Recently, my friend, and frequent conference collaborator, AJ Ortega posted a story about one of his students complaining about a short story he assigned for them to read. The story was “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl or Halfie)” by Junot Diaz. AJ’s student felt that it was inappropriate for a teacher to assign a story that was so “obviously racist”. Oddly, AJ’s student didn’t seem to notice that the story is “obviously sexist” too. This got me thinking about my own students’ most common criticism, that I force them to debate “uncomfortable issues” in class. Of course, AJ and myself, like pretty much every other English teacher in the world, ignore that complaint because we realize that the entire point of the class is to get the students to think about complicated issues that literature addresses. Of course, the racial and sexual overtones of the Diaz story are the entire reason AJ assigned it in the first place. I do pretty much the same thing. Everyone does. But when I started thinking about I don’t think it’s really the student’s fault they feel that way. They’ve been trained to think that good stories don’t offend anyone. In reality, it’s often just the opposite. One of literature’s most important jobs is to deal with the offensive. But, if you look at people’s responses to offensive media, you wouldn’t know it. That’s how the students got trained that way in the first place.
A couple of months ago, the internet got in an uproar over an episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones where Sansa Stark gets violently raped. Then, immediately after the show and all through the next day, Twitter and Facebook were all abuzz about how gratuitous the scene was and how it had no place there and how they were never watching the show again.1 I didn’t really believe it, but the viewership of the show did fall from 6.24 million people to 5.4 million the next week. I was kind of surprised, maybe the event really did lose viewers. Of course, then it shot up to 7 million a week later and continued climbing to 8.11 million at the season finale. Since it’s episodic, I’m guessing that the loss in viewers had more to do with the fact that the “down week” was because that was Memorial Day weekend and people just had better things to do. Since the show is available “On Demand” and online, I’m guessing people just caught up afterwards and the show gained viewers because of the controversy. So the question is, “was it gratuitous?” No — Sansa Stark had to be raped!
A little while later (last month), there was an outrage over the comic Airboy by James Robinson and Greg Hinkle. The story concerns the 1940s hero Airboy, who has been transported into the real world 21st century to hang out with the writer and artist of the series and it details the misadventures he gets into as his idealized WWII era comic book sensibilities come into conflict with 21st century America. In the July 2015 issue Airboy and the metafictional version of Robinson, high on pot, encounter and hookup with two transgender women in the bathroom of a dive bar. While Robinson understands that the women are transgender and doesn’t care, Airboy doesn’t find out until after he receives oral sex from the woman and then proceeds to go off on a transphobic tirade over the “woman with a penis.” And of course there was outrage… with Nick Adams, GLAAD’s Director of Programs, going so far as to say “It’s shocking in 2015 that a publisher would allow this type of transphobic scene to be associated with its brand. Robinson and Hinkle repeat the outdated, stereotypical attitudes toward transgender women that the rest of America is quickly leaving behind.” which caused Robinson himself to issue an apology for the story. Was the story transphobic? Absolutely. Was it over the line? No — Airboy had to be bigoted!
Finally, a couple of weeks ago at San Diego Comic Con, DC Comics announced that the next animated feature they had in development was an adaptation of Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke. In this story from 1988, the Joker surprises Commissioner Jim Gordon and his daughter Barbara (Batgirl) while they are having lunch. He shoots Barbara in the stomach, shattering her spine and paralyzing her, strips her naked, and (apparently) rapes2 her while taking pictures of the incident. Joker then kidnaps Commissioner Gordon, strips him naked, locks a dog collar around his neck and forces him to watch a loop of the photos of his daughter’s rape in an attempt to drive him insane. Eventually, Batman comes to the Commissioner’s rescue and prevails over the Joker, but the damage on the character of Barbara would remain as her career as Batgirl was ended and she would be wheelchair bound until DC (controversially) healed her in a hand wave of retcon when they rebooted their universe in 2011. And so, with the announcement of a forthcoming cartoon of the story, some fans are, as you might expect, outraged. Was the story horrific yes? Should it therefore be excluded from receiving a film adaptation. Absolutely not — Batgirl needs to be raped and crippled!
These three stories are all obviously horrific in their own ways, and it’s understandable why people might be offended by them; something offensive is happening in each. You’re supposed to be offended. But the offensiveness of each is precisely why they’re important and why I think they have to be the way they are.
