STORIES ABOUT RAPE BEING BAD
By Andrew Adams
Sexual harassment plays a strong role in both Margaret Atwood’s short story “Rape Fantasies” and David Mamet’s play OLEANNA; this is apparent enough in both cases. More ambiguous is their usage of this theme. Though not limited in similarity to the presence of the theme alone, the way it develops in both cases is complicated—even controversial. They are so uniquely complicated, in fact, so as to develop in varied ways, with varied results within themselves, not just between each other. In this way the two texts take initially similar approaches to sexual harassment in order to make relatively different statements about how it can occur or how it can (but not necessarily should) be dealt with. These statements in turn offer distinctive insight into a subject that any reader will eventually need to face on at least some level.
Their surface similarities are, as already mentioned, the clearest. Atwood’s story tells us immediately, by the title alone, what we can expect to read about. And although the word “rape” doesn’t appear in OLEANNA until Act Three, and only then in reference to “paternal prerogative” (Mamet 596), we still recognize the same sexual tension. Both stories involve female characters imagining themselves as victims, and both, to some degree, require their readers to decide if they truly are. Their differences, however, are not only in how we interpret their respective take on rape, but also in the authors’ efforts to pattern their female characters as victims. That is, Mamet’s Carol claims victim-hood, but he doesn’t seem to require the reader to agree, whereas an attentive reader of Atwood’s Estelle recognizes her own ignorance as the source of her victim-hood.
Estelle, for example, describes “Rape Fantasies” throughout, both her own and those of her female coworkers. None of the scenarios described are “real”—that is, none of the characters are confessing actual experiences or grieving over true loss. The topic is, in fact, inspired by magazines, among Estelle’s coworkers AND to whomever she is addressing with the telling of the story: “Chrissy closes up the magazine she’s been reading and says, ‘How about it, girls, do you have rape fantasies?’” but earlier, “The way they’re going on about it in the magazines you’d think it was just invented” (Atwood 382). That is, as much as this story is about rape or refers to rape or even seems to make light of rape, the actual ACT of rape never takes place. Estelle, who as the first-person narrator of these fantasies can be called the victim of them, may in fact only be a victim in her own mind.
Continuing the example in OLEANNA, the same imagined theme occurs between Carol and John. Once again, rape is referenced and even made into an accusation, but never specifically takes place to the reader’s understanding. This is Carol’s argument, to be sure, and is the basis for all three acts; whether or not it actually happened, however, is open to interpretation (and is certainly the source of frustration for both John and Carol).
That INTERPRETATION is where an important distinction occurs between the two texts. The previous example is only one of potentially many similarities—others of which are likely to appear in continued comparison—but each must eventually separate toward their respective meanings. The theme is there in both cases, working in very similar ways, but ultimately pointing to different conclusions as to not only how rape can occur, but how it is responded to by distinct individuals.
Using the same example as before, we can already see very different approaches taken with the theme of imagined sexual harassment. True, in both cases the idea of “rape” is just that: idea; and in both cases, it occurs twice for each character, first as a notion, then as a distinct possibility. Estelle first imagines, with her friends, possible scenarios of rape, then relates these to a stranger as if they stand to warn or defend her. Carol takes notes in John’s class and in his office and eventually reveals what were suspicions of sexist behavior, which now, in revealing them, seem to ignite John’s hostility. In this way her experience is like Estelle’s, whose imagined rape also may SEEM to become a reality but might not necessarily. In Estelle’s case, however, we are ultimately learning a lesson about her character’s INNOCENCE—of her ignorance, her total incomprehension of the very theme she explores. She makes light of rape BECAUSE her concept of it is based on those magazines, on those fantasies, and only once she is faced with it as a possibility does she recognize its seriousness. The irony is not just in her unreliability as a narrator, but in the fact that she herself is REALIZING that unreliability in the very act of narration. She is rambling on and on about something that she only HOPES can remain a joke and will never become something more, something WORSE:
Anyway, another thing about it is that there’s a lot of
conversation, in fact I spend most of my time, in the
fantasy that is, wondering what I’m going to say and what
he’s going to say, I think it would be better if you could
get a conversation going. Like, how could a fellow do that
to a person he’s just had a long conversation with, once
you let them know you’re human, you have a life too, I
don’t see how they could go ahead with it, right? (Atwood
By this point Estelle is making direct reference to her present position, speaking to someone we as readers don’t see or hear, clearly attempting to make the distinction between her rape fantasies and the real world. For her, rape has been nothing BUT a fantasy, and she wants it to stay that way. Among her friends, those fantasies were for fun. Now, the possibility she is apparently imagining is inspired by fear.
Carol, on the other hand, is anything but innocent and barely pretends to be so. She claims throughout that she is confused, that she feels left behind or ignored, but mainly she knows exactly what her goal is. She is familiar with the concept of rape and demonstrates none of the silly expectations attributed to Estelle, who easily turns it into a humorous subject. Carol DOES have expectations, or suspicions rather, of her professor John whom she believes to be sexist and elitist. These expectations are also connected with a group, but one very different from Estelle’s coworker bridge game. Carol’s group is one to which she has “a responsibility” and for which she speaks in her complaint against John (Mamet 595-6). That Group, with her as its representative, almost seems to plan an attack on John, using his own words against him as evidence of “a pattern” (590). This culminates with a very specific demand, one that aims to dishearten and discredit him, gaining no specific restitution for Carol as a supposed, intended rape victim, but taking from him the power he supposedly seeks. Carol shows no fear as she confronts him with these accusations and demands, certainly not what one might expect from the victim she makes herself out to be; and she goes so far as to order, even in the midst of his strongest emotions, “don’t call your wife ‘baby.’” This leads to her becoming a victim of physical harassment, undeniably, but in a very different way than was implied or perhaps expected. Thus her victim-hood is still “imagined” in the sense that we must decide, based on interpretation, whether John’s behavior qualified as rape—an interpretation greatly affected by the unreliability of Carol’s character.
