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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, August 9, 2014


"Rough sex or rape?" is the title of a New York Times essay on the spousal rape scene of GONE WITH THE WIND. This crucial ambiguity in the intersection of sex and violence makes it difficult to pick a "male-oriented" example of rape in popular fiction.

For instance, in the first Tarzan novel back in 1912, the hero rescues Jane from a possible "fate worse than death" at the hands of a crazed ape.  Tarzan, who has already become smitten with Jane from afar, then "assaults" her with kisses. Jane is briefly swept away and responds. Then her common sense re-asserts itself and she repulses him. Yet rape as such is never a real possibility in this sequence, for the gentlemanly ape-man is simply puzzled at Jane's behavior and takes no further action, except to escort her back to her camp. The hero does not get any nooky until the two of them are formally married in a later book.

Commercial films-- which were, it should be said, aimed equally at both male and female adult audiences-- are replete with such forceful displays of passion, in which the male protagonist forces his attentions-- usually not to the extent Rhett Butler does-- upon a female. It's generally understood that the female protagonist is a stand-in for the female audience that is presumed to want to see sex happen between the lead characters: ergo, the protagonist's reluctance is meant to be broken down in the face of passion; i.e., it is a "no" that really does not mean "no." I do not think that female audiences would have partaken of such scenes in novels and films unless they could relate to them as fantasies. This gives the audiences credit for realizing that such scenarios did not represent real experience, and that they did not represent rape as such.

Were all members of the male audiences aware of "forced attentions" as being in the domain of fantasy, and hence, not justifications of real rape? Here too I think that we must assume that the majority of males knew that they were watching a staged fantasy, though I would admit that there is more potential for misunderstanding from the male point of view.  Still, the male protagonists of novels and films usually were not represented as literally overpowering the female as Rhett Butler did. The more standard scenario was that the reluctant female would finally respond and the curtains would close upon what was then consensual, if only implied, sex.

Four years before the publication of GONE WITH THE WIND, Robert E. Howard submitted-- but did not manage to sell-- a Conan story entitled "The Frost Giant's Daughter," seen above illustrated by the comics-artist Barry Windsor Smith.  Usually Howard's most celebrated character does not have to rape anyone; women regularly throw themselves at the bemuscled barbarian.  But in this story rape is justified in a scenario almost involved as that of Mitchell's novel, though one playing to male fantasies.

As "Daughter" begins, Conan stands on an icy field littered with the dead bodies left from a brutal conflict between two enemy forces. He and a warrior from the other side, name of "Heimdul," square off, and with one blow Conan slays what would seem to be his last opponent.

Into this scene of carnage a naked woman who calls herself "Atali" manifests. She refuses to justify herself to the weary barbarian, but exhorts him first to lie down and die with his allies. Then Atali teases the warrior with her beauty, so that he becomes intent on conquering her. She leads him into an ambush, and as two larger-than-average warriors attack Conan, she shouts that they will enjoy eating his heart "on our father's board." But Conan slays Atali's brothers, and then chases her down. Atali is saved from being raped by the power of her godly father Ymir, who stuns Conan with a celestial light-show and carries his daughter away in what Conan imagines to be a "gigantic war-chariot."  When Conan's allies find him in the snow, he has only a piece of Atali's garment to validate his story.

This is one of the few times a commercial fiction-hero-- one with whom a dominantly male readership would have identified-- is shown to be not just capable of rape, but somewhat justified in committing it. Admittedly, Conan doesn't know that Atali is leading him into ambush when he first chases her; in fact, he's fairly businesslike with this naked vision, trying to figure out if she's allied to his side and if she'll lead him to safety. Only when she flaunts her charms and mocks his lack of manhood does he chase her down, "his eyes burning like those of a wolf." However, long before Conan knows what's going on, the intended readers are likely to suspect the motives of this ethereal cock-tease, and so the idea of the hero raping her as punishment for her deception probably would not have occasioned much grief for Atali, had the story seen print in the 1930s.

Even though the rape isn't completed, due to the interference of Big Daddy Ymir (Howard's Freudian superego?), this is still a psychologically significant "fake-rape" story.  Whereas the spousal rape in GONE WITH THE WIND is justified by feminine priorities-- Scarlett doesn't appreciate her husband, etc.-- this one is justified by male priorities: someone tries to kill you, so you can retaliate against them however you like.  "Daughter" is also a strong mythopoeic tale, in which Conan, even after winning out against mortal enemies, is tantalized by a woman who uses sex as a lure to promulgate death.  One can argue that this sort of fantasy is retrograde to any civilized way of life, and of course it is.  That's precisely the reason it retains its unique power and resonance.

More in Part 4--

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