“Rape”: Storytelling Device

In 2011 I wrote about rape as a term not to be used casually out of context. In 2012 I wrote about rape as a subject for comedy. In 2013, and in light of a few recent events, I am writing about rape as a storytelling device.

Mark Millar is famous for books such as Superman: Red Son, and Jupiter’s
, but probably most well-known to the non-comic-book-reading-public as the man responsible for Kick-Ass and its sequels. He is also a writer who has featured rape in a number of his works. I’m not going to go through the process of listing them all, but instead am going to present a quote he gave regarding his opinion on using rape in writing:

The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know? I don’t really think it matters. It’s the same as, like, a decapitation. It’s just a horrible act to show that somebody’s a bad guy.

Now I could begin quoting a number of very smart people who responded to Millar’s words, but this isn’t that kind of post. If a list of that sort is what you’re into, I’d like to direct you to this article on the Los Angeles Times Hero Complex. A better compilation of tweets and quotes about this specific subject would be difficult to find.

To start things off allow me to present how I used to view rape. When I was much, much younger [this was over a decade ago] I was writing a story and decided that one of the characters would be the victim of an attempted rape. This was not ultimately done so that she could defend herself, but instead so that other male characters could end up saving her.

It’s always difficult to look back at your own writing, but this in particular makes me cringe.

The problem in this scenario and how I was choosing to present it is two-fold. For one, it takes rape and defines it as generic “bad thing” that happens. Secondly, the focus is entirely off of the victim. This is something that [almost] happens to her, but attention is instead drawn to other characters, her saviours.

To stop you before you get there, this isn’t anything like Spider-Man saving a person, man or woman, from being mugged in an alley in New York City. Spider-Man is our protagonist, and we’re not expected to know or care anymore about the person being rescued besides the fact that they’re being rescued. In my story the female character was on even footing with the others, yet her perspective was never considered.

That’s really the main issue with how I’ve seen rape presented in comic books. It never ends up being about the person directly involved, the person who has been raped; it ends up being about those who are seeking vengeance as a result. It takes the Women in Refrigerators trope, based on Green Lantern Kyle Rayner finding his girlfriend dead in a fridge, and carries it over to rape victims thinking that it’s exactly the same.

It’s not.

The protagonist can, like Bruce Wayne, stand over the graves of their loved ones and mourn their loss and swear vengeance. The people they cared about are now dead and while they can certainly do what they can to right the wrongs, they can’t bring them back [for the most part, I understand we’re dealing with comic book rules here]. When a woman [and in comics it is basically always women] gets raped she doesn’t just disappear. She has to cope with the trauma and do what she can to try to move forward with her life, never being able to truly forget what happened.

And that’s not a process that is ever really told in paneled illustrations, or discussed in word bubbles.

I am not saying that rape is not a subject that can ever be written about, in comic books or otherwise. It is an abhorrent act that occurs on a daily basis, and we can’t just pretend it doesn’t happen. What we need to do is write more about it. I’m not talking about increasing the amount of media discussing the topic, I’m talking about presenting more sides of the subject than just “someone I loved was raped and that makes me mad.” What about sharing in that person’s sorrow and acknowledging the healing that they now have to go through? You’re not going to have most books or shows or movies delve into every facet of the experience, but we can certainly do better.

As far as Millar’s belief that ultimate taboo act, media supports him. To turn back to TV Tropes there is a page called “Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil,” depicting how villains can butcher willy-nilly, but it takes a certain act to really put them over the top. What does this say about our culture? If rape is going to be the thing that ups the ante for villainy there’s a chance we’ll see more and more of it as audiences grow jaded when it comes to plain old murder. If and when that happens the way writers choose to portray rape in fiction will become even more important than it already is now. Mark Millar won’t be spearheading a newer, broader approach, but my hope is that others will.

9 responses to ““Rape”: Storytelling Device

  1. A very well thought-out article. I have personally never felt qualified to write any kind of rape into my stories, but if I do in the future I feel like now I will do so with a little more candor and respect and perspective. Thank you.

    • I’m not really sure how one would become qualified to write about rape, but by approaching the issue with “a little more candor and respect and perspective” I think you’re exactly on the right track.

  2. I’ve been thinking recently about how we use narratives to learn how to respond to situations–things we go through. [viz. the allure of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl and everything that comes with it]
    The kind of faulty narrative you’re talking about only acknowledges one step in the grieving process. As a person who has learned about various stages of life not by experiencing them, but seeing how others thought to got through them, that kind of narrative is troubling. Because you are tempted to think, “If that person/character dealt with it that way, it seems like the way for me to respond,” until our “horizons” are duly expanded to encompass a more adequate range of choices.
    I know there is fiction that covers that, but harping on that trope to “create” a truly evil villain, or spur a hero into action is very troubling. As I’ve seen it now, it is the role of the blindly-brave, young and foolish man to go seek the revenge for the family (or other close relationship), while the older generation feebly sits back and says “oh, no” and the victim is left behind, sobbing herself to sleep. This is a problem.
    Further, when you see rape portrayed simply as an belligerent act between men. Thus the phrase “burn your villages and rape your women”–a phrase aimed to hurt and piss off the men of said village, who are seen as the “protectors” of said women and thus their sense of control and power is undermined.

    Further, I hate that this can be a topic that is just thrown around, because it’s so intimate and personal. On the one hand, it is pretty darn evil; but on the other, it’s directed to the people involved…you know what I don’t even want to talk about it anymore, because it’s so far from my experience. It’s just hurtful–in human terms, not personal ones–that it can be so easily –used and misused. That a person could be so easily used–misused.

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