Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

On Rape 2: A Specific Look at Nightwing 93:

Yesterday I blogged about a particular issue in which I believe there is a particular subtext regarding sexual assault. I gave quite a few reasons why, as opposed to most instances of actual or implied rape in comics, that one actually worked for me.

The ambiguity of the scene was part of what worked for me, however, there are other occasions in which ambiguity is a mistake that weakens the plotline.

One such case is the rather infamous scene between Nightwing and Tarantula in his solo comic.

Now, I admit, as a comic reader, I have a mixed-sort of percieved relationship with Ms. Grayson's work. She is very skilled at evoking emotional intensity in her work. It is very easy, when one reads Ms. Grayson's stories, to feel involved in her heroes' plights. I thought she was particularly suited to Gotham Knights. Her take on the Bat-family dynamics allowed for very good reading. She particularly had a knack with Tim and Dick, and expressing what it must really feel like for these young men, to be so entrenched in Bruce's crusade. And the emotional intensity of Gotham Knights, was balanced by the elements of action in the other Batman books, as well as Nightwing and Robin.

On the other hand, I found Ms. Grayson's run on Nightwing much less satisfying. The emotional intensity that made Gotham Knights work so well became too overwhelming, I think, in a solo book setting. Bad thing after bad thing happened to poor Dick Grayson, shattering his entire support structure in the independent life he'd made for himself. Now I don't necessarily have a problem with the *idea* so much, it was the pacing. There was no downtime, no chance for the characters (or the audience) to breathe.

When things keep going from bad to worse without stinting, it becomes numbing, and making your audience numb is not really, I think, an ideal result. Whereas a few issues in which it actually feels like things are getting better...well, that makes the next bad thing hit harder. But doesn't make the audience feel like the series is drowning in angst. Gotham Knights didn't have this problem I think because a) there were more primary characters to focus on so that it didn't seem like all of the angst was targetting one person. And b) as I said above, it was balanced by the action in other books. As there really isn't an "action book" correlation of Nightwing, like Batman/Nightwing/Robin was to Gotham Knights, I didn't think the style worked as well.

Anyway, personally, I think that the scene I'm talking about, a scene I'd classify as a rape/sexual assault scene (with certain caveats), particularly highlights the flaws to Ms. Grayson's approach.

Now I have to say that tedium of a sexual assault storyline aside, I have nothing against the *idea* of a female-as-rapist storyline. I had no problem with Starman for example. And I don't really have any problems with Ms. Grayson's characterization of Dick or any other characters involved with the storyline.

My problem with it is two-fold and it involves pacing and execution. Now, I'm going to disclaim right now that I do not know what kind of editorial mandates might have interfered with the development of the storyline, so I can't judge whether any outside influences might have kept this story from being as potent as it should have been. I can only judge by what I see.

The pacing is a minor problem. Coming on the heels of the Blockbuster killing and everything else that happened thus far to Dick, it feels like overkill. Moreover, it's overkill that's not really necessary, the death of Blockbuster has pretty much sent Dick careening to rock bottom. This last bit is unnecessary...especially because it's not really addressed again. (More on this later). That makes it simply gratuitous.

Alright, the most obvious problem is the execution. Specifically the possible ambiguity of the sex scene. Now, in a real life scenario, I know I would probably classify the sequence as a sexual assault. Dick Grayson was, to me, not in his right mind, in shock, and not particularly capable of consent after the sudden killing of Blockbuster. His last words were something to the effect of "Don't touch me!" hence implying that he's not particularly enamored with the idea. Tarantula did not listen or wait for implicit consent.

However, in another sense, I have to acknowledge the ambiguity of the scene as well, in terms of an audience member. How many times, I ask myself, have I seen a movie, soap opera, or read a book in which a distraught female protagonist yells to her male love interest "Don't touch me!" after a specifically horrifying event, only to have said interest soothe her hysteria and calm her down with activities of a sexual nature. This sort of scene is rarely portrayed as an assault. And it is possible that Tarantula herself saw it similarly. Which doesn't negate the sexual assault aspects, but it does muddy the issue.

