January 27, 2006

At Written World, Ragnell decries the overuse of sexual assault as a means for comics writers to give female characters added layers. Ragnell concedes that there are some examples of the effective use of this plot device:

“I honestly didn’t care much about it in Identity Crisis. I mean, it was pretty vile, but it was about the only horror that could explain away the irrational actions of the Justice League.”

Kalinara of Pretty Fizzy Paradise backs this position up in the comments section:

“(Sue Dibny’s rape in IDC actually wasn’t that bad in this respect, as having it set so far back in her past that it made it clear that she *had* overcome it and continued to be strong and capable up to her death. And they needed something truly vile to motivate the JLA-ers toward that end.)”

and at Pretty, Fizzy Paradise:

“And you know what, maybe I’m being selfish, maybe rape survivors do like seeing so many characters recover from being raped to become strong happy women, but I’d like to see it a little less. Comics are escapism for me, and while I like lots of drama and angst…I could do with a bit less hitting close to home thanks. I don’t mean cut it out entirely. But save it for something like Identity Crisis, where you need something that monstrous to motivate the heroes into crossing a line.”

And, oh, I could not possibly agree less. I think the worst possible reason to include sexual assault in a story is to give other characters motivation to act. And I can’t think of a worse offender in that category than Identity Crisis.

I think Brad Meltzer very purposely concealed Sue’s reaction to the rape because it wasn’t about her. It was about what the powerful people in shiny spandex do when they fail to protect someone. Even a glimpse into Sue’s emotional state would have probably undermined the intended effect of including the incident at all: to incite the characters (and, via a graphic depiction of the act, readers) into positions they would not normally have taken without appearing merely vengeful.

In narrative terms, she was cast aside so that the heroes could avenge their failure to protect her by committing an act of violation of their own, maintaining a vague sheen of moral ambiguity. In experiencing one of the most personal violations imaginable, Sue became a plot device – a symbol of the failures of the people around her rather than a character in her own right. She’s dehumanized out of necessity, serving instead as a symbol of the innocent. It happened to her, but her reaction is immaterial, discernable only via readers’ assumptions. And her reaction is immaterial because it would have been too disruptive to the quasi-moralizing Meltzer was trying to sell.

It’s not her story; it could have happened to any associate of the Justice League, which reduces something real and specific and horrible to something lurid and inflammatory. It cheapens the subject by turning it into a generic catalyst.