I’ve said on other posts before that some how, inexplicably, we have found ourselves in a Golden Age of geek culture. If you’d told me when I was seven that one of the highest grossing movies of the year was a comic book movie, I’d be amazed. If you told me that ALL of the highest grossing movies EVERY year were comic book movies I’d have thought you were fucking with me. This is why I’ve been so critical of geek media. We’ve gotten to a point where it’s time to stop worrying about fighting for recognition and start worrying about fighting for quality.3
But what I’m really fascinated with right now is the way in which geeks, as a micro culture have started to self-police in regards to social issues. In a way, it’s awesome. With the advent of the #gamergate yahoos there’s been an even stronger rallying of the geek.feminism movement to punch them in the dick. And that’s wonderful. But as social activism in the geek community has grown, I worry that it’s starting to become less a movement and more a meme. Whenever anything controversial happens in geek media, particularly of a sexual/gender-based theme (and to a slightly lesser extent, a race based one), I can almost predict the complaints that will occur. Again, the heart behind these complaints is often great; it’s the execution that I find troubling. The reason people like Jerry Seinfeld complain about Political Correctness ruining comedy (or really all of media) isn’t because they want to embrace old and outdated modes of thinking, but because they want to comment on them.
The Airboy story did not perpetuate or reinforce a derogatory mode of thinking. It commented on it. While Adams may claim that America is “quickly leaving behind” these prejudices, he knows that in actuality there’s a long way to go. Some of America is evolving, sure — and thank HOVA. But a cursory look at any social media site will show that it certainly isn’t quick. A large percentage of Americans think that the pinnacle of social activism is reposting memes complaining that Caitlyn Jenner doesn’t deserve to win an award for courage that they’d never have even heard of if she wasn’t winning it. That was like two months ago, and people still haven’t shut up about it. Why, because lots of people are still extremely transphobic (and homophobic, and racist and sexist and antisemitic, etc)… which really, is why groups like GLAAD need to exist in the first place.
The great thing about science fiction is that it allows us to explore real life issues in contexts that are abstracted in ways that we can’t really look at them in reality. The key to the Airboy story isn’t Airboy’s disgust at receiving a blowjob from a transwoman. It’s comparing Airboy’s disgust at it to Robinson’s ambivalence towards it. In a story where a comic book character is transported 70 years into the future and out of a comic book and into reality, the most unrealistic thing isn’t the magical premise of the story; it’s that all he does is complain that “the lady had a penis.” Realistically, any 1940s flyboy who was propositioned by a woman in a bar for oral sex would go for it. But realistically, if he then discovered that she was transgender, he wouldn’t complain belligerently to his friends, he’d more likely beat the shit out of her, and in doing so would be praised for his morality by the other GIs. If that story somehow appeared in a comic that was actually published in the 1940s, it would be praised for standing up for the moral fiber of America.
Does that make Airboy “right?” Of course not. He’s a bigot with a misguided sense of morality from nearly a century ago. And that’s the point! It’s a social commentary about the time we live in. Lots of people are bigots with misguided senses of morality from a century ago. To complain that the publisher “would allow this type of transphobic scene to be associated with its brand” is analogous to complain about the racism in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The word “nigger” is used 205 times throughout the 43 chapters. This encourages some people to want to ban it as a racist book. Of course it’s a racist book. It’s a book about racism. The mistreatment of Jim because of the color of his skin and Huck’s inability to understand that because he’s more progressive and thinks of Jim as a friend first and a black later is the WHOLE POINT OF THE STORY. Furthermore, even though Huck is more progressive than most white boys in the antebellum South would be, by 2015 standards… he’s pretty fucking racist. Twain published Huck Finn twenty years after the Civil War ended to explore the complex views on race that the country was in the midst of even then (despite many not wanting to acknowledge it). Airboy does exactly the same thing for our time.
Similarly the other two stories, The Killing Joke and Game of Thrones, point to an obviously important but offensive issue: rape. The key however is in how the rape is used from a storyline point-of-view. More specifically, “are the rapes gratuitous or not?” or put another way, “are they in refrigerators?”
In 1999, comics writer Gail Simone coined the term “Women in Refrigerators” to refer to women in comics who are used as victims of horrific crimes to further a story. The name is a reference to a comic where Kyle Rayner, early in his career as the Green Lantern of the 1990s, came home from a day of fun-filled day of greenlanterning to find that his live-in girlfriend had been murdered by a villain and stuffed in a refrigerator, thus teaching Kyle the important lesson that being a superhero is hard work and that with great power comes great responsibility and that women are apparently only good for sex and plot devices.
