The Victim Dilemma

by Dan H

Dan continues to overuse the word “paradox” and to be rude about Joss Whedon
I’m going to start with an anecdote.

One of the only times I have ever actually had my mind changed about something by the simple act of having somebody explain their point of view to me was when I found a friend of mine wearing one of those white “make poverty history” wristbands.

I never liked the slogan. I thought it was idealistic to the point of naïveté. You might as well carry a banner saying “end injustice now” or “bad things should stop happening.” What my friend explained to me, and I think he was totally right, was that “Make Poverty History” wasn’t about a directionless call for “something” do be done, it was a way of saying “poverty is a problem to be solved, not something to wring your hands about.”

If we high-minded wealthy liberals are honest with ourselves, we tend to think of Africa as “the country the poor people come from.” On some level we all believe that starvation and suffering are what Africa is for. It’s nobody’s fault that millions of people starve to death despite the fact that there is, in fact, enough food to go around, it’s just the way of the world and anyway, if people stopped dropping dead in Ethiopia, what would Lenny Henry do with his time. “Make Poverty History” was a way of saying that our usual way of thinking about poverty is, in fact, totally fucked up.

This brings us back, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, to Joss Whedon, Dollhouse and The Portrayal of Women (tm). Just to be clear here, my aim here isn’t to knock Whedon, it isn’t to make him out to be a misogynist, or to “prove” that he isn’t the great big feminist he says he is. It’s just that ol’ JW is the best case in point for what is a very, very difficult issue.

Taking the Country Out the Boy: The Issue with “Ex”

One of the things that people have identified as “skeevy” (to borrow a term from FB poster Viorica) about Dollhouse is that so far most of the women portrayed in it have been victims of some sort, the classic example here being the first episode, in which Eliza Dushku’s character is programmed with the personality of a hostage negotiator whose entire career was a reaction against the fact that she, as a child, was abducted and abused.

Others have pointed out that this was actually totally okay, because she responded to the abuse by becoming a strong, independent woman, and was ultimately able to take on her abuser and defeat him (although “she” was now Eliza, programmed with the other woman’s memories).

Now I can totally see the argument that says that a story about a woman who grows stronger in response to a traumatic experience is an empowering one. The idea that this woman took a horrific experience and made something positive out of it is arguably both powerful and affirming, and you could certainly make the case that by overcoming her abuser she ceases to be a victim.

The problem I have is that an ex-victim is, to my mind, still a victim.

Look at it this way. Virtually every procedural show (be it police, medical, whatever) has the Obligatory Ex Criminal (often also filling the role of Obligatory Ethnic Minority). The ex-criminal used to live on the wrong side of the law, but has since “gone straight” and become a cop/doctor/interstellar revolutionary/whatever.

But, when you get right down to it, their job in the series is to do the criminal stuff. They pick people’s pockets, break into places the plot needs them to get into, and generally act like the Thief in a traditional D&D party. The same goes for anybody who is ex-military, ex-CIA, ex-vampire or ex-priest, the thing which they are “ex” defines their character as completely as the thing they do currently, arguably more so. The woman Eliza gets patched into her brain in the first episode of Dollhouse isn’t a hostage negotiator who happens to be female and happens to be an abuse survivor, she’s a female-abuse-survivor-turned hostage negotiator. The character is still defined primarily by the abuse, if only because without it, the episode would be stripped of most of its conflict and therefore most of its point.

On Victimhood: The Heath Ledger Effect

When Heath Ledger died, the newspapers basically all said the same thing. He was a great actor, tormented by his personal demons, and his death was a tragic waste of a great talent. It’s the same when any actor dies, particularly if suicide is suspected. He was just too driven, too talented, too dedicated to his art. His genius was rooted in a very real darkness, and so on.

You might have noticed the use of the masculine pronoun above. Admittedly I do sometimes use “he” for gender-neutrality (there go my feminist credentials) but in this case I do mean it quite specifically.

When a famous woman dies, particularly if suicide is suspected, it's a whole different story. We are not told about her towering genius, and women absolutely never have personal demons. Instead we are told about how a poor, innocent girl was drawn all unknowing into the machinery of fame, and was helpless to prevent herself being chewed up and spat out like tobacco. Candle In the Wind makes references to Norma Jeane being “hounded,” “set on a treadmill,” “lonely,” and of course “never knowing who to cling to.” Not once does it point out that she was also quite a good actress.

