Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Cassandra Clare, Rape Culture & the Oft-Forgotten Metaphor

In between making some of the most influential zombie movies of our time, film-marker George A. Romero made an underrated cult classic vampire movie called “Martin”. The film follows the eponymous protagonist, a cripplingly shy teenage boy who declares himself to be an 84 year old immortal who needs to drink blood to survive. The ambiguity of the film is chilling, with Martin’s gothic visions of the stereotypical vampire seduction of the innocent maiden sharply contrasting with the reality as he sneaks into women’s rooms and forcibly drugs them before drinking their blood. I highly recommend the film if you haven’t seen it.

Why am I discussing this on a YA website? I mention this film because “Martin” focuses on an element of vampire lore that’s often ignored or just romanticised: the metaphor of vampirism as rape. No matter how much Martin tries to rose-tint what he’s doing, it can’t disguise the fact that he’s forcing himself upon defenceless women and demonstrating his power over them in the most degrading manner possible. It’s not sexy, it’s not romantic and it’s never supposed to be. “Martin” does something that I seldom see in YA paranormal romances – it forces the audience to confront the painful reality behind something that’s become so normalised. “Martin” came out in the 1970s, two years after Anne Rice’s “Interview With the Vampire” but long before the urban fantasy trend saturated popular culture in the way it has done in the shadows of the “Twilight” series, but its message rings true to this day, even more so with rape culture being so prevalent in YA. Cassandra Clare, author of the Mortal Instruments series and its spin-off The Infernal Devices, wrote a piece taking on critics of her latest novel “City of Lost Souls”, particularly a scene where the main antagonist Sebastian, brother of heroine Clary, tries to rape her. The piece can be found here. It was widely lauded across the net by the YA blogosphere as well as many prominent writers in the genre.

Rape culture is a huge problem in YA right now. From the controlling bruiser engine stealer Edward Cullen to the attempted murderer sexy bad boy Patch in “Hush Hush”, the bad boy jerk love interest who we're immediately supposed to find sexy for no apparent reason is overdone and omnipresent in the genre. It's hard to escape. It's escalated to the level where straight up abuse is romanticised (“Beautiful Disaster” - which I'm characterising as YA since the author was happy to do so when it made her money then decided to switch), and with the biggest thing in popular fiction being a “Twilight” fan-fic that softens domestic abuse by portraying it as sexy kink, this is an issue that's not going away. Au contraire, it's escalating. And so few people talk about it. Twilight’s problematic content was only discussed once it moved beyond being just a book to a cultural phenomenon. 50 Shades is discussed somewhat more but by a media that has no understanding of the facts. We're giving rape culture a pass for so many reasons - oh, it's just YA and it's just fiction, nobody really cares - but none of them hold water. You're in the open, you're part of the dialogue of pop culture and you need to grow up and accept responsibility for the messages you put out there. Yes, sometimes you'll get abuse and you are free to address that (but stay the hell away from bad reviews, that never ends well) but once your story is out in the open the interpretation you wrote is no longer the only one, nor is it the definitive one. That's one of the reasons art is so amazing.

I, and many of us on The Book Lantern, have many issues with Cassandra Clare. I think she's a straight up talentless hack who's churning out the same basic structured story over and over again. I have no intention of reading her latest book. I've discussed my problems with her characterisation before, mainly her reliance on specific types - the jealous beautiful female supporting character, the geeky nice boy who's second to the jerky bad sexy boy with a dark secret, the dull but adored female protagonist. The jerky bad boy Jace falls into a lot of these clichés. He's rude and often rather mean to people he's supposed to care about, often treating them like dirt, but he's still adored, and his dark past is all we're given as reason to sympathise and ultimately root for him. That and his extraordinary good looks. It's amazing the stuff your hero will get away with doing when he's hot. The fundamental lack of respect he shows for Clary and others is not dismissible just because he's troubled. Clare has never been very good with characterisation, and this is why I can't accept her reasoning behind the incestual sexual assault:

The incestuous sexual assault in City of Lost Souls is committed by the villain, a child murderer who is planning genocide and is obsessed with control and power. While the scene is certainly upsetting and could be triggering, it is there to show that this character is beyond sympathy or redemption, and for the most part, that’s the reaction I’ve seen – “I tried to like Sebastian but then he tried to rape Clary and I hate his guts now.”

