(Content Note: Rape and Rape Culture)
On episode 91 of their House to Astonish podcast, Paul O’Brien and Al Kennedy discuss the return to Amethyst to comics and her debut in Sword of Sorcery #0. The bulk of their review is spent discussing a scene in the protagonist Amy Winston stops the attempted gang rape of Beryl, an unpopular girl whom she’d met earlier that day, by three of their high school classmates. Kennedy, in particular, considered this scene as the low point in the issue, being utterly unnecessary, disruptive of the book’s general feel, and yet another example of comic book writers’ use of rape as a source of cheap drama.
To quote the Slacktiverse, I think it’s more complicated than that. While I am like Kennedy rather sick and tired of the way rape and sexual assault is usually presented in fiction–as something that doesn’t exist beyond the actual act, is often presented in an misinformative manner, and is at times fetishized–I’m not sure altogether sure that the scene shown here was an example of what he refers to.
It starts of badly enough, though; like most rape in fiction, presented in “Homecoming” is of that type which Republicans would term “forcible rape”, where the victim is visibly and violently restrained in order for the act to be comitted, and which is the sort of rape that is easiest to identify as such. While this sort of rape does occur, it is also comparatively rare, which makes its ubiquitousness in fiction deeply problematic, serving as camoflage that renders all the other types of more common rape invisible. Thus, seeing it yet again here, without additional context, is unfortunate. However, I think that there are details that hint at differences between the way this scene is being composed vs. similar scenes in the Tomb Raider remake or in Twilight.
The first thing that needs to be noted is that the attempted rape of Beryl is not committed by strangers, but by people she knows, including football player Tyler, who had earlier in the day asked Beryl to hang out with him, to her suprise and delight. Not only does this better reflect reality than if she’d been raped by strangers–the former is far more common than the latter–it also suggests ways in which trauma of her experience will linger on long after that night ends. After all, not only does Beryl know her attackers, she will have to see them, interact with them, and live with the fact that she can do very little to stop them, were she to report the incident. And there’s lots of good (by which I mean horrible) reasons why this is very likely to be the case.
Unlike Beryl, Tyler has the privilege that comes from being backed up by a rape culture; were she to report him, there is no guarantee that she will obtain justice, while it will be almost certain that a non-insignificant amount of people will not believe her and/or attempt to dismiss her claims despite her testimony (Amy, it seems, cannot serve as a witness on her behalf for plot-related reasons). Perhaps worse still, a non-insignificant number of those will almost certainly attempt to ridicule and attack her in ways that aim to dimish her person and to reinforce the idea that it was she who was at fault for failing to prevent being raped, rather than placing the blame on the men actually responsible for assaulting her. These include variations on “she was asking for it”; claims that she’s too ugly to rape, and its collorary that she should see her near rape as a compliment (Beryl is coded, to some degree, as someone who isn’t conventionally attractive, although I’m not sure how intentional that is–not that it matters, in the end). No matter what she does, she loses, for no reason other than being born into a culture that very often places rapists’ well-being over that of their victims’.
Amy is not particularly suprised at Tyler’s attempts to rape Beryl–in fact, she remarks that the reason she went to the football field even after the end of the game was because she feared it would happen and wished to stop it before attempted rape became actual. However, until she witnessed it, she had no evidence backing up her suspicions–as helpful as it would have been, the word “rapist” was not tattoed onto the football player’s face, nor was it sewn onto his clothes. While he had almost certainly raped before, he managed to act in a way that Beryl could consider charming and attractive until he revealed his true colors that night.
And this is very much like real life as well. Not all rapists are creepers in alleys–some of them are people one sees every day, and like Tyler, they have no sign identifying them as rapists until they actually go and rape people. And having being nearly raped once, it is quite likely that Beryl will now have to ask herself about any man. “Is he a rapist?” and act accordingly–because nothing, not even getting raped, gives people a perfectly infallible rapistdar.
In other words, Beryl has just being introduced to the concept of Schrödinger’s Rapist.
Now, the idea behind the term, despite what some may claim, is not that every man is a rapist, or that they should be treated as such. Rather, it is the idea that there is no way to know whether a man is or isn’t a rapist until it’s too late, and this fact shapes the way women think and act. It is why being alone in an elevator with male stranger may be nerve-wracking for some: sure, he might The One, but since there’s by definition only one of those and many, many rapists, chances that he is the latter are much higher, and there’s no way to know which side of the line he falls on. It’s also why people who choose moments like those to flirt with women are, unwittingly or not, demonstrating a problematic lack of empathy, and why I have no sympathy for them when they are rejected or called out.
Although it’s hard to say what Beryl will or will not do, given what little we know of her, it is not hard to see her making that same “rapist or not rapist?” calculation with every new man he meets. It is not implausible to think that her experience has traumatized her enough that she is never again confident enough to pursue romance. It is quite possible that she will develop triggers which will cause her mental anguish when activated. It is almost certain that the events of issue #0 will, in some way or another, stay with her forever.
Now, it may still be that the scene in “Homecoming” was done with little consideration for these factors. While the scene might have been the opening salvo in a larger story about rape culture, it might also be that the events here will never be referenced again, and that the scene was merely designed to show Amy’s protector tendencies and ability to kick ass, with rape being something that was selected without a second thought. I don’t believe this is or will be the case–the impression I’ve gotten from writer Christie Marx’s interviews is that she is not unaware of rape culture and what it means–but I could be wrong. I hope not, though: I really want this book to be good–and it’s worth noting that, that scene aside, it is–but if the scene isn’t accompanied by additional context, it’s a rather big sign that I will not enjoy the book, no matter how awesome its other individual elements are.
On the other hand, if I’m right about what the scene and the book are trying to do, then I’m glad Marx is attempting it. Even as I’m not entirely sure this was the book to do it in–Amethyst is about to star in a series of animated shorts aimed at kids–you can see a short teaser here–and I had hoped that the book would be somewhat similar in tone and content if not context–I do think it’d be a worthwhile story to at least try to tell. Given that, in the U.S., one in six women are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes–several more than once–I think that stories that reflect what being raped means for a lot of them–that the pain it brings often lingers, and that it is almost never a catalyst for empowerment (*cough*Tomb Raider*cough*)–are absolutely essential.
EDIT: For those who came here from another site, please note that there’s a follow-up post explaining why people are perfectly right in being angry or disappointed at the comic, even if the best-case scenario I’ve outlined here turns out to be true.