This brings up an interesting point, or example, that further demonstrates the different ways in which the harassment theme develops in each text. Carol may in fact be unreliable inasmuch as she is NOT naïve, like Estelle, and therefore has an agenda. Her use of “rape” is intentional, whereas Estelle’s is an exploratory game-turned-reality. This contrast is strengthened all the more in that it holds true DESPITE the fact that Estelle is ALSO unreliable. Hers is a first-person narration, one limited by her naivety, yet as such serves as evidence of her potential victim-hood. The reader can’t trust Estelle’s comprehension of rape and can therefore accept her likelihood of falling prey to it. Such acceptance is more difficult with Carol, whose representation we CAN trust inasmuch as it is without narration, but whose familiarity with rape is almost alarmingly deliberate, and therefore, suspect.
As a result, we are capable of a clearer understanding of both texts. With “Rape Fantasies” we recognize something like a warning, an example of what ignorance or even nonchalance can invite upon an unsuspecting victim. This leaves almost no room for misguidance simply because there exists that reliability between Estelle and her theme. It becomes a simple equation: an Estelle-type attitude plus the possibility of rape equals an ironic, less-than-humorous foreboding. Alternatively, OLEANNA’s very LACK of that reliability also quickens an understanding of the text. Any reliance on Carol and her cry of rape is not necessarily ruined but certainly hampered by confusing, choppy dialogue and inconsistent behavior, lending a certain unbalanced level to the preconceived notion of pro-feminism. Interestingly enough, this helps give a clearer understanding of OLEANNA, if only to say that its meaning is certainly more complicated than “Rape Fantasies,” involving an equal portrayal of two opposing characters and the possible ways in which both violate the other’s trust. It needs not be a warning for potential rape victims ONLY, but for those who might be accused of it; it is much harder to see Carol as a victim in the same light as Estelle, and therefore, to derive the same meaning from their encounters.
Undoubtedly, both characters’ involvement with their themes was intended by the authors. One simple way of narrowing that involvement down is to recognize that in both cases something is being said not just about sexual harassment, but about DEFENSE against it. In “Rape Fantasies”, Estelle never accuses anyone of sexual harassment and even implies that she wouldn’t if it happened, but would instead attempt to form a heroic (and frankly, unrealistic) relationship with her attacker. She attempts to downplay the damage, in other words, to free herself of victim-hood. It is an immediate, innocent defense that occurs in an unexpected encounter, apparently, with a stranger: “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, except I think it helps you get to know a person, especially at first…” (Atwood 387). In OLEANNA, Carol’s entire involvement in the play is, for her, a “defense” against John, whom she believes to have harassed her, whereas he perceives it as an attack. She does nothing but accuse him, or earlier on, bait him so that he becomes more vulnerable to her accusation: “I don’t UNDERSTAND. I don’t understand what anything means…and I walk around. From morning ‘til night: with this one thought in my head. I’m STUPID” (Mamet 578). She attempts to amplify the damage, in other words, to free herself of victim-hood, in that as the accusation becomes greater (or more believable) she improves the chance of getting rid of John entirely. It is easy to view this as a deliberate, cunning defense, involving more than just her.
Perhaps herein lies the main contribution to the theme that has so far been approached in different ways. In this way we can accept both works as valuable, knowing that each makes a commentary from the perspective of a different type of victim. As stated earlier, both texts lend themselves to varied interpretations, usually with a strong polarization of opinions as to how sexual harassment is treated. Now, in examining the differences and similarities, it becomes easier to form expectations of this genre while maintaining openness for something new—an approach, a perspective, a lesson for potential victims. Clearly two situations that seem, on the surface, to deal with the same problem may require different solutions; and likewise, those solutions can clearly be illuminated—or criticized—with a variety of literary techniques. The idea is to be careful about placing any work beneath a particular category, such as with these examples, which might initially seem to group together as “Stories About Rape Being Bad.” They do in fact deal with this theme, and surely we can all agree that rape deserves no positive exemplification; but HOW the story or the play makes use of this theme is what sets it apart. It is not enough to agree that “Rape Is Bad” and to leave it at that. So much more can be gained from each work, from each character, that better defines the monstrosity of the dilemma and the reality of the fear it creates. In this way a theme that was once just a title, a seemingly commonplace issue, a pairing of words, can become something far more powerful for the reader who pays attention, who allows a penetration of relevance that could ideally change their life.
Atwood, Margaret. “Rape Fantasies.” RETELLINGS: A THEMATIC
LITERATURE ANTHOLOGY. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
Mamet, David. OLEANNA. RETELLINGS: A THEMATIC LITERATURE
ANTHOLOGY. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004.
© Andrew Adams