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Sunday, May 21, 2006
Comics and Raped Men
This is one of those posts where I half-suspect I'm going to upset people I don't mean to upset, and have people I despise thinking that I'm arguing for their position when I'm not. So, just to get this out of the way first, this is not a "who's more oppressed game" post. This is not a "women are over-reacting" post.
One of the things that absolutely infuriates me whenever the topic of violence against women in comic books (and to a larger extent, in entertainment mediums in general) comes up is that there's always someone seriously trying to counter-argue that "well, bad things happen to men, too, so you're just seeing something that's not there." This is utter nonsense, of course, because the argument has never been "nothing bad should ever happen to female characters." Rather, the argument, as I've interpreted it, has been "when violence, particularly sexual violence, is used against women in comics it is either particularly degrading or only dealt with in terms of the impact the violence has had on the men in the victim's life." And this is one of those situations where you can't really make the counter-argument that this happens to male characters to. Because I've been thinking about male characters who have been sexually assaulted in comic books. And the pattern that emerges is quite different.
Apollo--Raped by stand-ins for Thor and Captain America between panels. Batman--In the "Gothic" storyline an implied attempted assault took place at Bruce's boarding school. Electro--Turned bisexual after being raped in prison. Hulk--Attempted rape in YMCA shower. Nightwing--Implied rape by Tarantula. Obsidian--Physically abused by foster father, implication of sexual abuse as well. Sand--Implication that Johnny Sorrow's obsession with him is pederastic in nature. Spider-Man--Implied attempted assault by another boy while in school. Starman (Jack Knight)--Drugged and sexually assaulted by the Mist. Wolverine--Attempted assault while in prison, mentioned in dialogue but not shown.
(These are the characters that came to mind once I sat down and tried to think about depictions of sexual violence against male characters. It's not a very long list. There are a few characters whose names I've heard mentioned in relation to this topic, such as Damage and Justice, but my understanding of those situations is that they were strictly related to physical abuse as children. Though there is perhaps some merit in looking at Justice and the circumstances in which he murdered his abusive gay father, but some other time. I'm also fairly certain I'm missing a few super-villains raped in prison.)
What I find interesting about this list, is that the majority of these incidents are implied only. They're never explicitly stated. Not so with female characters. And by keeping the situation implication only, there's always an "out." Another writer can always simply say that it just didn't happen. Also, many of these incidents happened to children, and as a society we don't think of child abuse as comparable to adult sexual assault. Children are incapable of consent, not able to "fight back" and can bear no responsibility for the incident. No one would ever say that a six year old "was asking for it." For cheap dramatic effect they're the perfect victim, as it leaves no doubt just how vile a villain is.
Of the incidents that remain, there's a great deal of homophobia implied in them. Apollo's assault was an explicit act of homophobic violence, and the assaults against Wolverine and Electro were played off as gay jokes. And in the case of Electro, I'm particularly bothered by that. I've always been infuriated by the way that prison rape is thought of in our culture. We make jokes about it. We act as if it's somehow to be expected, as if it should be part of normal prison conditions. Which is appalling to me. That we excuse it in any way is a sick form of societal homophobia that displays just how wretched and monstrous most Americans are just under the surface.
In fact, the only sexual assault against a male character I can think of that even comes close to being treated seriously as a sexual assault is the Mist's rape of Jack Knight. She assaults him for the sole purpose of becoming pregnant. It's a clear incident of an individual being robbed of their consent by another person.
And just to put things in perspective, I want to briefly talk about the two rapes of female characters I'm the most upset by, because I think they prove the point that sexual violence against women is used for completely different purposes and towards far more objectionable effects than sexual violence against men. And that's Red Sonja and Black Canary. Red Sonja, as written by Roy Thomas, is pretty much defined by rape. Without rape, there is no Red Sonja character. Her entire attitude and drive to excel as a fighter is born out of a desire for revenge. She is literally created by rape. And in the case of the Black Canary's assault, the entire incident was used to show how Green Arrow reacted to it and dealt with it. How Dinah felt about it was never really dealt with, or only dealt with in a perfunctory and dismissive way. The entire focus of the storyline and the aftermath was how it made Ollie feel helpless. The entire point of the assault was to give the man some motivation.
And those two approaches are pretty much how assault against female characters is dealt with. Either it defines the character, or it's something for the men to angst over. But with sexual assault against men either it's only vaguely hinted at, or it's more properly defined as child abuse, or it's a joke. It never becomes a central part of the character. It's usually never even mentioned after the end of the issue. And you never, ever see the female supporting cast rushing out to take vengeance upon the perpetrator. You never see the woman feeling like failures because they weren't able to protect the men.
Why, you'd almost think there was a double standard...