**Content note: post mentions sexual assault scenes in literature.**
After reading the post over at nicoleandmaggie's and seeing the word "creeper," I got to thinking about a difference in discussing literature back in the day and now. "Creeper" wasn't a word that was used back then, nor was "rapey," not just because those words weren't invented yet, or because creepers didn't exist, but because the concept of whether a male character should behave this way seemed to be absolutely out of bounds in a literary discussion.
Literary discussion was all about being objective, and a character wasn't a person but a literary construct, and we weren't supposed to make moral judgments, and OMG Death of the Author and all of that. While it was okay to discuss whether the character's twin forehead cowlicks had phallic/Satanic/symbolic overtones, his actions weren't really open to question.
Oddly enough, though, it was all right to dissect the thought processes of Tess Durbeyfield and figure out whether she was raped or just seduced because of Nature coursing through her veins and her attraction to Alex d'Urberville. We were supposed to admire the intricate wordplay of Lolita and feel compassion for Humbert Humbert because he is a literary construct and in the grip of compulsion and anyway, look how Lolita behaves. See, she's really in charge and he is helpless. I didn't buy it then, emotionally speaking, but I know a party line when I hear one and after one protest (met with scorn: "Can't you see that he's a literary construct?"), I shut up.
When we talked about novels this semester, though, my students would have none of it. Yes, we talked about characters as literary constructs and about symbolism, but then someone would say, "Character Z is a total creeper" or "Why is he being so rapey in this scene?" And then we would talk about why Z is a creeper and how that affects the scene and why he shouldn't behave that way.
I don't think M. H. Abrams is going to include "creeper" or "rapey" in his Glossary of Literary Terms, but that's not the point. Talking about those ideas is not "moralizing," as it used to be called. I think it's a sign that feminism and the awareness it raises about these issues is working.