In Which I Rant About Rape (Sorry in Advance)
The world has been a pretty terrible place this week with the police in Ferguson shooting an unarmed, young man to death for no apparent reason, and responding visciously to those rightfully protesting. People in my area are suffering from the aftermath of a flash flood, and things are generally awful. Therefore, seems as good a time as any to talk about rape. It all started recently when I read Stephenie Meyer’s novel, The Host. Yes, she wrote the Twilight books, and I went in knowing it would be silly, but I am a sucker for a sci-fi story, and it was under $10 at the grocery store. Fun premise—alien being takes over the body of a young woman (the “host” as it were), and the young woman’s true consciousness is at odds with the alien being’s presence and agenda. A hate-read is really juvenile, but if I’m being honest, I truly wanted to see how the author would screw up such an interesting idea. Spoilers ahead in case you have neither read the book nor watched the movie, and have plans to do so—don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Wait, wasn’t this post about rape?? Trust me, I’m getting there. Quick summary: worm-sized aliens have invaded earth, and have each taken over a human body. Melanie was part of the human resistance along with her brother, Jamie, and boyfriend, Jared. When she is caught, she tries to commit suicide to prevent an alien from taking over her mind and body, and therefore learning the location of other human survivors, including her brother and boyfriend. However, the aliens heal Melanie’s body, and Wanderer (Wanda) takes over Melanie’s body and consciousness. Melanie fights back, and she and Wanda struggle for control over the body. Wanda has physical control, but Melanie drives her thoughts and emotions with strong memories of Jamie and Jared, her desire to reunite with them, and conflict about not wanting to endanger them. Wanda eventually falls in love with a human, Ian, but Melanie isn’t so crazy about this development. Fast forward a bunch, Wanda decides to give Melanie her body back, Jared is happy, Ian is sad, Melanie misses the alien she now thinks of as a sister, but all are happy when they finally implant Wanda into another human body. Love quadrangle resolved! Messier issues of agency, autonomy, and rape are entirely ignored! Here goes…
The first step to any, decent alien bodysnatch story is the simple understanding that this is a complete violation of the human body. It does not matter how sincerely the alien believes it is superior and a pacifist; so long as the occupation of the human’s body is happening against the will of that human, the alien is violating that human’s body. Wanda’s occupation of Melanie’s body is clearly a violation, as Melanie had tried to commit suicide to prevent it from happening. The two girls have many arguments along the way, but they never explicitly have this argument. Although it is interesting to me that they eventually develop a loving, sisterly relationship, it rings false in light of the initial and continuing violation, as Melanie protested and demanded control of her body back from Wanda many times. The conversation needs to be had.
Eventually, Wanda comes to her own realization that she must relinquish control of Melanie’s body, and requests that she not be placed into another human body. That is a nice, redemption arc for the alien character, but any larger issue of autonomy is entirely undermined when the humans decide to put Wanda into the body of a young girl, whose consciousness will be too weak to assert itself. Melanie has agreed to this idea. Yes, Melanie, who spent 500 pages resisting the alien invader in her body, decides it is perfectly ok to do this to someone else because that person’s consciousness will not fight back. No, the girl did not donate her body to this cause, and in the end, Wanda is all, “Oh, shucks, I guess I have to keep this body, and continue a relationship with my boyfriend, Ian!” It is not ok to do things to another person’s body without his or her consent. It is not ok to have sex with an unconscious person. It is not ok to drug a person for the purpose of having sex with that person’s unconscious body. I feel like I need to say these things because the book never said these things.
Thus far, I have been discussing metaphorical rape, but these scenarios diverge into where the book ignores issues of actual rape. Ian falls in love with Wanda, the wormlike, alien being, who he views as entirely distinct from Melanie. This is a beautiful idea, HOWEVER: Ian wants to pursue this relationship with Wanda, knowing full well that Melanie’s consciousness is alive, and does not want her body used for this purpose. Although Wanda and Ian only get to the kissing stage within the novel, Melanie does object to it, and Wanda feels conflicted. Nobody mentions the word, “rape,” though, and Ian does not see the problem. He argues that Wanda should be able to live her life, even though Wanda is occupying Melanie’s human body without her consent, and Ian is living in hiding so that an alien being does not occupy HIS body. OK, Ian. At one point, he asks if Melanie can just mentally check out for a few minutes so that he and Wanda can have some privacy. Melanie agrees to this request, but again, the book avoids any discussion of rape (Jared, Melanie’s boyfriend, was outraged that Ian wanted to enter into a relationship with Wanda in Melanie’s body because that was “his” body. I truly worry that Stephenie Meyer believes herself to be the property of a man.). Fast forward to the end, and the humans have now arranged for Wanda to occupy another human body, which will not have an active consciousness. Ian and Wanda resume their relationship, and will presumably use this human, who did not consent to give her body to this relationship. This is presented as a happy ending. Again, I feel compelled to say aloud that it is not ok to use someone’s unconscious body for your own sexual adventures.
The Host actually could have been a well-written story. It had a fascinating premise, and compelling motivations for the characters, but they needed to address the problemati c issues of aliens violating the agency and autonomy of the human bodies and perpetuating rape. Ian can still fall in love with Wanda, but feel sickness at the idea that the cost of this relationship is raping Melanie. Perhaps Wanda was not a willing participant in occupying Melanie’s body, and then the main character is not morally compromised. She could experience genuine conflict between her love and desire for Ian, and refusal to violate Melanie’s agency over her body. The book can still happen, but it just needed to happen differently for me.
I hate that the book ignored obvious issues of rape. I hate that a woman conceived of these ideas, and decided not to talk about rape. I hate how the real world addresses issues of rape. I am sorry that my first, real post here in over a year was about rape, but that book left me with so much rage. Hope to be cheerier next time, and until then, let’s all go have consensual relationships!