Why is (Fictional) Abuse So Entertaining?

23 Aug

I was on vacation last week, which was lovely.  Besides the possible down sides of sunburn, sketchy wireless, and the fact that radio stations in Virginia are a little “programming challenged” (seriously, what “Alternative” radio station plays Cheryl Crow?), I spent a lot of wonderful time with my family, ate some great food, and got a lot of reading done.

One of the books I read was “The Dovekeepers” by Alice Hoffman (of “Practical Magic” fame).  I’ve actually not read “Practical Magic,” but I read “The Probable Future” and enjoyed it very much.  I like the way Hoffman tells women’s stories in a realistic world infused with a touch of magic.

“The Dovekeepers” is set in Judea in 70 C.E.*  It’s mostly historical fiction (except for that whole magic part) about a band of Jewish refugees who hid out from Roman troops in a mountainside palace.  The story focuses on four women, and it’s told in four parts, one from each of their point of view.  (the first time we changed POV, I was really thrown.  But I got over it.)

It’s not really a happy story.  These women do not have an easy time of it.  They’re all abused and mistreated, mostly by men.  One woman’s daughter is raped and murdered, another is treated like a dog by her father.  Hoffman really wants us to know that this is a violent, dangerous world, ruled by men, and in which women have to find a way to get by.

And as well-written as this book is, as intriguing the characters are, and as compelling the story is, it’s this last point that kind of stuck in my craw.  Why do we like these books in which women are treated so badly?

Some of it is historical, yes.  There’s a bit of That’s How Things Were, I suppose.  But why do we keep buying these books?  Why do we want to read (voraciously) about women being treated like crap?

Yes, the women rise above it, and perhaps that’s the joy.  If she can get through that, I can get through whatever I’m facing.  Hoffman’s characters are all strong women who find their way in the difficult world she’s put them in, and that’s good to see.

But I still don’t know if I want to hear those stories, especially as entertainment.  Stories become culture, which tends to worm our way into our brains.  It’s what tells us How the World Works.  And these days, I think we need to tell different stories.

Let me be clear; I’m not saying we shouldn’t discuss abuse, or pretend it doesn’t exist.  Not at all.

But if we make abuse a normal obstacle in our heroines’ stories, I wonder if we might end up thinking that it’s a normal obstacle for a woman in real life.

Let’s beat up our characters, yes.  We love to see them suffer.  But can we make the suffering about something other than their vaginas?  Let’s move away from making abuse normal and familiar, and recast our heroines to face some new challenges.

I’d rather read some new stories that reflect how we’ve redefined womanhood.



For more about what I’m reading and what I think about it, you can follow me on Goodreads.


2 Responses to “Why is (Fictional) Abuse So Entertaining?”

  1. Diane Scholten August 23, 2012 at 7:34 pm #

    Mary, I agree with you. I’m very disinclined to take in media of any sort that is misogynistic, or violent or well, just DUMB. I’m reading a novel now (something I do maybe once a year) because I wanted to join a book club. And it’s well written and engaging – BUT – like Dovekeepers seems to have some poorly treated women. I love your closing comment “I’d rather read some new stories that reflect how we’ve redefined womanhood.” Love it! If you find ’em, let us know!

  2. joannalarson August 24, 2012 at 9:33 am #

    TV gives us a skewed view of what teen girls are supposed to look like. The High Schools on teen dramas have little to no dress code and all the girls are skanks. Even the good girls end up skanky. If you did a shot every time somebody o
    n “Secret Life” said the word “sex” you’d be hammered 10 minutes in. Couple that with working parents, the internet, and lack of decent Sex Ed classes, and well, Little Suzy has a baby and now she has a reality show. WTF?

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