An Evening With Hanya Yanagihara

Last Wednesday, the 5th of October, I had the extraordinary pleasure of attending an evening with Hanya Yanagihara organized by the John Adams Institute. Some of you might remember that Yanagihara released her second novel, A Little Life, in 2015. Fewer of you know how much that novel means to me, but that’s what this blog post will explain.

I should probably have included A Little Life in my post on Books That Helped Me Through Depression, because it definitely did. The reason I didn’t is somewhat complicated. While it is true that A Little Life gives an uncompromising view of mental illness that our society needs more of. I have seen too many teenagers on Tumblr romanticizing mental illness.  But A Little Life is also a book that toes the line of melodrama and edges towards too much.

That’s not a bad thing, at least for me. Depression is too much. Depression is melodramatic. The problem with A Little Life is that some of its content is explicit enough to trigger people. Now, I really don’t think we should be putting trigger warnings on novels and neither does Yanagihara. I think we should be putting trigger warnings on pretty much everything else, but in a novel the reader agrees to let the writer pull them into their world. This can and should involve challenging the reader’s world view. If you’re easily triggered by the topic of self-harm, you should probably stay away from this book. That doesn’t mean the author has to.

 

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. What, you ask, is this book about? Why is it so incredibly great that you can’t shut up about it, Julia? A Little Life starts out as the coming-of-age of four close college friends in New York attempting to make something of themselves. But all is not as it seems. Although the book initially has a rich ensemble of characters, focus gradually shifts towards Jude, who, it turns out, has had an incredibly traumatic childhood. His three closest friends try to help him battle his demons. We, as readers, try to uncover the mysteries of his past, even as we shudder to think what they might be. Continue reading

Help, My Favorite TV Show Is Perpetuating Rape Culture!

“When a subject is highly controversial – and any question about sex is that – one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold.” Virginia WoolfA Room Of One’s Own

I watched Outlander today. Season two, episode seven: Faith. This post contains SPOILERS for Outlander up to that episode. It also contains my opinion on some controversial issues, so be warned. This post is not suitable for minors.

I fear my favorite TV show is perpetuating rape culture. Allow me to clarify. Outlander, its historical setting, its penchant for far-fetched dramatic plot twists and, above all, its swashbuckling hero Jamie Fraser, have conquered a place in my fangirling heart.

Every Tuesday, after the new episode of Outlander has appeared on HBO On Demand, I take an hour to watch it, and this hour is usually entertaining. I end up biting my nails, pulling my hair, and whispering “No, no no this can’t be happening!” each time. All in all, exactly what you want from a television show.

Outlander is notorious for its frank dealings with sexual scenes. To me, this seemed at first to be a selling point. A TV show from a female point of view that has sex scenes in it? A show that depicts women as hot-blooded creatures full of sexual desire? Hell yes. And with a leading man that handsome. HELL YEAH.

The first season of Outlander did not disappoint. There was sex. There was this adorable bit of pillow talk:

Jamie: “Did ye like it?”

Claire: “Yes, I did.”

Jamie: “Oh. I thought ye did, though Murtagh told me that women generally do not care for it, so I should finish as soon as I could.”

Claire: “What would Murtagh know about it?”

(Gasp) Is that…a woman admitting she enjoys sex? On a TV show? Round of applause, ladies and gentlemen.

But the last episode of season one, To Ransom A Man’s Soul, brought a whole new dimension to the dreamlike romantic drama of Outlander. In this episode, everyone’s favorite Scotsman Jamie is tortured both physically and psychologically, and raped by his worst enemy, Captain Randall. There had been the threat of rape before, when Claire was abducted by the Captain, but that time, Jamie had come to the rescue. Then there had been the almost-rape of Jamie’s sister Jenny, which she had averted by getting a fit of the giggles. The resulting scene had been unnerving, to say the least.

Now, in season 2’s seventh episode, Faith, there were two portrayals of rape. In the first, Captain Randall was the perpetrator once more, and the victim was a young boy. The second was when Claire, in exchange for Jamie’s release from prison, allowed the king of France to sleep with her. In a sense, she consented to it. However, she was clearly uncomfortable and dismayed by the act. She expressed later that she felt violated. In my opinion, this type of power play is just as much a rape scene as these other scenes I described above.

Now, you might say that a historical TV show of this caliber has a responsibility to portray history accurately. Denying, for example, the holocaust, or the ill treatment of African slaves, or the poor position of women in 18th century society, is a crime. If we gloss over the nastier parts of world history in this way, we might forget about the mistakes humanity has made, and make them again. I agree with this assessment, and to portray Claire Fraser as a character with the same amount of agency and power as her male counterparts on Outlander, would be a gross denial of the inequality women have faced and fought for centuries.

That said, let me tell you something about rape culture.

Wikipedia states: “Behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, refusing to acknowledge the harm caused by some forms of sexual violence, or some combination of these.”

Read the full article here.

The most pervasive of these attitudes in Outlander, I think, is trivializing rape. Rape is just another one of the things considered normal in this brutish society of violence and power play. It is a way to assert dominance, on par with punching someone in the face. The psychological trauma inflicted by rape is often overlooked. For example, Jamie, in my opinion, took an unusually short amount of time to get over the fact that he was raped by Randall.

Jamie does, however, suffer from toxic masculinity, the exceptionally high social pressure put on men within rape culture. To be stronger than his wife, to physically protect her, to sexually satisfy her, to provide for her. His rape is even more shameful than Claire’s, because it makes him submissive in a culture that expects men to be dominant. Yet he allows Randall to rape him in exchange for Claire’s safety, due to the expectation that a husband protects his wife at any cost.

“But it’s a TV show!” you say. “It’s not real. Everybody watching it knows it is fictional, and most people also know that rape was a part of the culture portrayed on the show. We don’t take it all that seriously!”

I disagree. What we see on TV and what we consider normal in real life is closely related. We are, I hope, all aware that rape is not okay. But are we also aware that it isn’t okay for women to use sex as a bartering chip? Are we aware that women and men are equal, and that there is no gender naturally submissive to the other? I’m afraid some of the finer points of equality escape some of those watching Outlander. I am afraid that those of us sexually aroused by lack of consent in sex scenes are slowly starting to consider rape okay.

As long as rape culture is a serious problem in our actual society, any portrayal of behaviors that enforce rape culture in the media are harmful to us all.

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