Famous people go off the rails, but when a man goes off the rails, we focus on the loss of his potential, we say “has the man who did all these amazing things really come to this?” When a woman goes off the rails, we say “oh how sad, and to think she was once somebody's little girl.” When a man dies, or goes mad, or both we mourn the loss of his talent. When a woman dies or goes mad we mourn the loss of, for want of a better word, her femininity. We always think, just for a moment, how much happier she would have been if she'd just found a nice man and settled down.

This is one of those situations where I think there's Something Important here but I'm not entirely sure what it is. The problem is that, in general, women do have a tougher time of it than men, so chances are Marilyn Monroe really did have a tougher life than James Dean, but the fact remains that we remember one as a great actor whose life was cut short by a car accident, and the other as a tragic example of innocence crushed by the Hollywood machine.

The problem is that women, because of the nature of society, have slightly less control over their lives than men, and slightly fewer choices. This is a bad thing. The problem is, if you fixate too much on the (real, occasional) powerlessness of women you wind up presenting a situation where women, because of their gender, are incapable of controlling their lives, or making their own choices.

To put it another way, isn't Elton John singing “Hollywood made you a superstar,” just a little bit insulting to old Norma Jeane Mortenson?

The Paradox: Life Imitates Art Imitates Life

Much as I love dissing Joss Whedon for his various airs and graces, he's in a bugger of an impossible position.

If he ignores the victimization of women, he's not really doing his job as a “feminist,” but if he portrays it, he's only reinforcing the kind of stereotypes he's trying to fight against.

It all comes back to the problem with Africa or, to put it another way, Russell's “Superior Virtue of the Oppressed.” Put simply, we like to see other people suffer, not because we are cruel but because it allows us to feel secure in ourselves. We construct convenient fictions for ourselves – like the old classic about how blind people's other senses get razor-sharp to “compensate” for their lack of sight. We invest victimhood with virtue, and that is extremely dangerous.

Regular ferretbrainers will probably be familiar with our Fantasy Rape Watch feature. One of the fantasy rape clichés that I have a particularly hard time dealing with is the one you might call “Rape as Rite of Passage”. It's worryingly common in fantasy for female protagonists to get raped, and for this to form a crucial part of her development “as a woman” and contribute to her unlocking her true potential. It's just plain freaky, but it's really easy to see where it comes from.

When you are confronted with somebody who has suffered terribly, be they an abuse victim, a holocaust survivor, or whatever, one of the only ways we can cope with it is to convince yourselves that the sheer fact of their survival makes them admirable. Ironically it's a form of dehumanisation, we cope with the suffering of others by convincing ourselves that they are so inferior or so superior that we don't have to care what happens to them. The alternative is to accept just how awful, cruel and pointless the world can really be.

There is a very real danger in presenting “women who triumph in the wake of abuse” as role models or icons of female empowerment. In fact there are several very real dangers.

For a start, it passes an implicit judgement on people who survive abuse but are just plain broken by it: Eliza Dushku can get over it, why can't you? I would be interested in seeing the statistics, but I strongly suspect that in real life, being abducted and sexually abused makes you less likely to become a roaring success, not more likely. I also rather suspect that if you applied to train as a hostage negotiator and said that the reason you wanted to do it was because you were abducted as a child, they wouldn't even interview you (I understand that medical schools frequently reject people for citing “because I lost person X to disease Y” as their reason for applying).

And of course it also passes an implicit judgement on women who have just got on with their lives without having the good fortune to suffer horrific sexual abuse through which they can discover their inner feminine mojo. By exaggerating the triumphs of abused women, you wind up presenting a deeply disturbing view of the world where being raped is the highest thing a woman can aspire to. Not deliberately, of course, but in a work of fiction a woman who has merely succeeded is going to get less screen time and less audience sympathy than a woman who has succeeded in spite of abuse.

And finally, there's the sexual double standard. This one's a bit tricky, but I think it's telling that while abuse for a female character is a free ticket to sympathy city by way of prestige junction, for a male character it's just a little bit icky. I think, actually, I could get past the “abuse is empowerment” thing if it applied to men as well as to women, but when was the last time you saw a male character in a work of fiction who was abused as a child and responded by becoming a badass? A good badass, I mean, not a serial killer. And it's this that I think kills the whole idea for me.

