Recently, a heart-wrenching account of survival ushered forth into the land of viral media. The publication of the “Stanford Victim’s Testimony” detailed the brutal rape and utter violation of a young woman by Brock Turner who, via privilege, wealth, and access to the most corrupt legal team money can by, denied any wrong-doing and escaped the full force of his criminal sentence. Understandably, many, many, many voices spoke out in empathy and solidarity for the young woman in question. Equally, disgust and outrage poured out from many different directions as people (with any scintilla of decency) encountered the true depth of Turner’s apathy and that of his family and friends. Petitions were circulated calling for the removal of the pile of donkey-shit posing as a judge on the trial, whose concern for the negative effects on the convicted rapist outweighed his concerns for the victim, and ultimately, resulted in an almost non-existent sentence of six months. The wider popular response seemed to finally reflect some recognition of the prevalence and toxicity of “rape culture.” Could it be that we are finally at a place where centuries of misogyny, violence, and patriarchal privilege are going to be called into question not just by “The Feminists,” but by all concerned citizens? Could it really be?
Despite the proliferation of think-pieces reflecting on toxic masculinities, raising better sons, and challenging a totally rotten, totally inept justice system, it seems highly doubtful.
On the one hand, the equally prevalent appearance of non-empathetic, misogynist responses to the Stanford testimony–those which run along the lines of “they’re privileged drunk kids, what’d’you expect?”–act as a chilling reminder that for so many people in western culture, rape is a shrug-inducing, inevitable consequence of certain behaviors. It is an inevitable, justifiable outcome of a slutty lifestyle or immoral consumption of substances. So be it, they say.
Yea… This is for you.
On the other hand, popular media like film, TV, comic books and comic-book films continue to rely on rape narratives and representations of sexual violence against women with alarming regularity. This tendency is far from trivial, and when one looks closely at fan responses to critiques of these narratives, the very same culture which engendered the Stanford rape comes sharply into view.
Take, for instance, DC’s choice to re-produce Batman: The Killing Joke as an animated film and to premier it this summer. Despite efforts by incredibly talented creators like Gail Simone, and more recently Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr (the creative team behind the newest run of Batgirl), to move AWAY FROM Alan Moore’s narrative–which makes use of sexual violence to drive character arcs–DC has opted to bring back TKJ unchanged. The film will be “canonically” faithful to the original arc and thus, will in effect, re-marginalize Barbara Gordon/Batgirl as a character and reduce her trauma to nothing more than a plot-device designed to illuminate the inner-workings of the main male characters.
Back in March, when Stewart, Fletcher, and Tarr’s production of Batgirl appeared to be under threat of having to reproduce the original TKJ narrative, feminist fans and critics expressed disappointment and dismay. In a dialogue written by critics Sam LeBas and Prof. Will Brooker for Multiversity Comics, LeBas explained her aversion to seeing the variant cover created by Rafael Albuquerque:
While I don’t question the artistic quality or technical execution of artist Rafael Albuquerque (in fact I have signed sketchbooks and prints of his, and I count him among the most talented artists in the industry), or even the idea that it evokes strong emotion, as many would say ‘is the point of art’, I question the choice.
This is Barbara/Batgirl’s book, and she deserves better.
In this issue, in fact, she says that her ultimate goal is to make it so no one has to be a victim again, but here we are, one issue later, looking at this. It’s alienating, it’s horrific, it undermines her growth and strength. But what I found more disturbing than the image and its intent, is the way comic fans were responding to it.
To me, it seemed there were two major points that I just cannot agree with, on that side of the argument.
Firstly, people assumed those who were offended by the cover were not comic readers, or secondly, that they had ‘nothing better to complain about’ meaning ‘no trauma of their own’ that they could not have been victims themselves.
There was so much anger, the attitude was so patronizing and ‘shush honey, the men are talking. Go read TKJ, then you’ll get it.’
In response to DC’s announcement about the premier of TKJ film, Brooker again drew attention to the harm recirculating this kind of narrative can cause, and moreover, to the inappropriateness of playing up the premier at a time when the proverbial ink has not finished drying on the proverbial page with regards to the Stanford rape case. In a forum for Comics Studies on social media, he wrote:
That’s the line crossed for me – DC actively promoting this crass old story about Batgirl being sexually violated while more awful news about rapist Brock Turner comes to light. They lose my business after 41 years, a PhD and two books.
Similar to reactions outlined by LeBas above, commenters on Brooker’s post ranged from guilty side-stepping to pure dismissal of his concerns. “It’s just bad timing,” some of them said–not actually indicative of rape culture feeding on itself, noooo. “I don’t see it as problematic,” others helpfully claimed, “it’s merely a device to enable us to explore madness and to really understand the depths of the Joker’s troubled psyche.” Ohhhhhh, fuuuuck, now I see, now I feel better.
