Rape in YA Fantasy
Young Adult fantasy has a bit of a rape problem.
I mean, all fantasy has a bit of a rape problem. But let’s talk about YA fantasy specifically here — a genre that typically has teenage female protagonists, lots of action, lots of romance, and an intended young female audience. And, almost inevitably, at least one rape threat, if not several of them, over the course of each book.
I’ve been thinking about this issue for a while, but it really came to the front of my thoughts as I was reading Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, an incredibly compelling, well-written book that I nevertheless want to describe as the Outlander of YA fantasy, because oh my god is rape a big theme here.
I didn’t keep a tally while reading, but there were at least three graphic, imminent threats of rape, one very violent, fully-fledged attack, at least one instance of a female character being tied up and given as a prize for a male character, and more casual mentions of it than I can count. Two of three young female characters are graphically threatened, and the third is only excused because she had her eye gouged out pre-book, and so “no one finds her attractive enough.” It’s never, never treated as acceptable by the protagonists, but it’s an endemic part of this book’s world, and it comes up very often.
Of course, violence in general is an endemic part of An Ember in the Ashes. The protagonist gets off lightly, with only being beaten within an inch of her life and permanently scarred by someone cutting a large letter into her chest. Characters are, off-screen, made to eat hot coals and have their faces shredded, and, on-screen, literally whipped to death. This is a brutal world, and a completely unsanitized exploration of slavery and oppression, and the frequent and casual appearance of rape is part of that.
But I think a book loses the “it’s a realistic exploration of oppression” justification when it directly and repeatedly correlates beauty with risk, with many, many characters noting that the beautiful protagonist is in more danger than most, and that the eye-missing secondary character is entirely safe. Add in the fact that none of these threats or attacks have any impact or the plot or on character development, and it feels like something thrown in entirely for flavor, as a quick world-building marker to show us that things are “bad.”
And although An Ember in the Ashes was more graphic than most, it’s representative of a genre that seems to use rape threats as the default tension builder. They appear in practically all of the popular YA fantasy series. The Winner’s Curse? It’s a plot point. Throne of Glass? Check. The Grisha Trilogy? Yup. Six of Crows? Snow Like Ashes? Graceling? Books I’ve loved, books I didn’t like… they all seem to have at least one instance where the female protagonist is threatened with rape by a male villain. Some have rape in their backstories or see other female characters dealing with this issue, but in most cases, it’s more of a “villain is villainy so he threatens the protagonist” thing. Of course, this is just for books that I’ve read, but unless I’m randomly picking up all the wrong books, it seems far more likely that any YA fantasy novel will contain a rape threat or rape plotline than that it won’t.
Sometimes, this seems to come up as a kind of Girl Power moment, which I can see the appeal of. Villainous guy makes rape threat against girl protagonist, because she’s a girl, and he wants to demean her and show that she’s weak. She then crushes him later on in the story, providing a victory for girls everywhere over endemic oppression.
But often, she’s rescued by the love-interest hero, helping the narrative to establish that he’s a Good Guy and building an emotional connection between him and the protagonist. And sometimes, it just seems to crop up as a habit of the genre, like the wizened wizard in a tower and dragons that breathe fire. The villain is evil and the protagonist is female, so this is how it has to go.
Either way, we have a genre aimed at young female readers that constantly threatens the characters they’re supposed to empathize with with sexual violence. Some people might praise this as realistic — acknowledging a dark reality and allowing the protagonist, and so the reader, to overcome it. But it can also feel a bit too much like the default setting, and when it shows up in book after book after book, it becomes tired. What message does it give, when even the most badass of female assassins and world-saving adventurers have to deal with this constantly? What ideas are these books reinforcing, when they have male protagonists face all kinds of emotionally-compelling threats and dangers, and have female protagonists face this, regardless of her character, regardless of the book, regardless of anything except that it’s fantasy and she’s female so that’s how it has to be?
So we come back to An Ember in the Ashes, a book that threatened rape so often I ended up just reacting to it with, “Again??” It is, in general, a really good book. It’s also a dark book, and where it falls on the line between “gritty” and “Game of Thrones” will, I think, depend on the reader. But the rape… the rape definitely crossed from “dark worldbuilding” to “no, but seriously, again???” territory. And honestly, after seeing the trope come up so blindly often in YA fantasy over the past few years, I really think we can do better. Yes, rape can play a role in a novel or be part of a character’s backstory. But when every villain threatens it, and every protagonist faces it, with no actual effect on the plot? Maybe then it’s time for a new trope to arise.