The reason you never see an empowered response to abuse from a male character is because people find the idea of a man suffering abuse, particularly sexual abuse, wholly unnatural. Put simply, men are not supposed to be victims, and for a male character to be abused in that way violates some major social taboos in the way that the abuse of women doesn't.

And that right there is the big problem. The reason people are willing to accept the idea that abuse can be a natural part of the background of an empowered fictional woman is because on a basic level we accept the abuse of women in general as natural. Africans are there to starve so we can feel good when we send them food. Women are there to be abused and oppressed so we can feel good when we “empower” them.

Bit messed up really, isn't it.

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Comments (go to latest) at 09:41 on 2009-03-03
Nice article. :)
Arthur B at 10:11 on 2009-03-03
Oh hey Something Awful are getting in on the Dollhouse dogpile. I like the article because it includes the line "Unfortunately, Joss, no prophecy, shadow space government, or super hooker company will ever make a woman completely and exactly as awesome as your mom."
Dan H at 14:12 on 2009-03-03
The Something Awful thing is made of win. I rather liked the line: "he is beating Echo and trying to rape her all over. He is punching her and doing rape moves at her."
Arthur B at 15:29 on 2009-03-03
"Yo! Maybe it is you that should be raped." at 17:10 on 2009-03-03
I just noticed the Whedonverse category. Is he the next Rowling for you, Mr Hemmens? :D
Rami at 18:15 on 2009-03-03
I wonder if the Western (abuse ∨ oppression) ⇒ empowerment thought process is at all influenced by the Catholic Church's long-held creeds of suffering ⇒ salvation
Dan H at 21:34 on 2009-03-03
I just noticed the Whedonverse category. Is he the next Rowling for you, Mr Hemmens? :D

Not exactly. I actually really like Joss Whedon. I loved Buffy to much it cost my my degree, and I thought Firefly was awesome when it wasn't trying to Empower Women (tm).

Basically I think that Joss Whedon makes excellent TV shows, which unfortunately stop every couple of episodes to make A Point About How Society Treats Women in a gratuitous and heavy-handed way. at 21:13 on 2009-03-04
Your point about men not being allowed to be victims takes my mind to Harry Potter. Despite his years of abuse by Muggles, Harry never "internalizes" the abuse. He hates them right back. He's never a victim to their alienation like Voldemort or Snape - who grow up to become monsters of sorts.
Arthur B at 21:51 on 2009-03-04
Well, that's because Harry is inherently virtuous, whereas Voldemort and Snape are inherently sinful, like those who are not of the Elect.
Wardog at 11:07 on 2009-03-05
Kat, that's a really interesting point. I'd never really thought about Harry's abuse from that angle before - I suppose partially because horrible things happen to children all the time in children's books and partially because, at least initially, the portrayal of the Dursley's is generally played for laughs. But it does seem to fall between two stools, being neither approached seriously enough or frivolously enough (I mean, they keep him in a cupboard!) to be anything other than shallow. I know he's not a protagonist, but it contrasts rather nicely against the treatment Snape who, of course, lives his entire life as someone who has never really got over being horribly bullied at school. at 01:09 on 2009-03-06
when was the last time you saw a male character in a work of fiction who was abused as a child and responded by becoming a badass?

This of course makes me think of Batman, who did not suffer abuse but had his parents murdered in front of him as a child and went on to protect others. As opposed to many female comics characters who instead get raped and then get strong to fight back. There's definitely a difference.

I remember a show years ago, I forget what it was, but there was a main character who had near-psychic ability to understand serial killers because she'd been kidnapped and held by one for months as a kid. And what annoyed me so much was not only did the experience essentially give her a super power but it was like even as a child she was clearly so awesome that that's why she survived. So now she could always look at a killer and "see" how he saw things. I imagine she'd have a hard time relating to victims.

Also on the Elect HP question, I always thought this post was interesting on the subject. It was written post-GoF so long before DH was written.
Arthur B at 01:24 on 2009-03-06
Hmm, there was a Spiderman comic where he helps some kid who's being molested, and reveals that he was abused himself by an older cousin before he became Spiderman... at 03:01 on 2009-03-06
I think I remember that. Though I don't know if he says he's been molested or maybe that he almost was but he told someone? I can't remember now.

