Once upon a time, I was an English major. That meant I read things that were “canonical” and “literary” (ugh, I hate that word – who decides what is literary? Is there some snobby litmus test that can be applied to books to decide if they can be classified as such? Bah, humbug.) I was shamed for my love of fantasy, science fiction, and other genre fiction, and NEVER read things intended for the younger set. That is not the case anymore (thank…well, thank my own intelligence for deciding that reader shaming was bullshit), but as I was closing the library down for the summer I realized I hadn’t read a classic in quite some time. Having read and loved Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo when I was in college, I decided to give The Three Musketeers a try.
Now, I want to state that, overall, I freaking loved this book. It’s hilarious and swashbuckling and all around delicious. Sure, there were some weird bits about how Athos and d’Artagnan beat their lackeys (just once!) to keep them in line, but it was written in 1844 and takes place in the seventeenth century. Things were different then, right?
So, as I was reading, I got to a part that made me a bit uneasy. Throughout the novel there is a shift of villainous focus from the Cardinal to a woman referred to as Milady, who is essentially a representation of the fear of the lascivious woman. I could go on and on about how she is representative of FEAR OF WOMAN, but that’s not necessarily my main point. Let’s flash forward to a specific plot point. She has been captured, and has decided to seduce her Puritanical guard not by showing her bosoms, but by concocting a false story in which she was basically roofied, raped, held captive, and then branded as a prostitute or some such thing when she refused to a) give in to her captor, or b) maintain his innocence if released into the world. That is a very condensed version, maybe it makes sense, maybe it doesn’t. Point being, she concocts this story to get her Puritan guard boy to feel sorry for her and then help her escape.
As I was reading, something was…bothering me. Normally, when I read something that’s hella old, I’m able to read offensive material, get my hackles up, remind myself that this was written a long ass time ago, and move on with my life/the book. But something about this passage just kept on bothering me. As my discomfort grew, I had to pause and reflect on what, exactly, was making me so uncomfortable, and then it hit me: yes, this was written almost two hundred years ago, but the sentiment behind it is still HUGELY present today. Namely, this was a two-hundred-year-old, fictionalized snippet of one of my personal favorite parts of rape culture, that of the disbelief of survivors because they’re just “making it up” for “attention.”
Yes, in this case Milady is actually lying and yes, she is a really dastardly villain (oh! how I hate her!), but it really bothered me that of all the things she could have lied about in order to get her guard to sympathize with her, Dumas chose to make her lie about being drugged and raped. And that, for me, is the kicker: in a fictional world, everything that happens is the writer’s decision, and in this case Dumas’ decision to make Milady lie about being raped, which is pretty indicative of Dumas writing from the perspective of someone who, at least a little bit, bought into one of rape culture’s most doggedly persistent fables. I mean, I guess because her guard was a Puritan she decided to make him go INSANE (he literally goes insane and murders someone) over her stolen virtue, so it works as a plot device, but whatever. Because you know what? This passage could easily be updated and transported to a novel written today, and a lot of people might not even bat an eye. How many times have you heard of a reported sexual assault in which the popular response was “she just made some bad decisions and is calling it rape” or, often as is the case when celebrities assault non-celebrities, “she’s just doing it for the attention?” Rape culture and its associated victim blaming is real and alive in our society, and sadly, even though there is a much larger chunk of the population who is at least aware of its existence, it has remained largely unchanged over the years. I could be a good librarian and cite all sorts of studies on this matter, but if you don’t believe me just look at the comments section in any news article relating to sexual assault, and make sure you have a barf bag handy next to you, because our fellow human beings are truly revolting.
Actually, sorry, I’m a librarian and I can’t help myself, so here is the citation for an entire freaking book on the subject after doing a two second Google Scholar search.
So, what’s my point? Do I have a point? Yes, I do. It’s that sometimes the quick fix band-aid of “this was written a long time ago” just doesn’t work when you come across a problematic opinion or world view or WHATEVER in an older text that still exists in our current society. It’s maddening to look at something that was written two hundred years ago and realize that we haven’t really made a hell of a lot of progress in those two hundred years. So what do you do? Do you throw down the book and say FUCK EVERYTHING and go set shit on fire? Or do you just shudder a little shudder and keep reading? That’s up to you. As for me, I did a little shudder, made a mental note to call attention to this bullshit in my own small way via writing about it here, and finished the book. Because really, it’s a great book. A really, really enjoyable book. But it’s also a book that contains some truly problematic misogyny, and if nothing else, my English degree taught me how to critically engage with books that piss me off even though (especially when!) I “like” them.
I would like to close by saying that Milady is totally a seventeenth century Number Six from Battlestar Galactica, and here I’m referring to Caprica Six from before she repents of her world destroying ways.