Annalee Flower Horne’s essay talks about the portrayal of sexual assault survivors in SF/F. While not graphic in detail, I thought a content warning was appropriate. As she notes, it’s not that our genre never writes about assault; it’s that we tend to do it badly.
I’ve always appreciated Princess Leia as an amazing character, but I’d never considered how powerful her portrayal and story might be to a child survivor. After reading this, I doubt I’ll ever look at Leia in the same way.
When I was a kid, I loved Princess Leia.
She was smart and capable; a leader and a hero. And unlike Luke and Han, I could see myself in her. We were both girls.
We were also both assault survivors.
The original trilogy was on a lot in my house. I saw the Twi’lek dancer pulling away from Jabba with terror in her eyes. I saw Leia in that humiliating bikini. I knew what it meant.
These days, I’m mostly just disgusted with how the movie (and the fandom) handled it, but child-me wasn’t disgusted.
Child-me saw an assault survivor who still got to be a badass. Leia left Tatooine and returned to her life as a leader of the rebellion. No one treated her differently or told her she couldn’t do the things the boys do because someone might rape her. At the end of the movie, she got the dashing rogue and the happy ending.
I wanted to be just like her.
It may seem weird to talk about sexual assault for a series about representation, because sexual assault survivors are all over genre fiction. Jim has written about how much of a cliché it is, and TV Tropes has an extensive list of examples. But seeing representations that bear so little resemblance to your actual experience is damaging. Especially when so many of those representations portray people like you as fundamentally broken.
That’s pretty much the life of a sexual assault survivor in fiction. We don’t get to be the hero. We get to be brutally raped by the villain, leaving the hero—not us, mind you; the hero—scarred and hell-bent on avenging our virtue.
There’s also the trope where writers throw a little agency our way, and we get to avenge our own virtue—but that’s all we get to do. Our entire lives revolve around a thing that was done to us, to which the only “proper” response is murderous rage and possibly world domination.
I used to wonder if I was really a survivor, because I never tried to kill my attacker. He lived in my neighborhood. We made polite conversation at the park, and it was awkward as hell, but I never wanted to hurt him.
I certainly never tried to take over the world. I really don’t know where writers get the idea that sexual assault causes sociopathy in survivors, but it’s lazy bullshit and I wish that trope would just die already.
A lot of folks have suggested that all rape and survivor tropes should just die already. I remember reading one article suggesting that every time a woman on a TV show is raped, a male character should get his balls cut off, for parity.
It took me a long time to unpack why that bothered me, but it comes down to this: I have not been maimed. Popular media often drastically underplays how awful rape is, but it also overplays the fallout. I don’t want to dismiss survivors who really do end up with acute stress disorder and severe PTSD. We need to hear those stories, because the people living them need to know they’re not alone.
But that’s not always how the story goes. One out of every five women is an assault survivor. If you think every woman you know has beaten those odds, it may be because survivors don’t look and act like you think we will. Many survivors get on with our lives. We manage as well as we can. We heal.
For me, the effects have always been subtle. There are books I won’t read and shows and movies I won’t watch. I have a phobia you’d never guess was related to having been assaulted unless I told you.
I show up at work early, because we have open seating, and I want to be sure to get one of the desks with the wall behind it so people can’t get behind me without passing through my peripheral vision first.
I’m happily married, with a steady job and a lot of friends. I build cool stuff and have too many fandoms, and don’t actually spend a whole lot of time thinking about that thing that happened when I was a kid. I wrote most of this post while pacing around my neighborhood alone after midnight, because I know where monsters lurk, and it isn’t the damn bushes.
I still want to see survivors in fiction. I just want them to be whole people. They should have goals and dreams and inner lives that don’t revolve around that one thing that was done to them. They should get to be heroes, villains, lovers, and liars without anyone reducing them to their survivor status.
These days, I understand that this isn’t what Lucasfilm was going for with Leia. Like so many survivors in fiction, her story was only important when the film could pass it off as sexy. Reducing her to her survivor status would have ruined the bikini shot.
I’m glad child-me didn’t get that. I’m glad I was able to project onto Leia the capable survivor I wanted to grow up to be. Her happy ending mattered to me, because it helped me imagine my own.
But now that I’m living that happy ending, I want more than to see my heroes completely stripped of agency for cheap fanservice. I want to see what child-me saw in Leia: survivors who get to save the day, fall in love, and experience the whole range of human emotions without anyone—including the narrator—treating them like they’re broken.
Annalee Flower Horne is an open-source developer and science fiction writer from Washington, DC. You can find her on Twitter, her website, and the Geek Feminism blog. Her fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.