See the problem here though is that comic audiences are primarily young men. Nightwing's audience is probably closer to fifty/fifty, but that's still half the target audience. Young men aren't really taught to identify with the rape victim to begin with. Young men are raised with very peculiar ideas of sexuality. Look for example at the most recent scandal with the 23-24 year old teacher and the 13 year old student. There are actually male comedians mocking the boy for turning her in, because she's physically attractive and because it's sex. They mock a statuatory rape victim for turning in the aggressor, and they say obscene things about how they would have enjoyed that as a kid.

So a rape scenario between a man and a woman, with the woman as aggressor is not going to be a scenario that guys immediately comprehend. And it could have been so very good, especially given Ms. Grayson's knack for emotion. However, it wasn't. And a big part of that was the ambiguity. If it's hard enough for men to contemplate the idea that a man can be raped, and by a woman no less, it's even harder with more ambiguous circumstances. So this is not really a scenario that should be handled delicately this time.

I remember on a message board reading how a male fan was very upset that Nightwing was turned into a "sniveling submissive rape victim." While I actually disagree with that assessment, I can understand how it came about. There's a lot more stigma attached to guys getting raped than women. They should have been able to fight it, they had an erection/orgasm and thus secretly wanted it to happen..."blame the victim" mentality is strong whether the victim is male or female. And as I said, most guys are not raised to think about the possibility of it happening to them. So for guys to go along with the storyline, I think it has to be *shocking*. It has to drive home that this isn't kinky sex, this isn't something enviable. This is a violation.

(Starman, I think handled it better in terms of a male audience. Jack Knight was unconscious. Had no memory of it. No lingering trauma because of it. However, as he was unconscious, there was no question of it being without his consent. Thus the guys were able to accept that storyline more, I think)

I think the major problem was that Ms. Grayson wanted to keep using Tarantula as a hero. Which isn't really possible if she was a more obvious rapist. Right now, she has plausible deniability. She didn't realize he wasn't consenting. If the rape were more blatant, less ambiguous, she wouldn't have that safety net. However, by making the rape dubious enough to allow Tarantula to remain even marginally a "good-guy",it made Dick Grayson look weak enough that many male readers were lost. (Disclaimer: I don't think actual men who suffer from any form of rape are weak, of course, but it is, sadly, not an uncommon notion).

Now what lost me was the lack of a resolution to the whole mess. See, I understand catharsis, I do. I'll read a lot of intensely dramatic, so deeply emotional that it gives me a headache, sort of stuff and enjoy it. However, I don't see the point in wallowing like that if there's not going to be some satisfying resolution. Nightwing confronting Tarantula with her actions and making her leave Bludhaven, for example, would have worked for me. He loses it and she realizes the error of her ways. That might have worked for me. He loses it, Bruce realizes how much of a jerk and absentee dad-figure he is, Tarantula is punished by an irate Barbara Gordon, and all the bat family gets to have a cute early Gotham Knight-esque moment before things go to hell. (I did get the Bruce-Dick scenes I wanted, a year or so later, under Geoff Johns's pen.)

Now this resolution part I don't really think is Ms. Grayson's fault. Between War Games and Nightwing Year One, she probably didn't have time to show a good resolution. But it was frustrating nonetheless. (And another reason I didn't like it tacked onto Blockbuster's murder is that the Blockbuster incident seemed much more important, overshadowing what should have been a personal horrifying event...and stole away the resolution.)

JSA didn't need a resolution because of the particular sort of subtext it was, because it was a mid-confrontation flashback...and even then, it *did* get resolved somewhat, when the JSA broke in to save the kid, and the Spectre temporarily ate Johnny Sorrow. In Nightwing, the storyline is the now, which means that there is a lot more need for a truly satisfying resolution. I feel gypped.

