[obvious trigger warnings for sexual violence from here on out, everyone.]
Previously, I wrote a blog post about the horrifying events of Avengers #200 and Carol Danvers’ rape/impregnation/mind control/falling in love with her rapist-son. The whole thing is horrendous and there has been plenty of backlash said about it.
What I’ve discovered in forging on through my research is that one of my questions on my analysis sheet for women in comics is getting much more action than I thought it would. This question asks “Does the character face sexual violence a. in her backstory or b. as a plot device?” and it saddens me how often the answer is yes.
Often, the answer is “yes” and horrific rape at as young of an age as 5, spurring the woman into a troubled life of anti-hero (sometimes even villain) status a-la Elektra and Huntress.
Other times, it is used as a threat to male characters to assert dominance.
If the rape/sexual violence doesn’t come at a super young age to corrupt the character, it comes at the height of her prime–often when she is most powerful (read: masculine)–to bring them back down to size. Carol Danvers is an example of this, conveniently removing her from the canon. Another is Black Cat, detailed in Michael R. Kramer’s “Empowerment as Transgression: The Rise and Fall of Black Cat in Kevin Smith’s “The Evil That Men Do.” Black Cat is to be punished, “taught to not stick her nose where it doesn’t belong” at the height of her heroine career.
Often, these things are just hinted at, left in limbo in what could be called cowardice by writers. They put these women into these horrifying situations, imply but never fully admit to what has happened. The damage is done to the character–and the audience who has had to watch the character go through this–but the writer leaves the smallest shred of ambiguity to protect themselves.
In short, the sexual violence is a convenient plot point.
This outlook is exceedingly dangerous, because it undermines the actual damage that sexual violence can cause a person. Merely hinting that a woman is damaged if it happens at a young age is clumsy laziness not examining the intricacies of that psychological shaping and throwing it at an adult woman then never really mentioning it again is even worse.
Another disturbing trend that was briefly mentioned in my Captain Marvel post but deserves a post or seven of its own is the notion that often no other character in the comic book realizes the gravity of it either. If a woman is impregnated by the rape, her teammates congratulate her (a-la Captain Marvel and Power Girl) and ignore the rest.
It’s all reminiscent of some modern day politicians’ views on rape, statements that display a clear minimizing or ignorance of the effect it has on victims:
- Clayton Williams: “Rape is kinda like the weather. If it’s inevitable, relax and enjoy it.”
- Richard Mourdock (about pregnancies from rape): “Life is that gift from God, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape. It is something that God intended to happen.”
- Rick Santorum (also about rape pregnancies): “I think the right approach is to accept this horribly created—in the sense of rape—but nevertheless a gift in a very broken way, the gift of human life, and accept what God has given to you.”
In addition to being unhealthy narratives, there is evidence to suggest that they are also inaccurate and portray rape myths that lead to a victim-blaming culture. Tammy Garland and Kathryn Branch in particular have published research on this (namely “Sexual Assault in Comic Books and Reinforcing Rape Myths” and “Blurring the Lines: Reinforcing Rape Myths in Comic Books”).
Among other things, their research found that the narratives leave out the existence of male victims and greatly ignore race as well as portray victims as “deserving” the violence via a past life as a prostitute or a profession as a superheroine in a male-dominated field.
Another key instance that has been under huge amounts of scrutiny was the rape of Sue Dibny, wife of the the Elongated Man. Sue, a non-super human, was raped by villain Dr. Light as an attempt to hurt the Justice League. Sue was later murdered, but the key issue is that her story was not examined in the scope of a survivor’s story so much as a plot point to cause shock and guilt to those around her.
Sue’s story didn’t matter–and many say the rape was pointless, that the threat could have just as easily been achieved with a simple kidnapping. The only actual repercussions of it was the dissolution of the Justice League; Sue didn’t matter, as many comic book survivors don’t in the context of their trauma.
I know I said this would be a short post, but honestly it is short in comparison to the volumes that could be written about the issue.
Why is rape still being used as shock value? Why are women being punished by it, with no examination of the effects? Why are those around the victim always so callous, naive, even blissfully ignorant? Why are good, strong characters punished this way, and why is the only possible repercussion of child sexual assault that we ever see that a troubled woman develops?
For a medium that seems so unafraid to voyage into dangerous territory–murder, revenge, cancer, death, miscarriages, abuse, drug addiction–and examine the effects, why is this one area so unexamined? Why is it just a way to hurt women, with no chance for the woman to actually grow from the trauma?