Ask a Dork: Rape in Comics
Based on Mark Millar’s recent comments, should rape ever be used as a plot device? And has it ever been used effectively in storytelling?
To provide a bit of preamble to those not in the loop, the comic book medium’s ability to convey effective drama has always been a point of contention. Some say that comic books are a great platform to enact socio-economic commentary. Others say that the medium’s reach is skewed by those who write comic books (which, really, is true of any storytelling medium). The problem a lot of comic book critics have, both internal to the industry and external to it, is the treatment and portrayal of women.
Entertainment critics, and feminists in particular, like to cite the ‘woman in the refrigerator’ trope, in which a female character is murdered or depowered in order to advance the arc of a male character, as a commonality in the genre. When female comic book characters are not being raped or killed for dramatic effect, these critics argue that they’re little more than eye candy and sex objects for the male demographics reading comics. These critics then tend to tie these male oriented comic books into the fact that one in six women in the US has been sexually assaulted and that only 5% of those who complete or attempt rape are ever imprisoned.
The ever so controversial Mark Miller has recently come under fire for some comments he made regarding the use of rape for narrative purpose: “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.”
My unpopular opinion is that both sides of the argument on this topic are kind of stupid. Yes, women are often marginalized in comic books. In general more men write and animate comics than women and more men read and discuss comic books than women. That doesn’t mean that it’s okay or fair that women in comics are sometimes oversexualized or depowered, but it should be understood that — generally speaking — media is informed by its creators and audience. There are a number of comics that are written, drawn, and read almost exclusively by females. In these female oriented comics, male characters are often sexualized, background characters with no personality, or examples of stupidity. To say that women are the only ones that face negative portrayal in all comic books is really inane and uninformed.
With regards to Miller’s comments, I don’t like the use of rape in any medium because it usually isn’t handled well. It is a powerful subject that we all know is bad, but I’ve yet to see a movie, video game, comic book, or television show do it justice. Hell, I’ve only read one book which has successfully made it both an impactful event and applied fair meaning to its negative aspects. I respect that stories should be original and politically correct critics can’t dictate what we can and cannot write about, especially if they’re going to make insane claims about how it teaches little boys that “rape is okay,” but he isn’t a good enough writer to pull off that kind of narrative drama. He isn’t. I’m sorry if you’re a fan of his work and disagree, but he’s yet to use rape effectively in anything he’s produced.