Using Rape as a Plot Device

by Caity Goerke

[Content warning: discussion of sexual violence]

A plot device “is an object or character in a story whose only purpose is to advance the plot of the story.” While plot devices are necessary to move the action of a story forward, sometimes writers neglect to realize that there are some experiences that should always be handled with thoughtfulness and care – issues which shouldn’t be tossed around lightly as a simple means of moving from one plot point to another. Earlier in my semester, I read Titus Andronicus for my Shakespeare class and it got me thinking a lot about what it means to use rape as a plot device.

In Titus Adronicus, Titus’ daughter is brutally raped and mutilated. Lavinia’s rape is important to the play for exactly two reasons. Firstly, it allowed Shakespeare to increase the shock, gore, and horror factor of his play. Secondly, it provides motivation for Titus’ later acts of revenge. Lavinia’s rape is not important as a means of providing a platform to discuss sexual violence nor is it important to develop Lavinia as a character herself. In fact, Lavinia actually becomes less of a character after her rape because she becomes reduced to only her body. After reading Titus Andronicus, I started thinking about the ways that this is an all too common theme. Taken, I Saw the Devil, Death Wish, and Django Unchained are just a few examples of films where violence against women is used as a fundamental motivator for the story’s protagonist. Like Titus Andronicus, these films aren’t about the women who have been kidnapped, beaten, abused and raped. Both the women and the violence against them are merely important to move the plot of the story forward.

It is easy to see how using rape as a plot device in this way functions to erase women, as characters, from films and drama. Yet, the use of rape as a plot device also works in other harmful ways. Firstly, it can contribute to the sensationalization of violence against women. Violence against women is sensationalized when it is used to shock, horrify, and/or intrigue the audience. In an article called “The Bigger Picture: What happens when we find ‘The Line’ as viewers?,” movie critic Drew McWeeny speaks to his experience of watching rape being exploited for entertainment in film. He says,

what scares me most about it is that the vast majority of the scenes are directed so poorly that they become, in essence, titillation, and there is something immeasurably sick about including a scene in your film that involves rape just so you can sneak a little nudity into the movie.

The sensationalization of rape occurs in Titus in the way that Lavinia’s body, after her rape, is displayed as an object to be gawked at by other characters in the play and, subsequently, by the audience. In addition to the actual visual effects that would have been used to display the violation and mutilation of Lavinia’s body, she is described by both her rapists and her uncle in explicitly graphic ways. Not only does the repeated description of Lavinia’s appearance reduce her to her body, but the fact that she cannot speak because her tongue has been cut out further highlights her importance as a body, not as a character. The exploitation of rape is emphasized by the nature of the rape being used as a plot device. Because Lavinia’s rape is just a plot device, and her experience is never taken up and engaged with in any critical or thoughtful way, she is only important because she is a raped body – her character exists for no other purpose than to be raped. She functions only as a victim of violence and that violence is sensationalized so as to “justify” the equally sensationalized acts of violence committed by Titus in revenge.

Not only does using rape as a plot device contribute to its sensationalization, but it also functions to desensitize the audience to the issue of violence against women. McWeeny explains that “I must see 30 films a year where somebody needs to have ‘something bad’ happen, and the go-to impulse in almost every case is rape.” When rape is reduced to simply “something bad,” the reality that it is a traumatic experience that occurs in pandemic proportions is completely ignored. In Titus Andronicus, Lavinia’s rape is only important because it is a crime against Titus’ family, it’s simply “something bad.” Depicting rape in this way desensitizes us because it erases the experience of the victim and, therefore, ignores the grave reality of rape. We become further desensitized because rape is used in this way in film, television, and literature time and time again. You only have to turn on Law and Order, CSI, or any of a variety of crime dramas to see rape being used as a platform from which to launch the episode’s plot. While these shows occasionally take the time to engage with larger social issues related to violence (Law and Order SVU is perhaps the best example of this), the vast majority of the time the issue of sexual violence isn’t the focus of the episode. Instead, it’s the successes of a talented investigative team that takes the spotlight. Using rape again and again as nothing but a plot device causes us to forget what rape really is: a traumatic and violent event perpetrated against an individual as a result of a variety of intersecting and oppressive factors such as gender, race, sexuality, class, and ability.

Why is it so incredibly dangerous to ignore the reality of rape? Well, for starters, because we know that, in North America, 1 in 4 women will be raped in their lifetimes. 1 in 4. That’s 25%. And that’s only people who identify as women. How can we sensationalize and desensitize ourselves to the issue of rape when we understand the pervasiveness of it? When we use rape as a plot device and when we neglect to engage with the issue of sexual violence in thoughtful ways what are we saying to our classmates, to the person three rows behind you in the movie theatre, to the dorm-mate sharing the couch with you during your Saturday CSI marathon? What are we saying when these are people for whom rape is a reality, not just something that happens on screens, on stages, and in books? While these questions can’t be easily answered by a simple solution, there are things we can do to speak up. Efforts like Miss Representation’s #NotBuyingIt campaign allows us to bring our voices together to demand more responsible media. Donating our time and/or money to front-line organizations like Women Against Violence Against Women, Battered Women’s Support Services, Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre, and UBC’s Sexual Assault Support Centre contributes to the provision of community-level support for victims of violence. Participating in events like the February 14th Women’s Memorial March and the March 23rd Community March Against Racism raises awareness about lived experiences of violence and oppression. Most importantly, we have to remember that using rape as a plot device isn’t just about lazy writing and the exploitation of trauma for “entertainment value.” Using rape as a plot device contributes to a culture where violence, trauma, degradation, and oppression go unquestioned in all forms of media. Moving from this point requires much more than just volunteerism and Twitter activism and, instead, requires a shift in our collective consciousness.

2 Comments on “Using Rape as a Plot Device”

  • Being critical of art pieces that misrepresent such important issues in society needs a shift indeed. Being able to realize the power of literature or television with the messages they play allows us to approach them through a more relative lens. If issues like rape (which are significant in life) are manipulated to simply move a plot forward and degrade a women in the story as a result, then that shows the value of female characters to the author.
    The connection with Django Unchained crossed my mind after watching but this is much more thought out.
    I recently watched a show where rape was used as a plot device and I felt really uncomfortable with it. I believe I should. One; for being such a traumatic event & two; for being manipulated in that way.

  • Karen

    Hello, Caity Goerke, thank you for writing this article. Goodness, I needed to read it.

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