Raped by elves

We’ve identified before that passive voice agent-deletion is a particular problem in reports of sexual violence. The victim is centred, just as she is in most narratives of sexual violence (and its prevention), and the perpetrator is disappeared altogether or referred to only obliquely.

Cara at The Curvature identified an example of the results of this approach just this week, when a New York Times article said that British travellers were “hurting themselves” by being raped.

An old friend of mine pointed out one possible approach to a document full of agentless passives: go through the document and insert “elves”.

Here’s an example of an article with the raped-by-elves problem. (Note that I had to go back fewer than 24 hours in Google News to find one.)

Montgomery Jogger Raped in Rock Creek Park

A 30-year-old jogger was raped Monday night after being pulled into a wooded area of Rock Creek Park just south of Kensington, marking the second time in the last week a Montgomery County woman has been taken into woods and sexually assaulted, police said.

Inserting the elves:

Elves Rape Montgomery Jogger in Rock Creek Park

Elves raped a 30-year-old jogger Monday night after pulling her into a wooded area of Rock Creek Park just south of Kensington, marking the second time in the last week elves have taken a Montgomery County woman into woods and sexually assaulted her, police said.

Dark humour? Perhaps. It’s not a “rape joke”, however. It doesn’t rest on sexist, anti-woman, victim-blaming tropes. It is intended to point out the deficiencies of the writer, not the victim. And I think “The raped-by-elves problem” might be a useful shorthand when pointing out incidences of this particular linguistic contribution to rape culture.

What are your thoughts? Useful? Problematic? (I’m leaning to “possibly a bit of both”.) I’m not convinced (yet) that the problems are dealbreakers, but I’m open to opinions.

[h/t to NT and RHD]

Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, language, violence

Tags: , , , , ,

31 replies

  1. Hmm. My problem is that I think it has potential to be misunderstood — it took me a second myself to realize the significance of “elves.” When talking about this, I usually say something like “she wasn’t raped by some mysterious invisible force.” But Mysterious Invisible Force seems a bit long and cumbersome, so I’m trying to think of an alternative, but it’s the best I have at the moment. I personally think it mostly avoids the dark humor thing, which is probably what will rub people the wrong way.

  2. My personal opinion is that it is better to put the real subject in view, partly because it is so confronting to rape apologists/rape myth adherents to do so but also because I feel really sick about any public juxtaposition of sexual violence and humor, regardless of intent, and that includes both rape jokes an paedophile jokes. Private gallows humor among survivors is a different matter.

  3. It’s interesting because there’s also a problem with disappearing the victim, like if the article talked solely about the rapist with no mention whatsoever about the victim. Sounds bizarre, but when you look at how often books/movies/comics use the rape of a woman as a way to develop male characters maybe not so much. That’s a time when we want to see the victim centered.
    Anyway, I’m not sure I see the purpose of “elves.” Does the humor make it better than just inserting “men” or “a man”? Because it seems to me that “elves” highlights how absurd the article would be if we *did* include the subject, which just isn’t true.

  4. As someone who spent the best part of 20 years as a teacher of literature trying to heighten people’s awareness of the importance and significance of language and the way it shapes our understanding even (especially?) at the micro-level, I am all for ‘raped by elves’. I think there are an awful lot of people who don’t know what ‘passive voice’ means and can’t get their heads quite round the concept of linguistic spin, people for whom this kind of thing will turn on a little light globe above their heads.
    I’m not sure ‘rape joke’ is the way I’d put it, though. I don’t think of it as rape humour, I think of it as language humour put to good service. It’s the same kind of consciousness-raising tool as you’d use, say, if you were trying to demonstrate the meaning of the phrase ‘history is written by the winners’ and invited your students to consider the difference between ‘Dresden was fire-bombed’ and ‘The Allies fire-bombed Dresden’.

  5. Personally, I don’t think it’s funny, I think it’s drawing attention to a very important point.
    Also: “I feel really sick about any public juxtaposition of sexual violence and humor, regardless of intent, and that includes both rape jokes an paedophile jokes. Private gallows humor among survivors is a different matter.”
    I certainly don’t think rape is a laughing matter, but doesn’t this deny survivors a public voice? There’s a difference between someone who hasn’t experienced something joking about it, and someone who has. Why would you specify that black humour about rape can only be used by survivors privately?

