I’m nearly done with Familian Harkonnen, the middle book of Brian Herbert’s prequel trilogy to his father’s acclaimed novel Dune.
And I’m nearly done in two senses of the word.
A lot of male authors feature a particular cheap old trope, often criticized by feminist and womanist scholars, of using rape as a convenient plot device in their work. Perhaps the rape of a woman provides necessary character motivation for a central male figure. Or perhaps it is used to “humanize” a female character and make us feel empathy for her. Or perhaps it is used for good old titillation. Perhaps the rape is just “forcible sex.”
All of this adds up to basic sexism: thinking of women as objects, disposable, mechanical, subhuman.
I have yet to embark on Dune itself and Frank Herbert’s other works but I’m told there are troubling sexist (woman-hating, woman-fearing) strains in his novels. I’ll almost certainly read them “anyway.”
Toni Morrison includes a rape scene of a child in her novel The Bluest Eye. She writes somewhere (and unfortunately — I’ve absolutely forgotten where) that she deliberated as to whether or not to include that scene. We’ve certainly got enough rape scenes already in literature. Most certainly. No shortage. Finally, she decided to include it so long as it was not at all titillating.
I wrote in my dissertation about Julie Taymor’s decision not to show Lavinia’s rape onscreen in Titus. In the DVD commentary, Taymor said she didn’t want to make rape at all titillating for the audience. The same concern Morrison expressed. At the time, I criticized Taymor for leaving such an explosive emptiness in there. I felt the rape scene would have been very powerful and helped to demonstrate the wickedness of Chiron and Demetrius.
But it’s very true that any depiction of rape runs the risk of being accidentally titillating (or co-opted for titillation), because we do romanticize an unequal power dynamic between men and women. That is the real issue here for me.
The violence directed against Bheth in Dune isn’t out of character for the Harkonnen thugs. The problem is that she is barely a cipher of a character, existing only to provide her brother, a much more prominent character, with motivation for hating the Harkonnens.
The problem isn’t that rape is ahistorical or false. Of course, men rape and brutalize women in very high numbers.
Nor is the problem even a depiction of rape at all. Nor, for me, is it a problem if one rape scene or a few rape scenes were titillating. That would be fiction, not real life.
The problem is that the glamorization of men inflicting pain on women, especially sexually, is everywhere. It is the rare rape scene that is not glamorized for titillation of male readers. The problem is that we are socialized to find the rape of women sexy and fun and exciting, always.
Look at Irreversible. Spoiler alert. That famous long, long rape scene of Monica Belluci (Monica Belluci! the cinematic image of voluptuousness in our time!) is titillating. I was so surprised when Roger Ebert condemned it and said it made him feel horrified. It’s a brutal but very hot scene. Deliberately so, I believe. Of course, there are criminal elements involved, and we realize it is a rape and against her will — that is very clear. He holds his phallic knife to her throat to force her.
He is a criminal. And the murder of that rapist, in revenge, shows how violence just greases the entire plot. The successive scenes of banal innocence are now tainted by blood and death. The violence is glamorized, excused by the glamorized rape.
This is the same principle that underlies every blockbuster. The enemy is faceless, has committed horrible crimes, and therefore we are allowed to relax and enjoy the infliction of violence on human beings.
This is the principle that underlies certain strongmen of our time — Cheney, Trump. This is the principle that underlies racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. You create the Other.
It’s no less despicable when it’s a woman being conveniently Othered.
Even the rape of Mohiam in Familian Atreides wasn’t so bad because she immediately took vengeance and she was (and continues to be) a much more well-rounded character than Bheth. And her rape wasn’t described with much (or any) detail. It wasn’t even close to titillating, I would say. I did think it was uncharacteristic that an indescribably powerful Bene Gesserit would really allow the Baron to continue to live after such an affront or would really put herself in such danger in the first place . . .
I might not be so hard on the Dune world if they had ANY good female characters. Almost everyone’s so two-dimensional so far.
Holding a model ‘thopter in his hands, Duke Leto looked up at Jessica helplessly. “Now you’re showing spite of your own, Jessica. I’m disappointed in you.” His face hardened. “Concubines do not rule this House.”
They sure don’t! And women can’t be much more than a concubine to anyone in the Dune world. Kaitan and Caladan are ruled by men as surely as Tleilax or Giedi Prime, and even the Bene Gesserit seem to exist solely for the purpose of creating a source of power for the Kwisatz Haderach deep within that dark unseeable shadow in their mystical beings.
In the limitless world of science fiction, why is it that so many writers even today keep imaging the same old sexist world?
I will reserve judgment till I read the Frank Herbert books themselves, though.