Basically, I think before a writer should be allowed to write this sort of "ambiguous story", they should ask themselves a few questions:

1. Is this intended to be rape?
2. Does this happen past or present. If it's the past, why does the memory come back now? If now, what's happening now to facilitate it?
3. What character is the victim, what character is the rapist? Do the choices suit their IC actions/circumstances?
4. How in depth should I make the incident? Specifically how graphic should it be, how much detail? Do I have to be overt, or does the storyline stand without it?
5. What kinds of immediate ramifications will this have on the characters?
6. What is the "payoff"?*

*payoff* meaning the part of all this that'll make the reader glad they stuck through all the angst and turmoil. What scene will make it worth it to have been reading these past months. And that's what's missing for me. The payoff should be triumphant in a sense...either the villain's been brought to justice or the victim has made some very strong, unmistakable progress toward healthy recovery. Something like that, I'm pretty easy...

Anyway, I think every writer should be thinking of those questions, and once they've made the decision to go with it, they shouldn't stint what they're trying to show. It'll just weaken the entire thing.

Okay, I'm done now, thanks for making it through all this.

28 Comments:

  • At January 30, 2006 1:19 PM, Blogger Lyle said…

    Ahhh, thank you for being the first person I've seen answer a question I've been asking for a while.

    I've been in a few discussions on message boards about rape in superhero comics and the cases of Nightwing, Starman and Apollo are often brought up as "Nah, it's all equal." counter examples. (Kinda like how somebody eventually brings up The Thing as an example of a male in a costume that exposes plenty of flesh when the topic is unequal objectification.)

    When that happens, (after dismissing Apollo) I'll usually point to earlier points about how rape is usually handled in a way to emphasise the victim's helplessness (and, typically, the need for a protector) and ask if Jack and Dick were deplicted similarly to Sue Dibney. I've never gotten an answer to that question, aside from insisting that the incident was rape (which wasn't what I was questioning at all).

    I'm glad to finally get those questions answered (especially since Nightwing 93 was really hard to find when I sought it out) though I'm afraid the answer suggests things are as lopsided as I suspected.

     
  • At January 30, 2006 4:53 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Hmm, Nightwing's a little weird though, the staging of the scene is...odd. It would definitely be worth seeing yourself I think. I don't know, I wouldn't go by what I say because as I've said before, I'm not really a visual person so I tend not to comment on that part unless there's something striking.

    I'm not sure what exactly you mean when you talk about the helplessness of the character, but I'd be interested in your take on JSA 18, which I talked about in my previous comment. There is definitely rape subtext there, and the parts that are overt (the villain's changed the unconscious character's clothes) definitely count as child sexual abuse. Of course in this case it *is* a child, not an adult man. But there's definitely an emphasis on the helplessness, down to needing to be rescued.

    Also, one thing to consider is that both Jack and Dick were raped by women. Thus, there isn't an obvious size inequality on the part of the victim. Males, especially male heroes, tend to be stronger than females. For an example I'd consider closer to expressing the inequality/helplessness of the victim, I'd consider that story arc a long time back in which Psylocke was psychically influencing Cyclops to sleep with her. Unfortunately the comics treated that more like Psylocke stealing another woman's man than the rape *I* would define it as. Especially as Cyclops doesn't have a whole lot of specific defenses against that sort of thing, not being psychic himself. It's a completely uneven playing field upon which the character could do nothing to fight. And infuriatingly, there were no real consequences to the rape part.

    Cases of male rape by the hands of other men is very rare in comics. Even though the statistics say that 1 in 10 males are believed to have been raped, and usually that's by another man. There's Apollo, of course. I think Damage was stated or implied to have been sexually abused as a child. There's that sexual abuse PSA that implied Peter Parker had been molested. There's the JSA issue I mentioned, with its very strong subtext.

    But in those cases they're not adult males. It'd be interesting to see how the situation would be handled in that respect. Because there are very few male heroes (not comic relief male heroes anyway) that are small of stature enough to be loomed over by another man, let alone a woman. In fact the only male character I can think of that's still smaller than a lot of the women he interacts with is Tim Drake/Robin and he's, at 16, in that weird grey area. Characters like Wally, Kyle, Dick, Sand tend to be smaller than the other men, capable of being loomed over, but still larger in build than their female counterparts. (Though scenes with Kyle carried by Diana, or Sand by Power Girl, could make lie of this a little). Whereas the characters that are children in the scenes are naturally much smaller than their male aggressors and thus have that element of size-domination taking place as well.