  6. I think that both su and Quixotess have kind of proven that my concern in the first comment was valid. Su finds it to be a rape joke, and Quixotess doesn’t quite get it (as I said, I didn’t initially, either! My understanding is: “well who raped her? She didn’t rape herself. Was it elves for Christ’s sake, someone did it!?” It’s pointing out the absurdity of how they behave as though some mysterious force did this rather than a person.)
    Now, we can sit all day and argue about whether or not it is actually a “rape joke” and whether or not people ought to get it — but if people who already seem to be on our side aren’t getting it and are taking as a rape joke, I think that’s cause for concern. My concern, as it often is, is also largely with how those who have been the victims of violence will view this. (I have no idea what su and Quixotess’s histories are and whether or not they fall into this group themselves.) We’re never going to please everyone, but I do think that when doing anti-rape work we need to immediately ask the question of whether or not most survivors would actually appreciate it, and how they will perceive it. Because the last thing that survivors need (and I speak as one) is to feel as though a community that is supposed to be safe is actually making rape jokes.
    Again, this is just my two cents . . .
    Caras last blog post..“It’s Not a Choice, It’s a Child” — Except When It’s Beneficial To Say It’s a Choice

  7. I’m not specifying anything for anyone else at all. I’m sorry that I did not word that better. In company with other people who have had experience of sexual violence,a vein of black humor occasionally emerges but outside of those spaces, I would not treat the subject with anything other than sober and probably tedious seriousness just because I don’t wish to run the risk of trivialising sexual violence in the presence of people who already minimize it. That is not quite the same as not talking about it at all. My tolerance for anything that could conceivably be seen as trivialising may be unreasonably low, but Lauredhel asked for opinions so I gave one based on my immediate reaction. I don’t see her as making a rape joke or deliberatley trivialising the issue, I understand exactly what she is doing, I just had an immediate, negative reaction.
    I can see Pavlov’s point. I had not considered that just replacing the subject might not necessarily have any impact and that constructing a sentence this way draws attention to the usual absence of the subject.

  8. Our comments crossed, Cara. I was replying to Rebekka. I completely get what this is attempting, I am just very uneasy about it for the reason mentioned.

  9. For me, it personally hits the WTFHUH button a little too close to the funny side before the realization of the point. Hrm.

  10. Su I think much the same as you, thank you.
    I think about this in similar terms to Pav for similar reasons – studying the building blocks of narrative develops one’s sensitivity to the ways it creates some meanings and eliminates others.
    I read somewhere a review of a book about narrative and rape vignettes (as used in scholarly research into attitudes to rape, and I would suggest the same narrative framing is generally used in the media). What this book found was that rape vignettes almost universally focus narratively on victims not perpetrators, and this influences respondents to think in terms of what the victim could have done differently.
    The typical rape vignette focuses on and follows the woman as protagonist. In narrative terms she is the focalising consciousness and telling a story about her, regardless of what the details of the story actually are, constrains the imagination to thinking about how she acts and reacts.
    The study apparently suggested researchers need to refocalise rape vignettes so the rapist is the protagonist, in order to avoid re-inforcing the conceptual framing around the woman. So instead of only asking respondents how they feel about a woman who drinks then walks home alone and is raped, they need to also ask how they feel about a man who follows a woman out of a bar and rapes her.
    For obvious reasons the media can’t always tell that sort of story about a recently committed crime. But they could be telling it a lot more often than they currently do.

  11. I should have read your linked 2007 post on voice before commenting. It covers most of what my last comment says.

  12. Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful input. I guessed the reaction _might_ be mixed. I still believe that a shorthand for this phenomenon could be useful, and I’d like to throw the floor open to brainstorm that.

  13. Hm, all right, so we’re looking for something absurd, but still threatening…Knives raped? No, that’s no good. I don’t know, I understand the joke now (thank you Cara) but am still unsure that it is needed to get the point across, like just go with “A rapist raped.” Or if you must, you can go all the other way to “Raped all by herself.” Raped by no one. It would help if the image wasn’t so comical, like for some reason I think “centaurs raped” would be somewhat less objectionable to me. Gah, this is difficult.

  14. How about “an invisible man”?
    Invisibility is less comic than elves, and gets across the point about the perpetrator of the crime being outside the frame, i.e. invisible.

