Pretty, Fizzy Paradise

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Musings on Gender and Accountability

Jay Edidin's recent column examines the incidents of rape involving both Jack Knight and Oliver Queen. It's a good post and I recommend reading it. It actually reminds me very much of the incident in Nightwing 93. In both cases, the male characters were taken advantage of by female characters, but neither comic ever really gave the incidents the proper resolution. The Nightwing scene is different because it's ambiguous as to how much consent Dick is actually giving at the time. The story after seems to vacillate between treating it as a rape or not, but doesn't really bring any sort of resolution regarding Tarantula. Whereas the Ollie story is unquestionably rape, but the story never treats it that way at all. The thing is, if the scenes were structured the other way around, the reaction would have to be different. If Shado was a man who molested a delirious Olivia Queen, or even if Tarantula had initiated sexual intercourse with a traumatized Dee Grayson, there would be more of an outrage. Shado is a RAPIST. Tarantula may or may not be depending on how one reads the comic, but the assholishness inherent in pushing sexual attention in that specific situation would, I think, not be given quite as much of a pass if she were a man. There are other examples of this sort of phenomenon. Hank Pym hits Janet once, in the midst of a psychotic break, and is forever known as a wife beater. Kate Kane punches Renee Montoya, in full possession of her facilties, and is never called on for it. I say this as someone who enjoys Batwoman's appearances in 52 quite a lot, but that was something that would never have flown with Bruce Wayne. Let's look at Kendra in JSA for a moment. She undergoes a pretty rough time as the whole Hawkgirl reincarnation stuff starts to hit. She's angry, confused and doesn't know which way is up. Twice, in the heat of the moment, she strikes a male team member. Now admittedly, the target of her rage is a sand monster and thus not likely to suffer any permanent damage. But let's say, for just a moment, the circumstances were different. Carter's the one undergoing the confusing reincarnation crap and he up and belts Power Girl. Would that really fly? What about Jade? Her relationship with Kyle is pretty creepy if you look at it the other way around. I'm not saying this as a condemnation of these characters, they're usually pretty interesting reading and most of these stories are written by writers that I tend to enjoy. I do think there's a noticeable double standard. For whatever reason, female heroic characters appear to have less accountability for their actions. This strikes me as a shame, honestly, because I think there could be a lot of interesting fall-out if these situations were treated with the same severity as if it were the other way around. Having heroes come to terms with less than glowing behavior can make for really fascinating stories, especially if gender assumptions do start to come up during the course. I think I'd like to read them. (Entry edited on December 1, 2020 to reflect accurate names and pronouns.)


  • At April 30, 2007 6:46 AM, Blogger Unknown said…

    For whatever reason, female heroic characters appear to have less accountability for their actions.

    The problem is, I think, that it's impossible to judge an action without also taking into account the larger cultural and social context.

    On an *individual* level, Mist raping Jack is just as horrific as Dr. Light raping Sue Dibny.

    But, in the context of our culture, an adult woman is far more likely to be raped by a man, than an adult man is to be raped by a woman, and everybody knows it-- and therefore, reading a comic where a female heroine is raped by a male villain is usually going to be more disturbing than vice versa.

    I mean, how many women are there, like Mist, who secretly kidnap a man, drug him and rape him so that she can bear his child and raise him up to be his father's greatest enemy? How many men out there were actually raised to expect that this might happen to them at some point in their lives? How many men actually modify anything about their daily routine or appearance in order to keep from being raped by a woman who wants to raise his child to be his nemesis? I'd venture to guess.... none.

    On the other hand, how many women have been raped by men, or know friends that have, etc.? Many.

    It's like the difference between reading a comic where someone gets shot with a laser beam and disappears in a poof of smoke, and reading an comic where you can actually *see* the blood and guts and exploding eyeballs and grossness that happens when someone's body gets violently torn apart. Yes, if you want to judge both actions equally, you can say "They're both murder; why is one less shocking?" But the one that shows the blood *is* going to be more shocking to read, because it's more relatable, more realistic, and more visceral.

    There's also, of course, a great difference in how these things are usually *presented*, in terms of sexualization, shock value and explicitness, and I think that gender plays into this as well.

    For instance, as you said, you can't *really* tell from the Nightwing comic in question, whether Tarantula is an outright rapist or if she's just kind of an asshole who unwisely had sex with Dick while he was emotionally vulnerable. But if we could read the alternate universe comic, where a male Tarantula took advantage of Dee Grayson, there's no way it would have been so vague-- it'd have been played for the lurid, exploitative, "OMG VIOLATED HEROINE" shock-value, just like Dinah getting attacked/raped in "Longbow Hunters" or Stephanie Brown's sexualized torture/death in "War Games."

