10 survivors of sexual assault in genre

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Feb 22, 2018

There has been a lot of talk about sexual assault and the portrayal of sexual assault since the #MeToo movement re-emerged over the last year. Millions of people have used the #MeToo hashtag on social media, bringing attention to how widespread of an issue sexual assault is. Activists, including Tarana Burke who started the #MeToo movement, have been fighting for this recognition—and for holistic solutions to this epidemic—for years.

At the same time, there has been a cry for more representation of marginalized groups throughout media. Our own Riley Silverman previously discussed the need for more representations of survivors of sexual assault in genre fiction.

Of course, it isn’t just more representation that we need—but better representation. We need to see survivors who experience the whole spectrum of emotions and reactions, while healing (or not), growing (or not), and finding themselves again (or not). There are no “good” or “bad” survivors of sexual assault, though there are better and worse representations of survivors.

Below are ten survivors of sexual assault in genre fiction. Some of these stories are told well, and some lack depth. Either way, these examples hold lessons for genre creators of the future.

Tamsin, Lost Girl

Lost Girl's Tamsin (Rachel Skarsten) is a Valkyrie and sometimes frenemy of Bo Dennis, a succubus and bisexual badass daughter of Hades. Valkyries are a type of Fae, the secretive supernatural co-habitants who share earth with humans.

Tamsin and Bo establish a friends-with-benefits arrangement that quickly turns into Tamsin developing feelings for Bo, who only wants to keep things casual. The pair ultimately decides their arrangement won’t work and that being friends is for the best. It hurts Tamsin, who pines after her former lover, but she cares so much for Bo that she is willing to control her desires to maintain a friendship (and keep their circle of friends together). Shortly thereafter, Bo invites Tamsin to fool around and she tries to stop herself, but she just can’t resist that succubus sex appeal. Only after they’ve had sex does Tamsin realize that the tryst with a woman she loves was actually Hades taking the form of Bo and raping Tamsin. She finds out she’s pregnant, and her dream turns into a nightmare as Hades locks her in a cell to gestate and give birth to his child.

Bo, having been born in a similar cage where her father had imprisoned her mother, breaks Tamsin out and protects her as Tamsin decides to give birth. During her pregnancy, Tamsin is one scary mama and her supernatural powers become magnified as she assists Bo and her friends in fighting Hades. Sadly, she dies in childbirth, as do all Valkyries, and leaves her daughter to be raised by Bo.

Jamie Fraser, Outlander

Outlander's Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan) should have inherited his family’s estate in Scotland, but winds up a fugitive after the English seize his home. To resist English dominance, Jamie joins up with a group of rebel Scottish Highlanders.

While being held captive by his arch-nemesis, Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall, Jamie is tortured and subsequently raped by the English captain. Randall even brands Jamie’s skin, marking Jamie as if he were property.

The mental games Jonathan plays with Jamie, treating him with care when he cleans him and complimenting his appearance, are reminiscent of the types of behavior sexual predators engage in when grooming their prey. When Jamie is branded, he is given a physical mark that recalls the psychological, emotional, and physical scars many survivors live with. 

Jamie is so traumatized by the rape that he suffers delusions, even confusing his wife Claire for Jonathan. Disturbed and haunted by what he survived, Jamie considers taking his own life. When Claire finally gets through to him, Jamie realizes he is not ready to give up. He cuts the brand from his skin and tosses it in the fire, spitting upon it.

Julia Wicker, The Magicians

The Magicians' Julia Wicker (Stella Maeve) was on the straightest of paths until she was recruited to Brakebills, a magical university. She fails the entrance exam, but finds she cannot live without magic.

Julia becomes desperate in her search for magic, pairing up with hedge witches and others who piece together spells through intuition and internet searches. She bands together with a group of powerful and equally desperate witches to summon a deity, Our Lady Underground. When summoned, the deity grants each of the witches exactly what they want. What Julia discovers when a god heals the patch in her memory is that the deity was not Our Lady Underground, but a trickster named Reynard the Fox. Instead of bestowing gifts, he had actually slaughtered all of Julia’s friends—except the one she was able to protect. In the process, Julia is subdued and then raped by Reynard, who has assumed the identity of one of Julia’s fellow witches.

Julia’s tale goes on to have many twists and turns, but ultimately, the long-term impact of surviving rape is that she becomes a dark, cold, super-powerful witch. While some aspects of the portrayal are problematic, some survivors are never the same and Julia serves as a reminder of the undeniable impact of sexual assault.