The infuriating thing is, these types of comments, in all their seeming “reasonableness,” only provide further evidence of the ways in which patriarchal culture is capable of both controlling/engineering rape culture and erasing its prevalence, all at the same time. Rape narratives, when authored by men, are important plot devices that helpfully explore the kinds of trauma that launch heroes into heroism and villains into villainy… oh, and they draw attention to the fact that women get raped, so hey! Two-for-one. (Btw, give me a break with this. If you are not aware of the epidemic of gendered sexual violence you are simply not awake. A fucking comic book isn’t going to open your eyes if you can’t already see the oceans of evidence compiled detailing women’s experiences of sexual violence). Rape narratives, when authored/claimed/re-claimed by women are unrealistic, incomplete, only of marginal importance.
“It’s just bad timing,” elides the frightening persistence of rape–both real and imagined–in western culture by suggesting that this is a one-off, awkward occurrence. Some intern got the date wrong. “It’s only a plot device,” or “we need it to truly understand the darkness of the men in the story,” erases the fact that, similar to the Stanford rape case, women’s accounts of sexual violence are being doubted and overshadowed by patriarchal narratives.
The woman at Stanford was intoxicated, and unconscious, all of the detailed questions about her clothing, the food she ate, her sexual history, all of the prying done by the rapist’s lawyers that she could not meet with 100% certainty served to “weaken” her testimony and open the door for the rapist himself to provide an “accurate account.” Photo evidence, eye-witnesses, and hospital records centered on the woman’s experience were only of marginal importance to the judge who ultimately decided that the rapist’s representation of events, the testaments of his character written by his family, and the explanation afforded by “excess alcohol,” were all a more legitimate framework for judging the crime of rape.
Batgirl’s evolution under Gail Simone, and empowerment in the new run, do not suffice as “canon” for DC. Seeing Barbara Gordon/Batgirl as a whole, complex character who has sexual trauma in her past, but who is not defined by it, is an unconvincing approach to really understanding the depths of the Joker’s insanity, or the ire fueling Batman’s sense of justice. TKJ is really about the Joker and Batman anyway don’t you know, so of course the narrative must remain in the hands of men who truly understand how delicate a balance it is between madness and truth, violence and righteousness. The erasure of a more feminist narrative of rape is only collateral damage in this view, a minor loss in the “true struggle” to understand the intricate dance between two treasured male characters.
OF COURSE the gravity of the Stanford rape case weighs so much more heavily than the choices made by a comic book company, and the damage done to the woman who gave her testimony should be treated as nothing less than terrifyingly real. But looking at the ways in which people react to something as seemingly “inconsequential” as an animated film about a comic book actually goes a long way in helping us to understand how the disease of rape culture has infected our collective body all the way down to the bones. That there seem to be so few steps between marginalizing women’s narratives of sexual violence in fiction, and discounting women’s real accounts of sexual violence is what I am trying to reckon with. The stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell about ourselves matter because, at the very least, they reflect the boundaries of what and how it is possible for us to think.
The really depressing thing about all of this is how hollow “it’s just bad timing” rings when you realize that feminists like Catherine Mackinnon identified how strong the grip of patriarchal institutions is on rape narratives almost THIRTY YEARS AGO. In her book Towards a Feminist Theory of the State (1989), Mackinnon analyzes how the very definition of rape, of consent, of what counts as “evidence” for rape all begin from a patriarchal point of view such that “real rape” only materializes when men decide that it does. Even one example from her analysis proves the weight of her critique: legally, a mens rea, i.e. proof of an intention-filled or violent mentality on the part of the criminal, is often considered a necessary element in proving guilt. As Rebecca Whisnant suggests:
According to MacKinnon, a mens rea requirement means that “the man’s perceptions of the woman’s desires determine whether she is deemed violated,” and this approach is problematic because “men are systematically conditioned not even to notice what women want” (1989, 180-81). Adopting a “reasonable belief” standard does not help, in her view, because the standard for “reasonableness” masquerades as objectivity while almost inevitably relying on patriarchal and pornographic assumptions; thus “measuring consent from the socially reasonable, meaning objective man’s, point of view reproduces the same problem under a more elevated label” (181).
Thus, in a court of law, in order to prove that rape was in fact rape, it is not only a matter of understanding consent, or of a woman’s testimony of the experience, but also a matter of determining how the rapist perceived his victim’s wishes.
The reality of this imbalance could not be clearer than in the Stanford case where Brock Turner repeatedly claimed that he had no intention of raping a woman, and that because she gave him a back-rub, he thought she “wanted it.” The judge obviously concurred. Yes, the woman’s testimony has moved us, the public, in important ways but ultimately, the outcome of the trial was determined by the efficacy and potency of patriarchal narratives of rape.
Even the reactions to TKJ betray this same type of entrenched androcentrism, this same tacit belief that it is only (harmful) rape when men say it is. It’s not problematic or harmful if it drives the plot; the timing of DCs announcement is not in bad taste because it was already planned; the way this type of representation makes women fans feel is only of marginal importance because the real fans understand. It is a rape narrative, yes, but one that serves important (read: patriarchal) interests and thus, should remain in the hands of
“informed fans and creators” the patriarchy.