We've talked before about misogyny in film. If you want a refresher in perhaps one of the worst scripts I ever read, check out the depravity I discussed in this entry. It's not a topic I enjoy wading into, and yet the scripts I read often keep provoking the topic.
Most recently, KICK-ASS creator Mark Millar was interviewed about his work and the topic eventually turned to his depiction of violence against women, which many consider offensive and misogynistic. I'm going to encourage you to check out the entire article, but these next few passages are what got the most notice:
Take some of his portrayals of women, for example. Millar has spoken out against the underrepresentation of female characters in comics, but his depictions of rape have alienated some readers. In Wanted, the sadistic protagonist gleefully commits rape over and over again, at one time bragging that he “raped an A-list celebrity and it didn’t even make the news.” In The Authority, a Captain America analog rapes two unconscious women. In issue four of Kick-Ass 2, a group of bad guys finds the young hero’s love interest, a teenaged girl named Katie, and brutally gang-rapes her.
“You’re done banging superheroes, baby,” the ringleader says, punching her and unzipping his fly, “it’s time to see what evil dick tastes like.”
Laura Hudson, the former editor-in-chief of the popular blog Comics Alliance and a senior editor at Wired, thought that scene was deplorable, but typical of Millar. “There's one and only one reason that happens, and it's to piss off the male character,” she said. “It's using a trauma you don't understand in a way whose implications you can't understand, and then talking about it as though you're doing the same thing as having someone's head explode. You're not. Those two things are not equivalent, and if you don't understand, you shouldn't be writing rape scenes.”
Millar is of the exact opposite opinion, saying they are equivalent, and that his depictions of sexual violence are all part of his ongoing quest to push boundaries.
“The ultimate [act] that would be the taboo, to show how bad some villain is, was to have somebody being raped, you know?” he told me. “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.”
I've railed in the past at people who are quick to toss around the "misogyny" label. There's a distinction between something being sexist and something being misogynist. The definition of misogyny is "the hatred or dislike of women or girls." So when, say, Michael Bay reduces his female characters to one dimension, has them strut around in revealing outfits and then focuses the camera on their ass, is that misogynist?
No. Definite display of sexism, but it's not misogyny. But Mark Millar's work? That's getting really damn close to misogyny. Does it make HIM a misogynist? I don't know. It depends on if he really believes his own defense of that rape scene.
The sort of scene described above is part of a trope known in comic circles as Women in Refrigerators. It has to do with the disproportionate degree that female characters in comics are beaten, depowered, raped and killed solely to get a reaction out of the male lead character. When you look at the list, it's hard to deny that it is a common issue. But let's examine why this happens.
Most headlining comic book heroes are male. Going back to the Golden Age of comics, a surefire way to get the hero emotionally invested in the story was to kidnap someone close to him. In most cases, that meant his girlfriend. Poor Lois Lane was probably tied up more frequently than a bondage enthusiast. Now, there are exceptions - Batman's closest relationship was with his boy sidekick Robin and Wonder Woman's boyfriend Steve Trevor often filled the "Lois Lane" role in her stories - but when you're dealing with male heroes, most often you're going to have a lot of kidnapped girlfriends and wives.
Comics got grittier, and soon it was no longer enough to just kidnap the hero's loved one. Now it was necessary to prove just how evil the bad guy was by having him do something horrible. The trick is that the writers wanted to provoke the audience as well as the lead character. Obviously you can't kill or maim the lead character because the story's over. So it would fall to someone else close to the lead to become the punching bag.
And that's how we get The Killing Joke - where in order to prove that we're dealing with a new kind of Joker, he paralyzes the former Batgirl and possibly performs other unspeakable acts upon her. Commissioner Gordon is also put through the ringer too, though not as badly. The point is - the Joker is doing this JUST to piss off Batman.
If this was an isolated story, it wouldn't be so bad. However, it would be a shame that the script barely deals with the impact of this attack on Batgirl herself. If it was motivating something in her character, it wouldn't be a gratuitous display of violence crafted only for the purpose of getting a rise out of the male lead.
And that's where the problem lies. I totally get needing to show the bad guy is... well, bad. And it's not like you're gonna provoke the audience if the bad guy does something to the lead's paperboy. I get how a writer might arrive at writing a violent scene towards a female character and not have any sexist or misogynistic motivations behind it. There is a dramatic purpose to be served.
I even get how one might arrive at rape. If you want to do something horrible to a female character, but you don't want to kill her off, it's an obvious option to land on. It's a violent act that shows evil, but it has the "virtue" of not maiming the character so she can still bounce back. We rough her up, but she'll recover, good as new.
Here's what Laura Hudson is talking about above. Writers who write about rape don't always understand the implications of that trauma. For the writer, the horror of the act ends when the rape is over. The scene has served its purpose, the lines drawn and so on. For the character, that's just the beginning.
I've seen this in a lot of scripts, in a lot of comics and a lot of TV shows. It's rare that an assault like that is used as springboard for a female character's development in the same way it's used to provoke the male character. I find the KICK-ASS example above so repugnant that the only way to redeem it from being shock value would be if Katie was the main character and the rest of the story was about her journey. I've used a lot of comics examples, but don't think that doesn't mean the trope is isolated there.
I also don't understand how most writers stand writing rape scenes, let alone end up writing rape scenes that feel like they were getting excited while writing it. (I debated a lot about if I should write that last sentence, but I absolutely have read sequences like that where the writer took a perverse glee in inflicting that violence. And if it horrifies you to be told about that, it should.) Even so, I will concede that a story might call for that. Don't take the message of this post as "never write rape." But really, use some restraint.
I've made an effort here to try to understand how someone might "logically" arrive at a rape as their big plot twist without the motivation being misogynist in nature. I'm doing my part to extend an olive branch to those writers. Calling them "misogynist pigs" would have been a good way to ensure none of my message was heard. In return, I'd hope that those who write such scenes would reach out and attempt to understand the position of Laura Hudson. Those violent actions carry an impact that goes beyond their intent. Meet us halfway, guys.