Dick Grayson/Nightwing, DC Comics

The only survivor of a mob hit on his family of acrobats, Dick Grayson became the ward, and sidekick, of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Eventually, he decides to strike out on his own and become Nightwing, the guardian of Blüdhaven.

His arch nemesis, Blockbuster, is hell-bent on creating a criminal empire in Blüdhaven. Nightwing regularly foils Blockbuster’s attempts (like any good nemesis would), so Blockbuster changes his tactics and decides to kill everyone Nightwing has ever met in an attempt to weaken his resolve. In Nightwing #93, Blockbuster’s attack reaches its apex when he murders a reporter who had accidentally revealed Nightwing’s identity. Nightwing, injured from a previous battle, is faced with an impossible decision: does he break his code and murder Blockbuster, or does he let Blockbuster live and watch him kill everyone Nightwing has ever met? When Tarantula (Catalina Flores) shows up ready to kill Blockbuster, an exhausted and emotionally defeated Nightwing steps aside, letting her shoot and kill Blockbuster in front of him.

Nightwing starts to have what might be a panic attack and runs to the roof where he collapses in shame, weeping. Tarantula straddles the distraught Nightwing and rapes him as he begs not to be touched.

In subsequent issues, Nightwing is haunted by the sound of the bullet that killed Blockbuster. Some might argue that this is because it’s easier for him to associate his trauma with that moment rather than the rape. However, writer Devin Grayson, who herself is a survivor of sexual assault, acknowledges that she made a mistake with this portrayal and didn’t consider the long-term consequences and impact of rape.

Sansa Stark, Game of Thrones

Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) is the eldest living legitimate Stark child navigating the brutal world of Game of Thrones.

After a broken betrothal and a short (unconsummated) marriage, Sansa marries Ramsay Bolton, who rapes her on their wedding night. Sansa escapes Ramsay’s control and meets up with her brother Jon Snow. After winning the Battle of the Bastards, Sansa gets her revenge on Ramsay, allowing his dogs to rip him to death.

Sansa goes from a being a girl who is passed around from man to man, father to fiancé, husband to husband, to becoming a totally badass independent leader skilled in subterfuge. When Littlefinger, who has been manipulating Sansa for years, tries to get her to punish her sister for his crimes, the sisters stick together and Littlefinger gets his comeuppance.

Intimate partner violence is all too real and has lasting effects on survivors. Sansa gets her revenge, but she will always have to live with what happened to her.

Jessica Jones, Marvel’s Jessica Jones

An alcoholic with PTSD, Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a private detective and former superhero who lives in Hell’s Kitchen.

Super villain Kilgrave (known as the Purple Man in the comics) has the ability to make people do whatever he says—his power comes from pheromones. He uses that ability to kidnap Jessica and rape her repeatedly over several months. Kilgrave is consumed by his obsession with Jessica's abilities and beauty, forcing her to dress in ways he prefers and display her powers at his command. She breaks free when Kilgrave forces her to murder a woman.

When Jessica finds out that Kilgrave has returned and kidnapped a college-aged woman, Hope Shlottman, she wants to run away and hide from Kilgrave but feels compelled to help. When Hope is arrested for killing her parents, which she did at Kilgrave’s command, Jessica decides to clear her name. Ultimately, Jessica gets her revenge, but she does so by relying on the power of her friendship with Trish.

Jessica goes on to become one of the Defenders and an even greater superhero than she’d been before. Jessica Jones is one of the very best portrayals of suffering, survival, and bravery in the wake of sexual assault.

Tara Thornton, True Blood

Tara Thornton (Rutina Wesley), the best friend of Sookie Stackhouse, is not such a huge fan of recently out-of-the-casket vampires, but finds herself having a sexy hookup with a vampire after her boyfriend is murdered.

The vampire she hooks up with, Franklin Mott, turns out to be a deranged serial killer (remember: not all vampires are bad guys in the world of True Blood, so it’s actually a surprise) and kidnaps Tara. He holds her prisoner, rapes her and decides to turn her into his vampire bride. It’s a terrifying situation, and Tara manages to manipulate him by playing along with his plans to turn her into a vampire. After lulling him into a sense of security, she bludgeons Franklin to death while he sleeps and frees Sookie, who is also being held captive in the same estate as Tara.