Note, of course, that it's not part of his origin story. He's not defined by it.
Shim at 07:49 on 2009-03-06
The Dursleys thing to me brings to mind Roald Dahl, particularly Mathilda (the book, of course): the headmistress' comment that if you behave outrageously enough, the claims just sound ridiculous, seems pretty apt. The difference being that Dahl has a real talent for producing disturbing books while keeping them light enough to actually read.
Arthur B at 09:41 on 2009-03-06
I've been inspired to track the spiderlestation comic down. (The rest of the Comics With Problems site is excellent, by the way).

FWIW, 4th panel of page 6 seems to imply that he was actually molested - he's objecting, but the narration notes that he was "too frightened to leave". In classic comic book style, Spidey concludes the comic by mentioning that he's actually been haunted for years by what transpired there, but he's now started the healing process, so we shouldn't be surprised if we never hear anything about it ever again.
Dan H at 12:04 on 2009-03-06
Wow, loads of comments since I last logged on:

@Shimmin: I thought of the Dahl connection myself. I think the reason it works for Dahl is because it's so over the top that you accept it as metaphor. The "abuse" that Dahl's characters suffer is basically a representation of the way regular kids *feel* like they're being treated. Harry muddies the waters because we're always told that his childhood was an important test of his character, and because we have so many "real life" issues approached in the series.

@Sister Magpie: Batman is about as close as you can get with a male character (unless you count the Spiderlestation) but as you say there's clear blue water between "my parents were killed" and "I was raped". (Although TVTropes does observe that Rape is the New Dead Parents). If nothing else, having your parents murdered in front of you is still in the realm of fantasy violence, whereas rape isn't (which is why so many people thought that Spike attempting to rape Buffy was unforgivable in a way that torturing people to death for fun was not). at 03:09 on 2009-03-22
I know this is a bit off point, but I really hate the way bullying and victimization is treated in "Harry Potter". Snape is not a monster; he is a normal human being who, from what we see in the text, never received unconditional love from anyone and never had a place he felt truly at home, or even safe. Harry's reaction to what ought to be severe neglect/abuse, on the same level as young Sev apparently experienced, is completely unrealistic. He should not be as intact as he seems to be - not that he's altogether intact; Harry does show signs of narcissistic personality disorder, as well as being oppositional and defiant. But, if we are to take the Dursleys seriously, he should be much more scarred than he is.

Snape is deeply scarred. A scarred human being is not a monster. BTW, whatever one thinks of this character, he does a great deal of rescuing.

But, getting back to the original essay, it is a very uncomfortable idea that people should be special *because* they have been victimized. It seems almost a justification for victimization, doesn't it?
Arthur B at 14:04 on 2009-03-22
But, if we are to take the Dursleys seriously, he should be much more scarred than he is.

Well, that's precisely it: in the first half of the series, at least, we are not meant to take the Dursleys at all seriously. They're comic relief, or if you want to be really generous a satirical swipe at how the mediocre and conformist hold back the talented and special. (How Objectivist!)

Rowling asks us to take the Dursleys seriously at more or less precisely the same time as the series as a whole goes to shit. at 18:27 on 2009-03-22
Oh, I agree, Arthur! Another commentator online called the Dursley scenes schizophrenic from the outset. They - the Dursleys - are meant to be laughable, and yet, at the same time, their ignorance and cruelty are meant to show how very special poor little Harry is. It's queasy-making, really. But the schizophrenic attitude towards victims and victimization only gets worse, imho, culminating in Harry's torture scene in DH. Torture isn't bad, you see. It's only bad if the bad guys do it. Ugh!

But I will now stop hijacking this thread. Dan makes very good points, really. And the prevalance of this sort of violence against female characters in fantasy lit is worrying. But maybe, in the case of women authors especially, it reflects what they observe in real life? at 23:30 on 2009-03-24
Another excellent essay, Dan. You have such a marvelous way with words, and a marvelous way of articulating what I stumble and struggle for months to try to spit out. I quoted part of your "Make Poverty History" section in a recent argument because it was so well said.