    Anyway, I'm not trying to argue with you, just wondering if you think the physical size component might not somehow influence the portrayal.

     
  • At January 31, 2006 10:50 AM, Blogger Lyle said…

    Hm, from what I recall of the discussion, some of the ways the helplessness of the victim if depicted is in the aftermath, in how traumatized they behave immediately afterwards. From what I heard of the Nightwing/Tarantula storyline that sounded possible, since what I heard of it (I'm hoping DC's lethargic collections gets to this story arc) sounded like Dick was slowly losing control to Tarantula, with the rape tipping the scales.

    As for JSA 18, I know I read that comic but I don't recall that incident too well. I'm going to need to dig around and try to take another look at that story.

    With the Psylocke/Scott incident you mention, it sounds like an interesting storyline got lost from the same glib mentality you mentioned earlier towards statutory rape. There does seem to be an overall attitude that if the guy got an orgasm out of it, it couldn't be a bad thing.

    That got me thinking, though, about how one form of male-on-male rape that is mostly accepted (at least when fictionalized) involves using drugs to remove the ability to refuse. (And the Psylocke/Cyclops story reminds me of this.) I remember talking with a man on a message board who made a compelling case about how volated he felt after such an incident (many of the posters on the thread were gay men who had a similar attitude of 'It's okay because he got an orgasm out of it.' until this guy spoke out). That guy's story (which, admittedly, could have been an internet persona) did leave some storylines more troubling to me, especialy when the issue is overlooked.

    (Hm, the withdrawl of consent via superpowers does bring the Saturn Girl/Cosmic Boy relationship -- during the 20th century storyline -- to mind, doesn't it?)

     
  • At January 31, 2006 10:59 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    *nod* these sorts of things are tricky, I think. Disturbing to think of it in real life.

    I'm not immediately against the portrayal of rape in a comic as long as it's got an element of drama. (Which means not too often, or it loses the dramatic edge). I may get my feminist card revoked, but I don't always necessary care about how well the victim's point of view is expressed. I mean, if it makes a good story I'm all for that. But if, like in Identity Crisis for example, the story is in the reactions of the others, I'm okay with that too. What I care about is the story.

    Now real life of course is a whole other kettle of fish. The idea that people could do that sort of thing to one another, whether straight, gay, male, female is absolutely revolting. And the thought of using an involuntary reaction to stimulus as the means to consent is simply infuriating. That's a really disturbing story.

    (I don't think I've read that time period of Legion of Superheroes. Which/when is it?

     
  • At January 31, 2006 1:42 PM, Blogger Lyle said…

    I mean, if it makes a good story I'm all for that

    Oh, definitely. I think it's an issue of how its handled in the story. While it can be part of a good story (though the one example I can think of that I "liked" was in Watchmen) the dangers lie in overuse as a shocking plot point (character deaths have been overused to the point where they contribute little drama for me) and in the follow-through (Midnighter's 'eye for an eye' reaction, IMO, turned the characters into a bawdy, inspid characature, worse are the YAOI manga titles where varying levels of coersive sex turns into a relationship).

    The Legion had a run where part of the team was trapped in the 20th century (starting just before the Final Night crossover and ending with LSH 100). Saturn Girl, Spark and Cosmic Boy were in the 20th century team while Lightning Lad was in the 30th. During the period, Imra and Rokk started dating and made plans to marry. At the wedding, however, it turned out that Imra was subconsciously controlling Rokk (though the reasons escape my memory at the moment). That story has inspired debate of whether Imra raped Rokk, even if the two weren't a sexually active couple (as far as we saw) -- though perhaps some men would find the thought of being coerced to the altar a greater threat than any physical violation.

    Changing mediums, this discussion got me to remember a recent Law & Order featuring a woman who would seduce prominent men, drug them and then use an anal probe to get their semen (which was then sold at a sperm bank that specialized in genius sperm). In my mind, that made her a serial rapist, but the show seemed to look at her primarily as a con artist. I don't think they ever showed any of the known victims being told that they were violated (Bobby Flay makes a cameo saying that 'some women are expensive and she was worth it'), they're not treated like victims of a crime, much less a sex crime (they're mostly portrayed as having been taken advantage for an expensive meal) and I found myself doubting that things would be similar if women were the victims of a crime but weren't aware of it. (The only good thing about that episode was Lynda Carter's guest appearance.)