Tara goes on to fight vampires, werewolves, vampire-gods, necromancers, and so much more. She even survives her own human death when she’s turned into a vampire and comes out of the closet to find true love with Pam Swynford de Beaufort, another bisexual vampire. Tara is a testament to the strength of queer women of color in a world that does its best to bring her down.

Priya, Priya’s Shakti (Chapter One)

Priya’s Shakti, available for free online, is a comic book that was developed in the wake of the highly public gang rape and murder of a young Indian woman on a public bus in Dehli in 2012. The story, deeply entrenched in the Hindu tradition, explores themes of the religion while addressing gender-based violence.

Priya, a devotee of Goddess Parvati, had been curious and bright as a child, but was discouraged from study by her father. As she grew into a young woman, men began to leer at her and she felt unsafe. One day as she was walking, she was attacked and raped by a gang of men from her village.

After her family turns her away, only the Goddess Parvati listens to Priya’s concerns and incarnates into Priya’s body. The village council tells Parvati (in Priya’s body) that she will have to marry one of her rapists. When one of her attackers tries to rape Parvati/Priya again, Parvati reveals herself, which brings the situation to Krishna’s attention. Spoiler alert: Krishna is not down with the way men are treating his wife and decides nobody gets to have babies any more. Only the connection between Priya and Parvati can calm the god’s anger and show that humanity is worth salvaging. It is Priya and her Shakti, a tiger, who share a message of hope with her village which had previously shunned her. Her message declares the necessity of bringing education to all children, understanding the equality of men and women, and facing injustice, providing Krishna with evidence that humanity can change.

Priya goes on to face other evils and empower other survivors of gender-based violence in "Chapter Two." Priya may have a badass tiger for a companion and a goddess who has her back, but it is Priya’s belief in herself and hope for a better world that is truly her superpower.

Princess Leia, Star Wars

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is sister of Luke Skywalker, daughter of Senator Bail and Queen Breha Organa and biological daughter of Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala. She joins the Rebellion to fight the Empire and her dear old bio dad.

In Return of the Jedi, Princess Leia tries to save her love interest Han Solo, but is captured by Jabba the Hutt. He dresses her in an ornate gold bikini and chains her to him. She is throttled, stroked, and forced to lean into Jabba throughout her enslavement, but gets her revenge when she chokes Jabba to death with the chain he used to bind her. 

While Friends and other pop culture focus on male obsession and desire for an enslaved Leia, there’s nothing sexy about unwanted sexual contact or being forced to wear revealing clothes so your friends can see your new toy. Sorry, folks. (Plus, Carrie Fisher hated that outfit.)

Princess Leia goes on to become General Organa, leads the Resistance in fighting the First Order, shows some badass facility in using the Force, and never has to wear that stupid slave outfit again. That’s all pretty badass if you ask me.

Deanna Troi, Star Trek: The Next Generation

Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) is a Betazoid-Human empath who serves on the crew of the Enterprise as the ship’s counselor. She frequently helps with diplomatic matters, utilizing her abilities to help facilitate intercultural dialogue.

In an episode called “Violations,” the Enterprise transports a delegation of telepathic aliens called Ullians to another planet. Jev, a younger member of the Ullian delegation, uses his telepathic abilities to force a memory into Deanna’s mind. At first, Deanna recalls a romantic encounter with former lover Will Riker, but in her memory he flashes and becomes Jev. Deanna passes out in pain and falls into a coma. Later in the episode, Deanna awakes and the crew mistakenly blames Jev’s father for the attack. Jev returns to her and attacks her again with the same rape-memory, telling her is doing it because she is “so beautiful” and “so fragile.” Deanna fights back, but is ultimately saved by a security detail, including Data and Worf.

There are other instances when Deanna experiences sexual abuse, from being impregnated by an alien against her will to having her image used in the holodeck to meet Reginald Barclay’s amorous desires to experiencing a disturbingly similar psychic rape from Shinzon in the film Star Trek: Nemesis. Surviving all of this, Deanna remains a powerful and steadfast member of the crew who is not afraid of using her own psychic abilities. She is a badass despite the frequently problematic writing around her multiple experiences of sexual assault. It is Deanna, after all, who uses her psychic abilities to destroy Shinzon’s ship and save the crew of the Enterprise and everyone in the Federation.