"Admittedly I do sometimes use “he” for gender-neutrality (there go my feminist credentials)"
I don't think so. It's so common in today's society that you have to be truly anal about politically correct language to get it right all the time. We're never going to be perfect (well, not until we've made certain disgraceful human practices such as poverty and sexism history anyway), but that doesn't automatically make us completely antifeminist, or whatever. (See what I mean about being articulate?)

That Victim Dilemma is a real problem for me. As a writer, I see it as my duty both to point out the injustices in the world, and to portray the heroism of people who struggle against that injustice. And while there is something noble about men confronting violence against women, or white people standing up for the rights of people of color, that sort of stuff can slide into colonialist propaganda (people in Africa need white people to solve their problems for them) waaay too easily.

On the other side of the coin, you run the risk of romanticizing the poor, putting women on a pedestal, depicting the natives as Noble Savages, and so on.

However, I don't think this is an insoluble problem, especially once an author/writer is made aware of the risks.

As a possible solution to the damaged/empowered women problem, I'm going to bring in the show which I spent my last comment bashing: Veronica Mars. (It's kinda like Firefly, actually: intolerable main character who we're supposed to adore; problematic depictions of feminism (poorly executed sincere attempts at feminism in one case, excessively skeevy portrayal of feminists in the other); occasional highly questionable morals; and a couple other problems like that--while the other 90% is good-to-brilliant.)

In Veronica Mars, the title character was raped a year before the first season. Several other female characters are raped or sexually abused over the course of the series.

In Veronica's case though, it's quite clear that (like in the Spider-Man example mentioned above) she's not kick-ass because she was raped, she's kick-ass despite it. The other female characters are all firmly established before their sexual abuse, and afterwards, they don't become stronger or more dedicated or whatever, they try to go on with their lives and try to get over the bad experience.

“But, getting back to the original essay, it is a very uncomfortable idea that people should be special *because* they have been victimized. It seems almost a justification for victimization, doesn't it?
Ha, well put. It's closely related to the idea that child abuse builds character.

Of course, sometimes adversity does make people stronger and “build character” as they say. Of course, all conscious human attempts so far to replicate such “positive” adversity to date have to my knowledge been dismal failures.

Rowling asks us to take the Dursleys seriously at more or less precisely the same time as the series as a whole goes to shit.”
Yet another spot-on observation.
Wardog at 10:40 on 2009-03-25
Hi Mary-J - you didn't hijack the thread at all, I'm glad Open-ID is allowing you to comment.

The I-would-say-probably-inadvertent portrayal of victimisation / abuse in Harry Potter is one of the *many* problematic aspects of the texts.

He should not be as intact as he seems to be - not that he's altogether intact; Harry does show signs of narcissistic personality disorder, as well as being oppositional and defiant.

I'm never to sure what extent this is intentional - I know authorial intent is shaky ground at the best of times but I don't think we're actually meant to believe Harry has been damaged by his abuse the hands of the Dursleys.
Arthur B at 10:56 on 2009-03-25
If Harry shows signs of NPD it's probably more a consequence of everyone in the world telling him he's the messiah (oh, and the fact that he is, in fact, the messiah) than being slapped about by comedy fatties in middle-class purgatory.

I think the big problem with the Dursleys is that, when you take away their comic relief aspects, they're basically there to plaster over a gap in the timeline. Harry's character is defined entirely by the death of his parents, the death of Voldemort, and the reaction of various characters to both of those events. This leaves an 11 year gap in the timeline where nothing actually important happens to Harry. Rowling's solution is to um and ah and finally shut him in a closet for 11 years.

Someone has almost certainly done a fanfic where Hogwarts and the wizarding world in general is just a delusion Harry has constructed to get away from the grimness of his home life (or, alternately, he's just a hopeless schizophrenic and the Dursleys actually go out of their way to help him but can't stop him running away spending months homeless dreaming of being a wizard). That would miss the point, but it'd also be pretty funny.
Dan H at 15:02 on 2009-03-25
If Harry shows signs of NPD it's probably more a consequence of everyone in the world telling him he's the messiah (oh, and the fact that he is, in fact, the messiah) than being slapped about by comedy fatties in middle-class purgatory.

Ah the age old question: is it narcissism if the universe really does revolve around you?
Wardog at 15:38 on 2009-03-25
Is that a piece of fairy cake?
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