If this character is already established as being the villain, why add the incestual sexual assault to emphasise the fact? I'm sure the reader will take your word for that. I don't appreciate something as painful and serious as attempted rape being used as a lazy characterisation plot device. If the only way Clare can show how irremediable a character is is through attempted incestual rape, then she's just not a very good writer.

I can also understand problems with Clare's claims given her history in fandom. She wrote Ron/Ginny incest fan-fiction (coincidentally under the title The Mortal Instruments) and the first three books of her series hinged on apparent incest and the sexual tension inherent within between Clary and Jace. I saw way too many readers of these books comment how they wouldn't mind incest for this pairing. It's become a recurring theme in Clare's work, and we're supposed to be okay with this? Here is a scene from “City of Ashes” between Clary and Jace that I believe directly romanticises the incest element. Whether it’s real incest or not doesn’t matter. What Clare is doing here is pushing the romantic element as acceptable and attractive because of its forbidden nature:

“Jace. Don’t.” She reached up and covered his hand with hers, folding his fingers into her own. “It’s pointless.”

“That’s not true.” There was desperation in his voice. “If we both feel the same way-”

“It doesn’t matter what we feel. There’s nothing we can do.” She heard her voice as if a stranger were speaking: remote, miserable. “Where would we go to be together? How could we live?”

“We could keep it a secret.” (Page 170, UK Paperback, cited via Amazon)

I can't comment on the context of the discussed scene in the book since I have no intention of reading it. But I am sick of this disgusting mixture we have aimed at teenage girls - of normalising and romanticising rape culture and abuse by making women passive and bad boys the romantic norm, and using rape as a plot device with no repercussions or real point. No, there is no one way to react to being sexually assaulted, but if you're going to bring that to the table then you have responsibility to handle it right, regardless of what genre you're writing in. Because if people are calling “Beautiful Disaster” and 50 Shades romantic when they're a step away from rape, we shouldn't be surprised when people start reacting to shit like this.

Of course, the issue doesn’t end here. To tie back to the beginning of my piece, where I discussed “Martin” and the rape metaphor, Clare is seemingly guilty of romanticising abuse herself, or at least heavily glossing it over. One of the supporting characters of the series, Maia, is a werewolf who was previously abused by her controlling boyfriend Jordan, who also attacked her and turned her into a werewolf against her will. Here is an extract from “City of Fallen Angels”:

“There’s nothing to explain.” Jordan shuffled into the kitchen and dug around in a drawer until he produced a coffee filter. “Whatever Maia said about me, I’m sure it was true.”

“She said you hit her,” Simon said.

Jordan, in the kitchen, went very still. He looked down at the filter as if he were no longer quite sure what it was for.

“She said you guys went out for months and everything was great,” Simon went on. “Then you turned violent and jealous. When she called you on it, you hit her. She broke up with you, and when she was walking home one night, something attacked her and nearly killed her. And you – you took off out of town. No apology, no explanation.” (Page 202, cited via Amazon)

Here we have established a character as an antagonist, at least based on the qualities Clare previously used to justify the use of incestual sexual assault with Sebastian in “City of Lost Souls”. The incident in question here may not be sexual assault but the inherently non-consensual nature of it cannot be ignored. It can’t be excused with weak justifications of how tough it is for Jordan to control himself in werewolf form, especially when his violent nature towards his spouse has already been established. He didn’t mean to turn her into a werewolf, just like many men don’t mean to hit their wives and girlfriends. They’re just stressed out or having a tough time or couldn’t help themselves. He'll never hit her again, honestly. This is not acceptable. Intentional or not, the message here isn’t subtle. It’s also made even worse by the end of the novel when Maia forgives Jordan and they become an item again:

