories and need some sort of brutal evidence to trust their accounts.

4. Consent can be retroactive if someone is just worn down enough.

This applies to rape scenes in the Seth Rogen comedy Observe and Report, in which he forces himself on a passed-out Ana Faris, and the infamous Jaime-Cersei rape on Game of Thrones. In both situations, creators were sure that their female characters changing course mid-stream would excuse the obvious non-consent from earlier on. Harding calls this the myth of “retroactive consent” and says it encourages the idea that, “after she says no a zillion times, if he just keeps going, and ignores what she wants, eventually she’s going to say, ‘Oh yes, I did want that.'”

5. You can consent while you’re asleep.

“We seem very confused about whether having sex with a sleeping a person is rape,” says Harding. “There’s this idea that it’s a sexy thing you can do to wake someone up. But it is impossible for a sleeping person to consent to sex, and you can’t really arrange for it beforehand.”

One disappointing place where that came up, says Harding, was on 30 Rock, during an episode where Liz is plagued by an image of Pete having sex with his sleeping wife. “The viewer is supposed to be disgusted, but it doesn’t seem to indicate that it’s rape,” she says. “The disgust is meant to come as much from middle-aged people having sex as actually he’s raping his wife.” Harding adds that the scene also reinforces the trope that “anyone not deemed conventionally hot cannot be raped.”

6. Good women who say “no” mean “yes”; women who say “yes” too enthusiastically are worthless.

“The myth is, you want the girl who will pretend she doesn’t want sex,” says Harding, citing “Blurred Lines” and other pop songs as primary peddlers of this myth. She also notes the scene in Mad Men in which Joan is raped by her doctor boyfriend as punishment for her sexual know-how. Greg clearly buys into this noxious idea himself, but viewers also needed some lessons in myth-busting — because even though the actress and writers clearly saw Greg as raping Joan, many audience members were loath to do the same.