     
  • At January 31, 2006 2:25 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Hmm, I think I'll have to track down those issues. They sound interesting.

    And egads. That *is* incredibly as offensive. That surpasses their treatment of the mentally ill (especially on SVU) in offensiveness.

    Congratulations Dick Wolf [/sarcams]

     
  • At February 24, 2006 4:45 AM, Anonymous Indicia said…

    Just stepping in here to make some commentary on the Imra/Rokk situation.

    I read those issues and at the time, I never twigged to the fact that it was- technically- rape. He certainly didn't consent. The comics glossed over that fact entirely.

    It's strange, because in the midst of that storyline, Imra runs into a Wonder Woman villian who specializes in mentally/psionically attacking women. As I recall, the writer *did* imply in several ways that this villain was in effect 'raping' his victims, and he was trying to on some level sexually assault Imra.

    The irony is that really, he was more or less doing the same thing she was. Taking psionic possession of another person to work out his personal issues. But the story did not even imply this. The villain was just presented as a generic Bad- and then defeted heroically by Imra.

    And now that I think about it, Imra did this again in the Legion Lost storyline. She and a group of legionnaires were thrown to the far side of the galaxy by some rifts (or something, it's been a while).

    Ultra Boy was in this group, and he was portrayed as being highly emotinally unstable without the moderating influence of his girlfriend Apparition. But Apparition was not in the group with them, she was MIA. To calm him and quell the situation, allegedly, Imra psionically manipulated Ultra Boy (and the entire group of stranded legionnaires) to think that Apparition really was with them. It was implied that she continued to 'roleplay' Apparition through sexual/intimate encounters with Ultra Boy- until her manipulation was exposed later in the storyline.

    All of the stranded legionnaires were very upset with her, but there was no stated implication that it was rape, or even had rape connotations. Interesting, no?

     
  • At February 24, 2006 6:53 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Hmm, sounds like the sort of thing I'd have to read for myself. Sounds pretty interesting/intense though, regardless.

     
  • At April 09, 2007 1:16 AM, Anonymous Morgan D. said…

    The story you mentioned by Geoff Johns with the scenes between Dick and Bruce, could you tell me its name and on which book it was published? Thanks.

     
  • At April 09, 2007 1:27 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    It's one of the Infinite Crisis issues, if I'm remembering correctly.

    Toward the middle/end of the series, probably around 4 or 5, I think.

    Sorry I can't be more precise, it's been a while. :-)

     
  • At March 17, 2008 11:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I was a little surprised to see my own words here- I'm kalor, the guy who made the "snivelling, submissive rape victim" comment. I think you misunderstood me a little, I was referring mainly to the post-rape episodes where Dick did whatever Tarantula wanted and seemed incapable of independent thought. I was actally one of the guys who tried to educate the "he must have wanted it" kids.

     
  • At March 18, 2008 6:17 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    Honestly, I don't remember where I first heard the comment. I don't think it was from only one person, but well, if it was you, thanks for setting the record straight. :-)

     
  • At November 18, 2010 4:19 PM, Blogger Michael said…

  • At May 12, 2011 3:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I believe that as much as we want to bring light to the issue of males being raped by females, Nightwing 93 doesn't cut it.

    The ambiguity is there for debate, but the reality is that Dick Grayson's character let Tarantula have her way with him because he needed the emotional/physical connection she offered. We can say he was manipulated or taken advantage of, but we cannot use the term "rape".

    There is a fine line here and it is nice to try and define situations like this between genders across lines of equity, in order to level the playing field for discussion. But, it would be more fair to say Devin Grayson raped Dick Grayson by taking away his power than Tarantula by writing his reaction to the events in a way that betrayed all we know Nightwing to be. Completely ignoring his history, upbringing and place in the pantheon of heros which makes him more that able to handle such a situation.

    I think the proper interpretation is that Catalina was using sex to help pull him together and than became a party to his apathy which continued for the next few issues.

    Overall,

     
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