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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