Gender and Force in the Media

Empowerment Through Violence: Feminism and the Rape-Revenge Narrative in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

by Johanna Schorn, University of Cologne, Germany

In this paper, I will focus exclusively on the rape of women by men. While men also fall victim to rape, the purpose of this paper is to explore the rape-revenge narrative and its potential as a feminist narrative that empowers abused women to fight not just their abuser, but a misogynic, patriarchal system at large. I follow Joanna Burke's definition of rape and sexual abuse as “any act called such by a participant or third party” (Burke 9).

1According to, the website of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, about one in six American women will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. [1]Statistics posted on website, accessed on 18 February 2013. For international statistics on sexual assault see the crime report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime at It seems unsurprising, then, that rape and sexual assault are often the subject of movies, novels or TV series, and that news reports are frequently dominated by stories of grisly, brutal rapes. However, the cases that make it to our TV screens are hardly representative of reality. Though two thirds of all rapes are committed by someone well-known to the victim [2]ibid., often even a partner or friend, and are accompanied by manipulation and emotional abuse rather than physical force, the cases that receive the most media attention are typically those that involve physically violent stranger rape, such as the case of the Central Park Jogger. [3] A summary of the case can be found in New York Magazine:, accessed 18 February 2013.

2This is both indicative of and a contributing factor to misconceptions about the nature and prevalence of rape. These common but often false ideas about how rape happens are called ‘rape myths’ and have little to no factual basis. Joanna Burke describes rape myths as “converting historical and geographical specificities into flaccid catchphrases that seem clear and self-evident, yet […] profoundly damaging for people who suffer sexual abuse” (Burke 24). She identifies some of the most common myths, which in addition to those named above, also include the idea that it is impossible to rape a woman who fights back (24), or that women routinely fabricate false rape claims to take revenge on men (28).

3These myths pertain not only to the identity of the rapist as a stranger and to the setting of the rape (a park, a dark alley, etc), but also to the supposed behavior of the rape victim. A rape victim, according to popular imagination, must be visibly traumatized in the immediate aftermath, and will continue to be profoundly damaged for the rest of her life. According to this 'logic', someone who appears calm, does not immediately seek help, and/or continues to interact with her rapist/victimizer cannot have been raped. We can see these dynamics at play in popular reactions to well-publicized rape allegations, such as in the cases against Dominique Strauss-Kahn or Julian Assange. Regardless of the actual events, which are known only to those involved, the media construction of the alleged victims in both cases serves to illustrate how the idea of the ‘perfect’ or ‘true’ victim influences the willingness to believe allegations of rape. The accuser in the Strauss-Kahn case, the hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo, initially claimed to have sat in the hallway in shock for half an hour immediately following the assault. Later it was revealed that she called her fiancé, and that she may have also continued cleaning another room. This, among other things, turned public opinion against her: if she was able to make phone calls and continue working, surely, she could not have been raped. [4]A summary of the allegations, including links to further information, can be found here: accessed, 18 February 2013 Similarly, public opinion did not side with the two Swedish women who raised sexual assault charges against Julian Assange. They were accused of lodging false charges for political reasons, and commentators on the case made much of the fact that both women had pursued sexual relationships with him and had continued to interact with him after the alleged assaults. “What’s more, the following morning [...] the pair amicably went out to have breakfast together“, an incredulous journalist writes in a Daily Mail article at the time. [5], accessed 18 February 2013

4There are, however, countless complex dynamics at play that explain why some women do not report assaults right away, or at all. In the above examples, both alleged perpetrators were white males in powerful political positions. All three of the accusing women were suspected of lying for financial gain. This shifting of blame away from the accused men and onto the accusing women, through the deployment of rape myths, is a sign that we live in a 'rape culture', in which sexual violence is routinely normalized and excused, and in which male aggression is accepted and even rewarded. This normalization works along several axes and also works in conjunction with systemic racism, sexism and classism. Media construction of the rapist as a violent stranger hiding in a dark alley helps to throw suspicion on allegations cast against men who are popular, powerful and/or well respected in the community. Similarly, constructions of the ‘perfect victim’ and certain expectations of behavior immediately following a rape also shift blame away from the perpetrator and onto the victim. Additionally, the scripts for high-profile cases that receive media coverage may also influence other victims of abuse: Fear of not being believed and/or having one’s past dug up for scrutiny may dissuade victims from reporting an abuse. [6]The discussion of whether and how highly visible rape cases influence the decision of victims to report was also stoked by the case of Jörg Kachelmann in Germany in 2010. A summary of the opinions voiced can be found here:

5These media narratives are not unique to news coverage of rape cases. Stereotypical ideas of rapists and victims also abound in fictional accounts, such as crime dramas. In an exhaustive report of rape in television dramas from the mid 1970s onwards, Linda Cuklanz traced what she calls the “basic plot” in rape stories, where “the victim is attacked by an unseen rapist” and where she suffers “severe psychological and physical damage”. This rape is then avenged by a police officer or another supportive and “good guy”, whose righteousness is contrasted with “the rapist’s intense depravity” (6).