It is the 21st century, Age of the New Shit. For decades Tolkien has sat immobile on the White Throne of Middle-earth. He is master of elves by the will of Eru Illuvatar, and master of a million tropes by the might of his inexhaustible fanboys. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with the power of the Tolkien Estate and movie rights. He is the Carrion Lord for whom a thousand fanboy souls are sacrificed every day so that he may never truly die.
Yet even in his deathless state, Tolkien continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty fandoms battle across the miasma of the web; vast hordes of geeks give battle in his name on uncounted forums against the tides of Terry Goodkind, Joe Abercrombie, and R. Scott Bakker. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat from the gritty, the dark and edgy, the rape squads–and worse.
To be a fan in such a time is to be one amongst untold millions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of intelligence and rational discourse, for so much has been forgotten, never to be re-learned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark present there is only the gritty arms race to the bottom. There is no peace amongst the forums, only an eternity of flamewars and trolls, and the laughter of hack-writers.
BLOOD FOR THE BLOOD GOD! Or, perhaps, rape for the rape god.
It’s trendy these days to say you’re anti-Tolkien or at least counter-Tolkien. I’m not a Tolkien fan and don’t enjoy works derived from his. Like many people, I don’t appreciate the comforts of mundane white-folk epics, the security of familiar good-and-evil binary, the tranquility of the boy’s club. I’ll take the weird, the imaginative, the morally ambiguous any time with a great preference for the inclusive.
Sometime in the last decade, though, George R. R. Martin happened. Anti-Tolkien went from Michael Moorcock to gritty grimdark, full of gore and feces and rape being pumped into otherwise standard fantasy that clings to the cis-white-male paradigm with all its bloodstained, shit-encrusted might. But okay, I told myself. Let’s not set our hopes too high. Blood? Whatever. Shit? If we really must. Sexual assault? Wait a minute.
True story: I flipped through a copy of R. Scott Bakker’s The Judging Eye at random. The first thing I found was a scene where a character is being interrogated by a demon. When he insists he doesn’t know anything, the demon proceeds to rape his wife, his son, and then rape him too. Grab a Sword of Truth book, any book. Open to… any page, really, and bam: a woman being violated, or about to be. The series’ heroine Kahlan is almost raped on a daily basis. In the third book, there is–honest to god–a pit full of rapists. The first book Wizard’s First Rule features a villain who employs rape squads.
We hated as she is violated
I’d forgotten how vile this whole thing is. Not the way she looks, but the process that went into her creation. The creature pictured is the Broodmother, a monster from Dragon Age. As you approach her, you hear a voice recounting what’s happened on the first to the ninth day, cumulating in:
Fifth day, they return and it’s another girl’s turn.
Sixth day, her screams we hear in our dreams.
Seventh day, she grew as in her mouth they spew.
Eighth day, we hated as she is violated.
Ninth day, she grins and devours her kin.
Now she does feast, as she’s become the beast.
Gross. Not as in “this is superbly written horror and it squicks me out.” This is gross like being pelted at by gobs of poo.
The trope of aliens and supernatural males kidnapping and raping women to increase their birthrate is all too common. The Lovecraft-inspired film Dagon indulges with unholy glee. Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series revolves around this idea–the protagonist is hounded for her rare potential to carry children to term–as does Laurell K. Hamilton’s Merry Gentry books. Bioware’s Broodmother disturbs me more, however: they’re like Tleilaxu females from Dune in that they lose all personhood. You get a vague idea of who the Broodmother was (a dwarf named Laryn), but she’s not sympathetic. I expected an NPC in Ironforge to inform the PC that a woman named Laryn’s gone missing in the Deep Roads and can the nice warden please see if any traces of her can be found? But no, Laryn as Broodmother is just this loathsome blob you butcher in a mess of tentacles and shit splatters. No regrets, no humanity. You can see it reflected in fan reactions; gamers exclaim how very, very disgusting she looks. It’s all anyone can focus on.