    So, yeah. On an individual, case-by-case basis, it's totally the same thing-- equally horrific, equally wrong, and the rapist ought to be held equally accountable. But when the two events are treated so differently in the comics themselves, and when they have such different levels of *realism* in terms of their cultural context-- I don't think it's so strange that fans respond to them differently.

  • At April 30, 2007 9:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "For instance, as you said, you can't *really* tell from the Nightwing comic in question, whether Tarantula is an outright rapist or if she's just kind of an asshole who unwisely had sex with Dick while he was emotionally vulnerable."

    Some have said the same thing when defending male rapists. I'm not saying I agree or disagree with the charge (not having read the story in question), but Kalinara brings up some fascinating stuff to mull over.

  • At April 30, 2007 10:42 AM, Blogger SallyP said…

    Some of the reason that women characters can get away with slapping the heck out of the men, may simply be part of that old-fashioned cliche from movies and bodice-rippers.

    When Scarlett O'Hara flounces around and slaps Rhett, she's seen as having "fire" and "spunk", and it is admirable. I think that Jade falls into this category, in the way that she treats Kyle.

    Look at Maureen O'Hara in McClintock or The Quiet Man. She basically has a temper tantrum for the entire movie, only to be kissed and compliant at the end. Being a gentleman of thd old School, Sandy probably isn't as shocked as he could be, when Kendra hauls off and slugs him.

    But definitely a double standard, but one that we have been conditioned to not notice.

  • At April 30, 2007 11:12 AM, Blogger Rob S. said…

    I've only one thing to add to what Sally P said -- it's a convention of the genre that superheroes express their disagreements and anger physically (with each other, not with civilians). The Torch and the Thing are always fighting -- but how long would you really hang out with a guy who's always trying to light you on fire? Superhero-on-superhero violence has a long tradition, and is really only notable when the story makes it so by expressing how out of the ordinary it is (by virtue of its degree, or possibly because the violence contrasts the character's usual demeanor).

  • At April 30, 2007 12:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I don't see how the Nightwing incident cannot be a rape, myself, and imo, the evidence is overwhelming, particularly if one finds what the author said about the issue. In any case, if others disagree, I've no desire to argue the issue, as that's been done ad nauseum.

    What struck me as odd concerning Nightwing #93, was the sheer number of people who argued that Nightwing cannot be raped because he's male.

  • At April 30, 2007 12:38 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    "For instance, as you said, you can't *really* tell from the Nightwing comic in question, whether Tarantula is an outright rapist or if she's just kind of an asshole who unwisely had sex with Dick while he was emotionally vulnerable."

    Some have said the same thing when defending male rapists.

    See, the difference between fiction and real life is-- in real life, you can actually *ask* the person involved whether s/he was raped or not. But since Dick Grayson is fictional, the only way to figure it out is to try to deduce it from the comic book.

    The controversial scene in question are shown from a distance and in silhouette, so we don't see the poses/actions or even the facial expressions of Tarantula or Nightwing, which makes it hard to judge "what actually happened."

    That's why I said "you can't really tell."

    If this had happened in real life, then you could just *ask* Dick what happened and he could tell you, and then you *would* know.

    When you're talking about fiction, there is no way to figure out what "really happened," because, again-- it's fiction, and someone's interpretation that it *was* rape (and Dick seems to be in denial about it) is just as valid as someone else's interpretation that it wasn't (and Dick doesn't seem to act as if it was.) It could be easily retconned either way, even now.

    Again-- unlike real life, where there is always at least one *actual person* who knows the truth, and it can't be retconned out afterwards by some godlike force with the power to alter reality.

  • At April 30, 2007 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    In fiction there's the unspoken rule that: male hiting a female = scary and dramatic, famale hiting male = comedy gold

    This sounds like misandry, and it is misandry, but it's also a veiled misogynst statement

    It is immposible for a man to be hurt by a woman, for women are such gentle, fragile, weak creatures that their punches could not possibly hurt a man, and the very idea that a female may actually physically hurt a male makes him not actually a male at all, but a man-child, a buffon
    therefore funny

    I could go into the whole "guy getting raped = comedy gold (by another guy of course, silly girls, you need a penis for raping) but is basically the same thing, only that "penetration = humilliation" is inheret for a woman, and is the reason for men been superior to women
    also, that's why women hate sex

    I could explore on how both roles are percived as "traditionally female" and how that makes it funny for a man role, but I already have enough bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the week

  • At April 30, 2007 4:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    If one definition of rape is having sex with someone who refuses or is unable to give consent, I would argue Tarantula raped Nightwing: he looked like he was too traumatized to really understand what was going on, much less resist what she was doing. [Really, it was a lousy issue, but a badly written rape scene is still a rape scene.] Now, this may have been one of those *cough* "harmless" cases of male rape you hear about all the time, where the victim doesn't object after the fact, most likely because of the social stigma of coming forward and accusing your rapist who turns out to be a hottie.

