Rape and the “Monstrous Survivor”

Header photo by sebastiaan stam on Unsplash

Content Warning: This post is about the “rape made them a monster” trope, and discusses several fictional representations of rape and torture.

I’m thankful people warned me about Broodmothers before I played Dragon Age.

Broodmothers are kidnapped women who are raped, tortured, and poisoned until they turn into horrific creatures that exist only to give birth to more monsters (and to serve as a boss fight for the player).

I gave the game a pass.

Recently I sat down to watch Netflix’s Love, Death + Robots and the first episode was “Sonnie’s Edge.”

It’s about a woman who was gang-raped and beaten until she was so close to death that the only way to save her was to put her brain into a giant monster that was genetically engineered for cage fights (because apparently it takes place in a world where designing and growing a monster the size of a truck is somehow less resource-intensive than growing a normal human body from extant DNA).

You may notice a theme here.

Another variation shows up in a Star Trek novel where a survivor of child sexual abuse grows up, becomes an admiral, then turns herself into a borg queen so she can take over the world. The story comes complete with flashbacks to the abuse she experienced. The flashbacks have nothing at all to do with the plot or with her characterization–unless, of course, you buy the premise that sexual assault turns people into monsters.

Many people do buy into exactly that premise. A less on-the-nose version of this trope appears frequently in crime shows, where serial killers are often portrayed as being abuse survivors.

The theme, however, remains the same. The story might include that rape backstory just to up the horror factor and set a grimmer tone, or it might include it to try to draw out a little sympathy for the monster–but only a little. Too much sympathy, and you might have to confront the notion that they’re still a person. And that would undermine what this trope is using rape to do: strip characters of their humanity in order to elicit shock and horror in the audience.

Speculative fiction at least does us the courtesy of making that theme explicit. These stories literally dehumanize survivors of sexual violence by changing them from humans into physical monsters.

But like an open sewer vent, there is a whole world of ugly underneath that noxious cloud. This trope portrays survivors’ trauma not as an injury, but as a corruption. It buys into the regressive outlook that survivors are somehow sullied and impure, but then twists that into something even worse: survivors aren’t just dirty; they’re dangerous. Not only are they no longer human; they’re also a threat to humanity.

Rendering survivors as physical monsters also buys into the stereotype that sexual desire–and desirability–is out of a survivor’s reach. Monsters are not objects of sexual desire. And if they themselves experience desire, it’s either something disturbed and horrific, or else it’s pitiful. In Dragon Age, where broodmothers exist only to eat and give birth to monsters, their sexuality is what perpetuates the evil in the world. In Sonnie’s Edge, the person Sonnie thinks is attracted to her scarred human form is merely luring her into a trap.

Below that, there’s the way that turning rape victims into monsters portrays a survivor’s humanity and their agency as mutually exclusive. The survivor’s agency was stolen from them, social ideas about purity have become literal for them as their body is changed into something corrupt and undesirable, and only now are they a force to be reckoned with.

Stack that up next to the fact that sexual assault survivors in media are overwhelmingly women, and this trope says some really problematic things about how only bad girls can defend themselves. They can only be powerful when they’re no longer women.

When men are the subject of this trope–which we see more often in the serial-killer variant–it says equally problematic things about how men who couldn’t defend themselves aren’t really people, even if they still look the part.

The backed-up sewer of this trope is a maze of twisty passages that all lead somewhere awful: to the notion that survivors of sexual violence aren’t necessarily people anymore. That if you’re deprived of agency over your body even briefly, you can permanently lose your humanity.

Exploring common fears by literalizing them is a staple of the horror genre and is often used to brilliant effect. But using rape to turn people into monsters doesn’t explore, illuminate, or contextualize a human experience. Projecting monstrosity onto survivors and their bodies is not an effective way to explore the horrors associated with sexual violence.

Portraying survivors themselves as monsters only serves to dehumanize them. It may be meant as a metaphor for trauma, but it portrays survivors’  fear, pain, and–perhaps most tellingly–their anger as something monstrous. Trauma may be a difficult part of most survivors’ experience, but it’s not monstrous. It is, like survivors themselves, incredibly, inalienably human.

This post was sponsored by an anonymous donor.