I’ve noted while reviewing a sci-fi noir novel that male and female victimhood is treated differently: men may get hurt badly, killed, or imprisoned. But women are always more vulnerable thanks to possessing a vagina, and often broken in ways that deny recovery, survival, or retaining an agency. So it goes in DA: men can get corrupted, sure, but women get something a little extra. An exclusive offer. Hello ladies, how would you like to be sexually assaulted repeatedly then transformed into a giant throbbing vagina whose sole purpose is to pop out monsters, forever?
You want to be a pretty princess, don’t you?
Rewind a few years back. Neverwinter Nights was a badly-coded piece of crap with–even for the day–stupendously bad graphics, but it had a make-your-own kit that spawned (heh) a large modding community. One of the most popular, award-winning mods was A Dance with Rogues. This mod makes no apology and no pretense. It rips the shit off of George R. R. Martin, copying names of characters and countries verbatim, and certain bits of plot too. The author’s determined to one-up Martin, though. About five seconds into the first module, your virgin princess character (and it’s specified that she is a virgin) gets brutally raped.
The rapist becomes one of the possible romantic interests. His reason for raping her at the time? Why, he was afraid he’d fall in love with her, of course! He was one of the most popular characters in this duology. Bad boys are so charming, don’t you know. Especially the rapist ones. There were a few objections, now and again, raised over how squicky all of this was. Most of it was brushed off in the name of… realism. Gritty, dark realism. Check out the sexual encounters. It’s not sex-positive. A small fraction of these is happy fun times between consenting adults, but an overwhelming majority is a quest solution. Optional, sure, but at the beginning, there’re parts where the princess has no choice but to have sex. Throughout both the first and second parts, she often has to wear lingerie to seduce/distract enemies, and the threat of rape is a constant. When she isn’t getting forcibly stripped, and believe me that happens a lot, she’ll be wearing armor that looks like this:
That’s a suit of chainmail, just so you know. This is the author’s idea of plate armor. Gifted to you, by the way, by a character that (at the time of my playthrough) was a mindflayer in disguise. Who, if the PC agrees to become his high priestess, “mounts” her. Yeah. I’m not even sure why a Lovecraftian, thoroughly asexual monster would want to have sex with anything, let alone a human woman.
It’s not even avocado
Dragon Age calls itself a “dark fantasy.” It’s rather cute, really, like a D&D nerd getting his ear pierced because he fancies the goth girl who works at Starbucks. Dragon Age isn’t dark fantasy, nor is it light, gray, avocado, or caffeine-free fantasy, it’s just straight fantasy classic. It’s a straight-line Tetris block wiping out four big fat rows of demand for traditional single-player RPGs. It’s got elves, dwarves, dragons, it’s got a title screen depicting a sword sticking out of the ground, and the world map looks like a fire-breathing coffee drink has been sick on it; we’re talking a hundred percent commitment here, where every individual element could be taken out of context and every single one could make your girlfriend legitimately call you a sad bastard.
I’ll pause to acknowledge Shianni, an elven woman who’s raped at the beginning of Dragon Age and who reappears later to lead the elven “alienage” against human oppression. It’s handled surprisingly well, but then again I have to ask: really? Did the rape need to be there? Couldn’t the brutal violence, attacks, and deaths have motivated her just as well? Does the sexual assault serve any purpose, have any point, beyond throwing in shock value so the grimdark quota can be fulfilled? Is there a meaningful narrative of surviving and recovering? Is there a meaningful narrative of oppression even, because “humans are bastards who oppress elves” is done and done and done, and really trotting out white, pointy-eared humans as an analogue for minorities strikes me as disingenuous.
“Anti-Tolkien,” I think, should be about upsetting the cis-white-male ghetto. It should be about subverting, breaking, and rejecting tropes that make this ghetto such a comfy cesspool to wallow in. It should open ways for specfic that isn’t about white people, doesn’t take place in an analogue of medieval Europe or future FUCK YEAH AMERICA, isn’t always about straight love stories, and is cover-to-cover about women making their own stories.
It really shouldn’t be about women getting sexually assaulted and liquid brown hitting everything in sight.