    [I got your realism right here, pals.]

    One major issue in woman-on-man violence is: who's the bigger, stronger character? Typically in fiction, the woman is portrayed as smaller and weaker than the man; she isn't seen as a credible threat, so when she hits him, she's not beating him, she's just venting her feelings. If the man hits her, however, there's an element of fear and tension in the scene: the very real sense that he could beat her if he lost his self-control and she can't stop it. It's a question of who's portrayed as the physically dominating person in the scene; most of the time, it's the man. Superheroes subvert this expectation / conventional wisdom, though: you can have a cute skinny blond teenage girl like Kara who nevertheless could punch her fist through most men's heads if she really got pissed. But in a lot of ways, superhero comics haven't quite caught up with the "reality" of this situation.


  • At April 30, 2007 7:20 PM, Blogger Fanboy said…

    I read somewhere recently where someone else made that same point about Hank Pym/Janet Van Dyne. A lot of things in our society - abuse, incest, rape, etc. - are rarely lived down and rightly so. But using the above example, is there a point where Hank doesn't have to labeled a wife beater by the comic buying public? Can he be redeemed? I can't stand the character so I am biased and just think he's an ass so I am not the best judge. Think of how many heroes have murdered, and they seem accepted by comic fans (Wolverine pops into my mind). If that's the case, Bill Clinton will only be known as a perjuror and George Bush as a drunk driver ... Perhaps those weren't the best examples but the larger question - which encompasses forgiveness, acceptance (or the opposite of each) - is one that I find interesting.

  • At April 30, 2007 9:10 PM, Blogger Alix said…

    A lot of things in our society - abuse, incest, rape, etc. - are rarely lived down and rightly so.

    Yes, but one thing that no one ever lets you live down is a mental illness. In fact, it's often played in fiction (and comics) as a cheap gimmick - and dammit, it's not.

    I can forgive someone for anything they do in the midst of a psychotic break. Anyone who can't doesn't understand what the hell a psychotic break is.

    (Sorry, this is a touchy subject for me.)

  • At May 01, 2007 3:26 AM, Blogger Flidget Jerome said…

    I don't personally believe Nightwing was raped, the scene came across to me as the sort of ill-advised sex people have when they're distressed and wake up in the morning really regretting.

    I think it gets brought up possibly more than any other scene, though, because Nightwing's the only male character who's even remotely as sexualised as female characters tend to be. It's presented as part of his appeal and so his sexual purity becomes cause for concern.

  • At May 02, 2007 8:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well, no, these male characters weren't raped. They were *sexually assaulted*. They weren't penetrated so they weren't raped. It's as simple as that.

    I'm really not sure why people can't see the blatent physical difference between p-in-v intercourse for male and female. The woman's body is penetrated. The man's is not. I dunno, go read Intercourse if it's that confusing.

    Unfortunately the conflation of intercourse with sex often leads to non-penetrative forms of sexual assault being taken less seriously, or dismissed outright (i.e. if it doesn't qualify as rape, it doesn't count - and under some legal definitions, it's not considered rape if the penetration wasn't with a penis - gah).

  • At May 02, 2007 11:09 AM, Blogger kalinara said…

    In the part of the United States where I live, "rape" is commonly used to refer to any unwanted sexual intercourse.

    Whether or not the act is legally categorized as an act of rape or a sexual assault isn't my concern at this moment. (Especially as you've said, the laws regarding what counts as a rape or not can be very arbitrary depending on where you live. Particularly in the US, where such laws are determined on a state by state basis.)

  • At May 02, 2007 11:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I'm not sure why people can't see the blatant difference between blatant and blatent. Go read a dictionary if it's that confusing.

  • At May 02, 2007 8:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At May 02, 2007 8:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Also, sorry for coming across so harsh. I probably shouldn't pound out a comment when I'm running late for work =P

    Anonymous: bite me.

  • At May 02, 2007 9:28 PM, Blogger kalinara said…

    :-) I understand completely. Besides, when it comes to legal definitions, you're completely right.

    I popped out my reply just before work too, so yep, completely understand. :)


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