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Rape and Representation book cover

Rape and Representation is the title of a book of essays, edited by Lynn A. Higgins and Brenda R. Silver and published in (1991). The book "explores how cultural forms in Western society construct and reinforce social attitudes that encourage sexual violence. The contributors argue that literature reflects a patriarchal representation which makes the act of rape seem natural and inevitable" according to the Amazon blurb. Concentrating mainly on literature, the collection suggests that the politics and the aesthetics of rape representation are indistinguishable.[1]

The representation of rape takes place in our culture in many ways and across a number of different media, from mainstream Hollywood movies, independent cinema and television to literature, broadcast and print news and the popular press, as well as pornography. This has been an area for much academic research (see Representations of Rape in Popular Culture bibliography.[2].

Theorists argue that it is important to differentiate between actual rape and its representation and to ask questions of the different ways in which rape is narrativised in Western culture(s). For example Sielke arges that "the term “rape culture” says more about the prominent status of rape as a central trope within the American cultural imaginary than about the state of real rape".[3]

It has been argued that there is a culture of blame surrounding rape victims.[4] and that the narrativisation of rape contributes to the ways in which rape is perceived (see rape culture), although some theorists are critical of what they identify as feminist criticism's exaggeration and perpetuation of the fear of rape. [5][dead link].

Much has been written about the inherent rape narrative structure of many well-known fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, which some critics argue reinforce our acceptance of rape culture. [6] See, for example, Jack Zipes who has written extensively about fairy tale, disputing Bruno Bettelheim's arguments about the social acculturation of young children.

Another strong narrative trend[citation needed] is the rape revenge narrative of many exploitation films, see for example I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978). Gasper Noe's more recent Irréversible (2002) offers a very different take on the rape revenge theme, one that focuses on the implications of a woman's rape for the male characters of the film. See also Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971), The Accused (Jonathan Kaplan, 1988) and Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991) for some notable and often controversial examples of the visual representation of rape. One of the myths which is perpetuated by these representations is the idea of 'stranger rape' whereas it has been documented that rape victims are more often likely to be attacked by somebody that they already know, otherwise known as 'acquaintance rape'.[7]

Watching Rape: Film and Television in Postfeminist Culture by Sarah Projansky addresses the relationship between the visual representation of rape and post-feminism, examining "depictions of rape in US film, television, and independent video" and exploring how "popular narratives about rape also communicate ideas about gender, race, class, nationality, and sexuality". Siekle also identifies race as an important element of the"rhetoric of rape" in America. Similarly, according to Tredoux "In the United States, rape is strongly associated with race, with victims and offenders being disproportionately, even overwhelmingly, black".

In the UK the discussion has been taken up by feminist group Grrl Activistas who catalogue what they term as the "(mis)representation" of rape in British broadcast and print news, and soap opera story lines, such as Hollyoaks and EastEnders, arguing that internet communication technologies allow rape survivors to counteract this so-called (mis)representation through online discussion groups and chat rooms.[8]


  • Higgins, Lynn A, and Silver, Brenda R. Silver (1991). Rape and Representation. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-07266-X.
  • Sexual Correctness: The Gender-Feminist Attack on Women, Wendy McElroy,
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