The Rape of the Word “Rape”

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a geek. I know this because, sometimes, I visit web forums where people discuss the metaphysics of Doctor Who and the minutiae of Star Trek warp technology. And I actually read them.

While hanging out at these murky dens of pedantry the not-a-geek side of me has picked up on a disturbing linguistic trend; the denigration of the word “rape”.

The earliest example appears to come from 1996, following the CGI enhancement of the first Star Wars movies. It can even be attributed to a specific person – Mark A. Altman, former editor of Sci-Fi Universe magazine and the guy who wrote and directed the cult nerd movie “Free Enterprise”. In an LA Times interview about the revamped Lucas trilogy Altman said “For those who grew up on Star Wars – a really seminal film for a lot of us – it’s kind of a shock to see it butchered. It’s like watching your childhood being raped.”

This hyperbolic declaration was widely reported at the time, attracting the notoriety and derision it deserved.

But, TV fans are mimics. They adopt the argot of their heroes, peppering their speech and writing with catchphrases and imitative syntax. Following the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999, fans published a petition asking George Lucas to step down from the franchise. It began “We hereby, the undersigned, in spirit of our raped childhood’s (sic), ask that George Lucas give over his reign as director and writer of Episode III to one Peter Jackson”.

By the 21st Century the phrase “George Lucas Raped my Childhood” was a t-shirt slogan – a post-ironic declaration of belonging to an invisible sub-culture of sci-fi geeks. What was ludicrous at first became sublime by repetition; another in-joke within a culture whose defining tropes are in-jokes and imitation.

The problem with repetition is that it reduces meaning. Try saying a familiar word over and over – after a while it loses both connotation and denotation, becoming little more than a pattern or cypher. A similiar thing happens through the common usage of a joke or phrase that may once have carried multiple levels of resonance. From hyperbole to parody to pastiche, the term “rape” has passed into common fan-boy parlance – flagging any perceived deviation from orthodoxy.

In a search on a popular Star Trek message board encompassing posts made in the last six months I found continuity errors, character digressions and scientific anomalies all described as rape. A Deep Space Nine episode featuring characters from the original series is described as “raping my childhood ™”. A hatch opening the wrong way on the Starship Enterprise is said to be “pure rape of logical design”. A poster commenting on a remake of the sit-com “Spaced” says “I must get round to seeing it before the Americans rape and pillage it”.

When Mark Altman compared the CGI revamp of Star Wars to sexual assault he was, however misguidedly, trying to evoke an exaggerated level of outrage. Through a decade of re-use, the outrage is now all used up – leaving us with a comparative definition of rape that equates it with irritation or inconvenience.

I’m sure that anyone who has experienced a rape will have issues with that usage.

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