113839179717672479

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.

13 Responses to 113839179717672479

  1. Kitty says:

    Well put! I had similar thoughts a while back – I think of it as “you touched my stuff” movie storytelling. If I never see another movie where the lead man’s motivation is “you murdered/sexually assaulted that woman who is close to me”, it’ll be too soon. They always seem to objectify the victim.

  2. Steven Berg says:

    I may be misremembering, but didn’t Sue Dibny “overcome” her assault via involuntary memory erasure?

  3. kalinara says:

    🙂 You’ve got a point, definitely.

    I think it’s more that I’m tired of seeing it used as motivation for strong female characters. Like the only reason they can grow up to be that strong is having been raped previously. I’m tired of it used for token angst when there are more than enough alternative things to use. And it’s usually laughed off in the backstory anyone, just brought up for the occasional tragic/pretty angst later, so their love interests can be protective and comfort her.

    I’m not really happy with IDC, (to clarify my own position), but it doesn’t bother me as much because, I think, it wasn’t used shallowly. We’re supposed to feel the horror of the experience. *shrug* It doesn’t seem quite as lazy as the other usage of it. I’d have preferred though it to have just been a straightforward attack with a hint of something darker than to have it so obvious though.

    I may be misremembering, but didn’t Sue Dibny “overcome” her assault via involuntary memory erasure?

    I don’t *think* so. Unless they said that in one of the followups I haven’t read. Ralph had already gotten Sue out of there before Zatanna made with the mind whammies.

  4. Ragnell says:

    I suppose you’re right. To me, Sue Dibny was always more of a nonentity, a plot device. That’s why it didn’t really shock me when she died. I was glad it wasn’t a favorite of mine. When it came to Identity Crisis, I was more incensed over Deathstroke taking out the JLA (That was freaking contrived, man) then the societal applications of the “You Touched My Stuff” storyline (great naming, Kitty!).

    To be perfectly honest, and possibly quite a bit cold, I sitll don’t empathize enough with Sue herself to be outraged. She’s a supportting character to a professional guest-star, as far removed from my empathy as possible. I can’t put myself in her shoes.

    While, with Black Cat, Wonder Woman, Silk Spectre, Batgirl, ia, the Engineer, and even Jade I could put myself in their palce. And I immediately saw the underlying message.

    You make an excellent point, but I still feel the same about the story. No point in lying about it, though.

  5. David Welsh says:

    “I think it’s more that I’m tired of seeing it used as motivation for strong female characters.”

    Well, I can certainly agree with that. As a longtime viewer of soap operas, I can’t even count the number of times different shows used the repulsive “redeemed by rape” character stunt where a “villainess” becomes a “heroine” because of the transformative experience of sexual assault.

    “We’re supposed to feel the horror of the experience. *shrug* It doesn’t seem quite as lazy as the other usage of it.”

    I don’t know. Somehow it seems even more exploitative to me. I think I’m with Kitty on this.

  6. Sarah says:

    Even when it’s not explicitly played as the possessive “you touched my stuff” (great name!), the “hurt the woman to build the man’s subjectivity” stunt victimizes the woman twice–first, by the act itself; second, by treating her suffering as little more than a convenient plot device to make the men around her do or feel what the writer needs.

    While it’s certainly true that the “explanation for a woman’s unusual strength is an earlier rape” cliche was ugly and offensive, I don’t think replacing it with “a woman can be raped and be so strong that it just doesn’t matter, so we don’t even need to show her reactions!” jauntiness.

    Personally, while I think rape is certainly a valid subject for any art form, there is simply not enough artistic competence in current mainstream superhero comics for any writer to be able to tackle it well. Maybe in twenty years.

  7. Rose says:

    I thought I’d written about this more directly (and I know I eventually did in a billion bloggers’ comments sections), but apparently my thoughts about the on-panel sexual assault showed up after a rant about Kevin Smith, but the point still stands that I hold the JLA responsible for emotionally assaulting Sue Dibny by not allowing her to be an agent of her own destiny (at least in the parts of the story I read).

    With my own background including stints as a group leader for other sexual assault survivers and years as a college-level educator on related issues, I can pretty much say that the thing that makes me most crazy is this typically male response that some woman’s sexual assault is about him and that therefore it’s his place to avenge and thus redeem and save her. Sure, it wasn’t just men in the JLA and it’s not always men in real life, but it’s still creepy, possessive patriarchy.

    But what I’m really trying to say is that I don’t think the reason I had a negative response to Identity Crisis was that it managed to hit a pet peeve of mine, but that it was about so many different levels of unheroic, nasty, ugly behavior from the heroes without any sort of comeuppance for them. And also the art was gross and the writing amateurish, although obviously others will disagree with me there.

    I really, really don’t see why the big issue is whether a reader is shocked by a character’s sexual assault rather than whether it’s handled fairly and accurately, whether it does then contribute to characterization in a meaningful rather than trite way. Obviously there aren’t a lot of superhero writers who are themeselves sophisticated enough to handle this, but I think that’s why I think it doesn’t belong in so many superhero stories, not because it’s surprising that the rates of sexual assault among people who spend a lot of time in close contact with violent criminals seem higher than they are in the general population.

    Hmm, maybe this is too long-winded a way of saying, “Yeah, what Kitty (and David and Sarah) said.”

  8. Rose says:

    (ohmigod, I actually can spell “survivor” but apparently not when I’m sickly and tired, or something.)

    I’m back, because I was just reminded again about Kalinara’s comment, “But save it for something like Identity Crisis, where you need something that monstrous to motivate the heroes into crossing a line.”

    I’m sort of conflicted about that, because it’s not as if I’m going to argue that sexual assault is some sort of minor crime, especially in its personal repercussions for many of its victims and their loved ones. But still, we’re not talking about the JLA responding to genocide. At bare minimum, Sue Dibny is one of the 10-30+% of American women who’ve been sexually assaulted. Sure, I think as a total that’s a monstrous situation, but I definitely don’t buy the argument that sexual assualt was a great choice on Brad Meltzer’s part because it’s so peculiarly horrific and motivating in the scheme of things.

    Actually I don’t know why that seems weird to me when the whole concept for the series was that the death of a superhero’s loved one would be enough to put all heroes on the warpath, get them to give up on any sense of due process or fairness. The gloves were OFF, dudes, and it was AWESOME. I’m just disturbed (and also bored, which was the impressive part) by the whole thing.

  9. Michael says:

    “I can pretty much say that the thing that makes me most crazy is this typically male response that some woman’s sexual assault is about him and that therefore it’s his place to avenge and thus redeem and save her.”

    The creepy thing is that Light’s rape of Sue *was* “all about him,” or rather them. The implication that Sue wasn’t even a factor in her own violation, that Light would have been just as satisfied with, say, Robin, just gives me the willies.

  10. Anonymous says:

    This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Nicely said, David. Your entry sums up precisely what I’ve been trying to say about the event in my various debates about it, and it’s so nice to see it neatly summarized here. And nicely verified by the comments here as well.

    For the sake of argument though, how does the near-rape of Silk Spectre I in Watchmen be justified? I have my own theories, of course, but I’m interested to see if others see a point to the assault or not.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Crap, double post and not signed.

    — Anun

  13. David Welsh says:

    No problem, Anun. I would have to toss the Silk Spectre question out to someone with a better memory than I have. I don’t think I’ve read Watchmen since college, and that was a long, long time ago.

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