Hesford, Wendy S. “Rape Stories: Material Rhetoric and the Trauma of Representation.” Haunting Violations: Feminist Criticism and the Crisis of the “Real.” Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2001. 13-46.


Summary: Hesford’s chapter is an extended response to Margie Strosser’s autobiographical documentary film Rape Stories in which Strosser addresses both the trauma women experience from rape and the trauma that can result from its representation. Hesford brings together material rhetoric and psychoanalysis to investigate what happens when narratives of violence and trauma rely on realist strategies as a means of asserting a true, authentic version of events. Concerned with the way that these strategies might work with and constitute narrative scripts that flatten the individual pain and experience of trauma, Hesford wonders how we might better represent trauma in a way that furthers victimization or strips trauma and violence of its specific materiality. While Hesford acknowledges that therapuetic ends that something like the retelling of a rape can achieve for victims as well as the empowerment that might be achieved through the reassertion of the victim’s voice, she also complicates these more positive ends by exploring the ways that the retelling of trauma in Rape Stories is tied to cultural scripts. Although cultural scripts about rape can give us a language with which to talk about and negotiate traumatic experience, they also work to construct the bodies of victims and perpetrators so that they become raced, gendered, classed, etc. in particular ways. In her discussion of Rape Stories, Hesford argues that the film’s reliance on realist strategies (like hand-held camera shots of Strosser recounting her rape) works to establish Strosser’s story as an authentic account of rape that seems to speak for rape victims generally. Thus, while Rape Stories has many moments that might be read as empowering or as subverting more misogynistic rape scripts, its “realism” has the effect of removing the particularity and specific materiality of rape and risks, through the instantiation of another script, flattening our understanding of victims’ experiences. In her conclusion, Hesford turns to another documentary called Calling the Ghosts that deals with Serbian women who were raped as part of a larger military campaign. Hesford argues that in its attempts to complicate the relationship between representation and the “real” in the psychoanalytic sense (that which is outside the Symbolic), Calling the Ghosts functions as a good example of explicitly challenging rape scripts and honoring the specificity of victim’s pain in the representation of trauma.

Quotable Quotes:

“The critical challenge as I see it is to avoid reproducing the spectacle of violence or victimization and erasing the materiality of violence and trauma by turning corporeal bodies into texts.” (14)

“The concept of ‘material rhetoric’ highlights the discursivity of the material world as well as the materiality of discourse, challenges the idea that corporeal bodies are overdetermined by discourse, and prompts consideration of how individual and collective struggles for agency are located at the complex intersections of the discursive and material politics of everyday life.” (18)