***Content warning for: sexual violence, post traumatic stress disorder, colonisation***
I spent my new years break re-reading one of my favourite series from my childhood, the Tomorrow When the War Began series by John Marsden. There are seven books in the original series, and an epilogue that consists of three books called ‘The Ellie Chronicles’. The books follow Ellie (the ‘writer’ of the story) and a group of her teenage friends during the invasion and colonisation of Australia by an unnamed foreign power. Ellie and her friends avoid the occupation and operate as a guerrilla group throughout the war. My 12 year old self was obsessed with these books and waited anxiously for each one to come out. My present self enjoyed re-reading them too, there are lots of positives in the way violence is explored in the series that I am glad my young self was exposed too. Ellie often discusses the complexities surrounding the gangs use of violence, and you hear her experiences first hand of the way her use of violence changes her, traumatizes her and results in the loss of many lives. Including the lives of some of her loved ones.
However, my young self never got around to reading ‘The Ellie Chronicles’, because at the time I was so disappointed in the ending. Ellie, who has dreamed of finding her mother since the war began and returning to their farm, find her mother who is so traumatised by the process of colonisation that she can barely speak. Instead of things returning to as they were before, the colonisers remain and the land is split up. Ellie and her family only end up with a small portion of their land returned, and have to lease out the rest of it at exorbitant rates to the occupiers. So, as is the reality of many countries, colonisation continues and is ongoing, something my young self couldn’t seem to fathom. As an adult, I am disappointed that at no point during the series was the parallels to this situation and the lived experiences of the indigenous people of Australia ever mentioned. The fact that Ellie often refers to Australia as ‘my country’, when in fact, that country was stolen from indigenous aboriginals using many of the same tactics of violence and dispossession outlined in the story (and many others) is conveniently invisibilised, taking away from a powerful way of teaching young people about the ongoing trauma and violence caused by colonisation, both in Australia and in Aotearoa New Zealand. But that’s another blog.
What I wanted to write about today, is the treatment of sex and sexual violence in the series. Again, there are really encouraging moments in the books where Ellie is represented as a desiring and initiating sexual subject. There are explorations of her sexuality as something that is purely physical and sexual, and also as something that is intimate and emotional. Conversely, there are also very tired representations of women’s sexuality as passive, where she often acts at as gate-keeper to her sort-of-boyfriend’s (Lee’s) sexual advances. Lee too, represents the dominant discourses of male sexuality. He is aggressive, always wants to go ‘all the way’ and often acts coercively towards Ellie, being angry and sulky when she refuses him. At one point telling her ‘thanks for nothing’, when she chooses not to have intercourse with him.
That aside, what agitated me the most was the book in which Ellie gets raped by an acquaintance at a party. At one stage during the books, Ellie and her friends are taken to New Zealand where they stay at an army base before returning to Australia. Ellie meets a young man when she is giving talks about the war at secondary schools and he invites her too the party. She gets extremely drunk and the man (Adam) rapes her. She describes trying to pull her jeans up but eventually thinking she just wants it to be over so she can go home. Needless to say Adam never asks if she is interested in what is going on. Ellie describes the situation:
“I was gone, I’d had it. And he changed really suddenly…it wasn’t working for me, I was just doing it, I don’t know, because I was expected to, I suppose, he expected me to…I felt too sick and drunk to stop him, to even try to stop him. I’m not saying I was too drunk to do anything about it, it wasn’t like that, I mean that’d be rape”
Which it was. But it’s never addressed further, her friend tells her she should have known better, because Adam was obviously a creep. Her counsellor tells her the whole situation is just her reaction to witnessing and living with the death of one of her closest friends. Throughout the following three books the rape is constantly on her mind, she frequently describes feeling dirty and ashamed, she says it felt like he attacked her, that when she slept with Lee she could feel his love for her but Adam made her feel like he hated her. At one point, while fighting with an enemy soldier she has a flash back to Adam raping her and has a panic attack. Basically, the series tells the realistic story of a survivor. However, as a child I didn’t know anything about sexual violence. When I re-read the books I didn’t remember the rape scene, although I remembered her having a sexual encounter with a gross guy. I imagine that 12 year old me absorbed that situation as just one of the many ‘risks’ associated with sexual relationships.
And it occurred to me that hundreds (maybe thousands) of other young people have read these books and thought the same thing, or maybe someone has read this and it has reinforced their own self blame and denial of an abusive situation. Or maybe it has justified a reader’s perpetration of harmful sexual behaviour, as something that they are not responsible for. There are many implications of writing a narrative like this for a young audience with no analysis of it as an act of violence, of power and control.
But it also highlights the power of the media and of storytelling to change the way young people think about sex, sexuality and sexual violence. Teen fiction has a major influence on young minds and there is massive potential there to reach wide audiences with messages that promote positive, ethical and respectful sexual encounters and/or relationships. Those early years, before young people start engaging in relationships, are a crucial time to promote prevention messages and much research shows that young people want to know about how to have respectful relationships, how to communicate, negotiate and engage in sexual activity. Changing the way we write and talk about sexual violence or even the discussions we have with young people when they encounter messages like this, is a powerful way to help shape a violence free future.