There has been much debate in comic geekdom over the years as to whether or not Barbara counts as a Woman in a Refrigerator. I actually tend to fall on the side of “yes.” At least at the beginning. Crippling Barbara was not really a part of her storyline at all. It was just an excuse to move Batman to action against the Joker. As he’s stripping her clothes off to rape her, Joker even tells her that it’s not about her at all, he’s simply doing it to prove a point. That’s how unimportant she is as a character in that scene. He’s robbed her of all agency not only physically but in literary terms. She is incidental to her own rape, and in that sense she is entirely a plot device which is the point of the refrigerator trope.
I have a problem with both the way many people use the terms “Women in Refrigerators” and “Strong Female Characters.” They’re very good, but very complicated ideas. People don’t like complicated. So they’ve reduced it to a meme, the easy to digest idea that strong female characters are “ones that kick ass.” It is the illusion of strength. I love the Hunger Games books, but Katniss isn’t strong… not in a literary sense. The entire point of the series is that the plot happens around her while for the most part she has no idea what is going on from scene to scene. Despite being a kick-ass girl with a bow and arrow, she needs rescuing as a damsel-in-distress more often than not and at most other times is effectively unaware of her surroundings. Much of her survival throughout the trilogy is due to dumb luck or the fact that most of the male characters are too in love with her to let anything bad happen to her.4,5 The opposite end of the spectrum (particularly in geek media) is the female action hero who is simply a male action hero with boobs. Undefeatable and one-dimensional — Lara Croft. While these characters may be physically strong their strength as fictional characters is limited.
However, what is important about the character of Barbara Gordon is what happened in stories told about her after the events of The Killing Joke. Originally through the efforts of John Ostrander, and later, largely through the writing of Gail Simone herself, Barbara became the character Oracle —a wheelchair bound computer hacker, who fought through her physical disability and sexual trauma to become one of the most important characters in the DC Universe (at least until the New 52 reboot in 2011). Her “strength” was not in measured in her ability to beat people up, but instead in her ability to advance the plot of the story through both her own strengths and weaknesses. Her limitations are as important as her advantages. So while I will agree that yes, in the context of The Killing Joke she is a woman in a refrigerator, the ramifications of her fridging were useful character building moments. This is the difference between her and the Green Lantern’s girlfriend, whom I challenge most comic book fans to even remember her name without looking it up.6 You can’t! Because she wasn’t important. She wasn’t a character, she existed only as a building block towards Kyle Rayner’s character (like Batman’s parents, or Spider-man’s uncle… of course you know those names). Barbara was strong simply because she was more than that.
That said, while I am a huge fan of The Killing Joke story, I will acknowledge that Barbara’s place in the story proper is purely as a plot element. That said, The inclusion of the rape in the story is the main reason that it SHOULD be remembered. It was not gratuitous. It was important purely because it doesn’t happen very often in comics. While a reported 1-in-6 women in America is a victim of rape, it is sorely underrepresented in superhero comics, a literature form dominated by crime stories, even those auspiciously marketed as “gritty realism” and targeted at adults. The sad truth is that if a world exists where women routinely put on spandex and throw themselves into the middle of dens of violent criminals, at the very least rape attempts would be far more common than comics from the Big Two would have readers believe that they are. Even in the relative few instances from Marvel and DC where the issue is brought to light in canon it is often minimalized in the story.7 There are so few instances where the issue is treated seriously at all, that stories like The Killing Joke are the only way in which fans of comics as a literary form, and specifically superheroes as a genre, can even have stake to have the conversation around.
This is why stories like Sansa’s rape on Game of Thrones are important. It isn’t just Sansa. The kingdom of Westeros is so defined by rape culture that it makes our own world look like Candyland. In doing so the show creators are exploring the problem of rape through the character of Sansa. Has she been put into a refrigerator? But what makes her interesting as a character is the story exploring how she gets out of the refrigerator; or perhaps, how she will fail to. For all the struggles that she has gone through in the most recent season, Sansa is by no means a weak character. Quite the contrary. To imply so would be insulting. Were she a real person, we would not say that she was weak because she was raped. To do so is to blame the victim. She is strong because her character and the events that happen to her character (even her failure to prevent her own rape, in a world where she quite literally had no way to do so) drive the story. She is the story.
While I believe that one purpose of comics, fantasy, and literature in general, should be an escape from the struggles of everyday life and the harsh reality of the real world, we also must realize that another purpose is to explore those horrors. To assume that stories like The Killing Joke have no place in comics (or animation) because of the atrocities that they deal with is to reduce the art form to a sophomoric state. It is to embrace Fredric Wertham’s theories from Seduction of the Innocent, that comics must be aimed exclusively at children and that to deal with more complex and darker themes would somehow corrupt the readership. A theory that not only has been proven false, but created a style of self-censorship in comics that nearly destroyed the industry. If we are in a Golden Age of Geek Culture, then it can only continue if we allow comics to evolve into an art form that can explore culture, as well as entertain. Even rape culture.
