Only just now remembering to link to it, but this months’ SF Novelists post is “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” in which I challenge the notion that so-called “gritty” fantasy is a) realistic and b) superior on account of its realism.
(Both that post and the rest of this one discuss sexual violence — quelle surprise, given the obsession gritty fantasy has with that topic — so if you don’t want to read about them, click away now.)
This is part of a much larger discussion floating around the internet right now, which I keep encountering in unexpected corners. The most recent of those is “The Rape of James Bond,” which makes a lot of good points; toward the end, McDougall talks about her own decision-making process where fictional sexual violence is concerned, and whether you agree with her decisions or not, her questions are good ones.
But the part I found the most striking was where she talked about reactions to Skyfall and the first encounter between Silva and Bond.
I agree with McDougall that, although Silva’s behavior does ping unfortunately on the radar of the “evil gay man” trope, the scene is clearly much more about power and dominance than it is about sexual attraction. But both those factors are important, because here’s the thing: that scene doesn’t work if Silva’s a woman. Not because a heterosexual woman can’t be evil, but because she can’t be threatening. Not in the same way. If Silva were female, and started fondling Bond while he was tied to a chair, the effect would be straight-up titillation. (Pun not intended, but appropriate.) In fact, sexy women have subjected Bond to much worse threats during the course of the franchise — Xenia Onatopp comes to mind — and it has never, to my knowledge, carried the freight of what Silva did to Bond. It has to be a man touching a man for us to see that kind of treatment as unpleasant, rather than unobjectionable. Woman touching a man? Hot. Woman touching a woman? Also hot. Man touching a woman? Happens all the goddamned time. We expect that threat, when it’s a woman tied to the chair. It only gets our attention if it fails to happen. Or if it’s a man in the chair instead.
It never even occurred to me that Bruce Wayne should have been in danger of sexual abuse. (Spoilers now for The Dark Knight Rises.) As McDougall points out, he’s physically helpless, in a prison full of violent criminals who have no path to sexual release except their hands and one another. We know how that kind of thing turns out in reality; we make jokes about it, because the subject is so uncomfortable. Yet put Bruce Wayne in prison, in a scene that is supposed to represent him reaching absolute rock bottom, and nobody touches him for any reason other than to help him.
Can you imagine how audiences would have reacted if Bruce had to fight off a rapist? Even if the rape weren’t completed. A lot of people were put off just by Silva unbuttoning Bond’s shirt and putting a hand on his thigh, by a few lines of suggestive dialogue. They would have blown a gasket permanently to see Batman treated like, oh, name just about any superheroine you care to. Batman, like Bond, is a Man’s Man, the ultimate in unimpeachable masculinity. You can’t damage that by having somebody try to rape him, whether they succeed or not. You can’t, apparently, keep the threat to Blomqvist. You can’t have rape in the Night’s Watch. No matter how realistic it is.
That scene with Silva made me a little uncomfortable, because of the history of the “evil gay man” trope. But the more I think about it, the more I’m glad that scene was there, because it puts a crack in the wall protecting male heroes from reality. Rape has been used to demean and break women, yes, but it’s also been used that way against men, precisely because of the gender boundaries: it puts a woman “in her place,” and it puts a man in a woman’s place. But in our fiction we’ve mostly kept it in this little corral, letting it out only when we need to show that a villain is Even Worse Than You Thought. Raping a woman, that’s standard-issue villainy, but raping a man . . . only someone truly depraved would do that.
You can guess what I think of such reasoning.
Like McDougall, I’m not saying “rape all the heroes!” It shouldn’t be treated lightly (which is why all those prison-rape jokes are a problem). But it should be treated, and if it seems like a really fraught thing when a male character is subjected to it, a plot element you can’t just sweep away once the voyeurism is done, then it should be the same when a female character is at risk. We do nobody any favors when all the men are inviolable and all the women are violated.
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