  15. You could go the bitingly sincere route (as opposed to bitingly sarcastic.) “Real live men raped…” “A living breathing man raped…” “An actual, morally-culpable man raped…”

  16. Hmm… I wonder whether a crazy object, rather than a sentient (even if fantastical) creature might be better. It demonstrates perhaps even more vividly that a subject is required to do an action in order for rape etc to occur, and that this is what is obscured by the passive voice. I know that this risks sounding like an object was used by the rapist in the rape, but I figure it’d depend on the object. I’m weary weary weary from teaching, so I’m not feeling very imaginative, but ‘a kettle/donut/bath-bomb has been preying on and raping women’ strikes me as hitting the right kind of ludicrousness. Or am I just crazy-tired?

  17. Or a bean-bag? I’m aiming for something that doesn’t sound like it *could* be used as a weapon, because this is precisely what’s at stake…?

  18. A toaster? Previously known for being mild mannered and reliable? Now I’m confusing it by attributing agency to the toaster…

  19. Invisible man definitely gets my vote thus far.

  20. Yes, I kind of like that too. I would not have any problem with a lolversion of that either eg. Invisibul Rapist! But, again YMMV.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about Sue Anne Post in the last couple of days because she uses humour in ways that uncover an often unspoken reality in ways that I just love. In her hands humour can be both confronting for those outside that reality and healing for those within.

  21. Yeah, I like the toaster, FP, but for those of us with a sci-fi bent it’s probably less innocent than it might first appear. [ponders Starbuck/Leoben ugh-ness]. I guess the point I’m trying to make with the crazy object, everyone, in case it wasn’t clear, was to draw attention not just to the invisibilisation of the subject, but their (his) non-agency as a result. Having an inanimate object doing the crime might (maybe, I’m not really this attached to it ;-)) draw attention not only to the fact that the rapist has been obscured, but his agency too. The use of an inanimate object might draw attention to how ludicrous it is to act as though a) there wasn’t someone there, doing the act, but b) that that person made a choice.

  22. I agree with others that “elves” is discordant with the intention of stressing that a rapist did the raping.

    An as-yet-unidentified-by-age-or-hobby rapist raped a 30-year-old jogger Monday night after the rapist pulled her into a wooded area of Rock Creek Park just south of Kensington, marking the second time in the last week a Montgomery County sexual assaulter has taken a Montgomery County woman into woods and sexually assaulted her, police said.

    How’s that work?

  23. I think for the audience it was intended (those who wouldn’t see the problem in the article until it was pointed out) humour is the best way to promote feminist ideas. It’s important we can get out message out in a variety of ways and jokes not only work by bringing people’s guard down, but to help combat the widespread image of the haranguing dour feminist.
    For the reasons Pavlov’s Cat states, I like elves or toasters or north atlantic salmon or whatever, and Su’s reminded me why I like comedians like Sue-Ann Post or Julia Morris so much – the humour doesn’t demean or belittle the subject, but is the spoonful of sugar to the medicine.

  24. I noticed today that the SMH has a quite explicit headline in its online page “Sydney Cabbie guilty of rape” and in the article it says

    A Sydney taxi driver has been found guilty of raping a young female passenger. Bangladeshi student MD Kowser Ali, 22, was convicted by a NSW District Court jury today of raping the 18-year-old woman

    So, it would seem that the MSM is finally getting the idea.

  25. I like Invisible Man too, but there’s an element of fantasy or make-believe in the word “Invisible” that we could get around by saying an Alleged Man. That shifts the point of view from being about our perception of the man to the man and what he does.
    “An Alleged man was charged yesterday with …”

  26. And it was SO IMPORTANT that we know he was Bangladeshi, right? *headdesk*

  27. I did wonder if that was why they felt able to put it in such straight terms. I’d like to think not, but…

  28. They perhaps put it so straight because he’s been convicted. I like the Alleged Man idea Zoe.

  29. There was an article in the Herald Sun this morning that makes me think the MSM is not remotely close to getting an idea about anything – http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,24362908-2862,00.html
    First, calling a serial offender a “pest”? What’s with that? A pest is something slightly annoying, not someone who rapes children.
    Secondly, “The accused was alleged to have seduced the girl in the late 1990s, when he was 39 and she was 15. ”
    SEDUCED??? He RAPED her, allegedly, and the Herald Sun describes it as “seduction”?


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