Yes, there is a danger with this. It means that some really horrible rape stories will be written. Not all literature is good. And in fact, if someone doesn’t like Game of Thrones, Airboy or The Killing Joke because they feel like they are sucky stories or they just don’t like reading about rape or transphobia, that’s a completely fair issue. Yes, some people will take it the wrong way. I am certain that there are fans of Games of Thrones who loved that scene because “thank god, that bitch Sansa finally got what was coming to her.” Just as I am sure that someday, some #gamergate weenie is going to find this article, not understand it or not read it all the way through (I write long shit, yo!) and link to it as justification for why rape stories aren’t sexist just because I called it “Not All Refrigerators.” La mort de l’auteur! I take solace in the fact that hopefully when they repost this at least one smarter person will at least read it all he way through and think about the deeper issue of why these stories are important. And moreover, I take solace in the fact that when that happens, hopefully a geek.feminist will punch the person who misquotes me in the dick.
- Some portion of the outrage over Sansa’s rape really isn’t about the atrocity of the crime at all, but more because it was a deviation from the book where another character, Jayne, was raped in her stead. Geeks fear change. I’m ignoring the distinction here because it’s irrelevant and dumb. Leslie Loftis did address the issue in her defense of the rape scene if anyone cares, much of which gets to the points I’m making here.
- There is some dispute as to whether or not Barbara Gordon is raped in this story. Author Alan Moore has claimed that it was his intention to have her “sexually assaulted but not raped,” but over the years some doubt has been cast as to whether or not that was the original intent, most notably by the revelation of artist Brian Bolland’s original more graphic (yet still slightly ambiguous) artwork for the scene. In any case, whether a penetration actually occurred or not the scene clearly reads as a sexual assault which is enough for the context of this discussion. Oddly enough, for all the debate about the inappropriateness of the sexual assault on Barbara in the story, very infrequently is the sexual assault of Jim ever discussed.
- In one way or another, I’ve spent the better part of my life arguing for the acceptance of comic books as “legitimate literature.” I’m not alone here, obviously; @scottmcloud’s entire life’s work, is essentially based around making this argument. And of course, there are any number of books that people (at least now in 2015) are clearly attempting to be serious “grown-up” literature, instead of “superhero kid stuff, like Persepolis, Blue is the Warmest Color, Fun Home and A Contract With God. And I feel the same about other “geek” media, namely movies and TV shows. The thing is, the comics that tend to be “taken seriously” are basically the that aren’t “traditional.” The reason everyone loves Persepolis is that it ISN’T about superheroes. That’s not why it’s good. It’s good because it is an excellent story, but that’s the reason people are willing to even consider it for a moment. Of course there are a few exceptions… Well, two really. Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. Those are the two “super hero” books that probably most acknowledged as meaningful literature. But even those two are at the bottom of the list, outside of the “geek community.” That’s just how high culture works, especially in academia. It’s just easier to consider Alison Bechdel as higher brow than Frank Miller if only because she’s less accessible to a popular audience.
- Not only Gale and Peeta, but also Haymitch, Finnick and others including other female characters such as Johanna. Even Katniss’s sister Prim takes more direct action than Katniss in her relative few scenes throughout the series.
- Team Gale forever!
- It was Alex DeWitt, by the way. There, I saved you time and effort of googling. You’re welcome.
- Of the instances I could think of off the top of my head, there is The Killing Joke, where the rape is left ambiguous because apparently the idea of sexual assault without actual vaginal penetration is somehow “better” and reader is intended to believe that the megalomaniacal Joker was intent on driving ruining Barbara, Jim and Batman’s lives, driving them crazy, torturing and killing them but just wasn’t willing to cross “that line.” “Alias” by Brian Michael Bendis, where the main character, Jessica Jones spends six months as a mind controlled slave of the villain and is forced to watch him use his powers to force other women have sex with him while for some reason, he chooses not to cross that line with the main character herself (though, I tend to read that book as though Jessica is lying because she is unwilling to admit that she was raped) and most egregiously, Avengers #197-200 where Ms. Marvel is mind-controlled and impregnated by an alien being while she slept and the whole thing is written off as a romantic gesture (which is so problematic that it has seldom been mentioned since). The only character besides Jessica Jones that comes to mind where rape is a clear and integral par of her story is Kate Bishop, the female Hawkeye, who uses her rape as a character building moment; it is the event that inspires her to train as an archer and martial artist in the first place.