She raised her head and pressed her mouth to his. He had changed in so many ways, but the feeling of kissing him was the same, his mouth as soft as ever…. She remembered the first time she’d kissed him… She’d thought he was the sweetest boy she’d ever known. And then he was bitten and everything changed.” (Page 402, cited via Amazon)

Rape culture is so prevalent in YA that sometimes we don’t even notice it. We seem to have stopped paying attention to the problematic forced seduction element, as witnessed in “Hush Hush” and various other novels. We’re not treating rape as seriously as we should be (on top of this series, see the embarrassing and awful use of rape as a plot device for the character of Rosalie Hale in “Eclipse”, which happens after her fiancĂ© brags about her amazing beauty). This is why I felt the need to tackle Clare’s article head-on. I’m sure her intentions were good, but she’s blatantly ignoring the hypocrisy of her own article as well as her own prevalent and problematic content. It’s not limited to Clare’s work, it’s throughout YA, especially paranormal romance, possibly trying to emulate the work of adult urban fantasy writers such as Patricia Briggs. Rape can be handled well in YA, just read Laurie Halse Anderson for proof of that, but it shouldn’t be used so casually, and just to prove how bad the baddie is. We should never forget the power of words and the context in which they are written. Call out problems where you see them and present your argument well, with citation and evidence if at all possible. Martin may have tried to kid himself into believing his actions were justifiable, but we’re better than that. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

What I want to read more of: Smart Heroines

Cover debates. Here are two words that should be enough to make your hair stand on end. Whether it’s whitewashing, or slimming up, or putting women in anatomically impossible poses, we can all agree that covers are one of the most frustrating parts about a book. The line between good representation and good marketing is a slim one, and more often than not, it is completely missed.

But as much as I detest the dead/passive-white-cover-girl trend, there is one thing that bothers me: Why is it that heroines can’t be heroic and still own the freaking dress?

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself…

Okay, do you know this annoying tendency where a YA heroine is either completely disowning her femininity for the sake of kicking ass (see: Katsa from Graceling or Tris from Divergent) or she is completely self-effacing and weak and has to rely on a hot dude to rescue her, and only wears the pretty dress once so that it can get on the cover (if I start naming them, we’ll be here all day). Even those that are more well-rounded tend to dismiss skirts as impractical… which is a valid point, but still a bit unfair.

Full disclosure: I’m a jeans kind of girl. In fact, it was years before I even owned a skirt, and even now, my most adventurous hems are granny-ish by some standards. I like practicality. And no-one ever said that jeans are unfeminine.

But I like skirts and dresses too. I like pretty colors and textures. I like heels, because I enjoy being tall, and yeah, I also think my legs look awesome. I don’t think mascara is anti-feminist and I am sick and tired of the notion that a heroine has to completely disregard every single thing associated with her gender in order to be considered well-rounded. Just because some things like poofy dresses and pastels are traditionally associated with females doesn’t mean that they are kryptonite that the MC should avoid at all cost.

Which is why, today, I went to GR and exclaimed: I want to read about a heroine who wins through her smarts, without throwing a single punch. I want to see a heroine who owns her femininity and is still considered awesome.

Tall order? I don’t know. Hermione Granger is a pretty good example, even if we see her dress up exactly twice in seven books. Tiffany Aching from “The Wee Free Men” is also a heroine who gets by with smarts all the time, but since she’s ten or something in the first book, gender doesn’t play much of a role in her story, at least at first. Clara Gardner from Unearthly is pretty smart, and she’s not ashamed to admit that she cares about how she looks – she’s the closest to what I’m talking about… that I’ve read in YA.

Anyway, my two cents. Let me know what you think. Are there any heroines you know that fit the bill? What are the things you’d like to read about in YA?