Batman had it easy

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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0 Responses to “Batman had it easy”

  1. kernezelda

    This makes me think of Farscape, which is one of the very few, maybe only cases where the male lead’s character is both raped by a woman and suffers visible repercussions.

  2. Marie Brennan

    A brothel to which they have very irregular and difficult access. While in the meantime, they live in a military culture with a great deal of other kinds of abuse. The point is not that everybody in the Night’s Watch should be a rapist of men, or a rape victim; the point is that it’s unrealistic for that never to be a concern. Nobody in the series so much as worries about it, that I can recall, much less faces that danger. Because in Martin’s world, rape is a thing that only ever happens to women.

  3. Anonymous

    This something I’ve been thinking about a lot in regards to my own stories, wherein two of the main characters deal with sexual violence. One is a woman with a lot of her own hang-ups, having never thought critically about rape culture. Figuring out how to navigate that, as she goes through a relationship that she wouldn’t consider sexually abusive but I (and hopefully the reader) will understand is deeply unhealthy, is a daunting prospect.

    The other is the James Bond style character, who has endured sexual violence in the past and is greatly traumatized by experiencing it again.

    There’s a LOT of uncomfortable questions I’m trying to figure out to keep these things from being offensive and demeaning to either character or audience. Since the man is bisexual, how can I repudiate the trope that somehow, he wanted or deserved the violence inflicted on him? How do I write that relationship from her perspective and all the icky, disturbing psychology that goes with that without it sounding that authorial authority condones her line of thinking?

    One thing that I feel like writers can do in situations like this is to explore the after affects of sexual violence from the survivor’s eyes. So many stories in which rape is inflicted upon characters describes the act itself to horrify us, and then is curiously silent about the effects of that violence . . . unless it serves to emotionally cripple the character (then there’s no problem wallowing in their misery). Not only is sexual violence a constant threat, the moment it happens, it tends to become the dominating character trait and motivation. Her defining trait becomes The Rape Victim, and it informs her whole being from there on out.

  4. Marie Brennan

    Yes, exactly. The aftermath tends to be either stereotyped or completely absent, and both are problematic. Not to mention the complication that dealing with the trauma generally takes time, and novels often take place in a rather compressed span. If the entire action of the plot fills only a month of in-story time, you find yourself either ending with your character still traumatized, or waving a magic wand to make them get over it.

    Other povs can help with the issue of representation — or, failing that, the reaction of other characters, even if it’s processed through the pov of the traumatized one. If the people around that woman express concern about her relationship and its effect on her behavior, that tells me something to counteract her own messed-up psychology. (And if she goes to great lengths to keep other people from finding out and having the chance to express concern, well, that tells me something, too.) Ditto with the man — especially if we see him in a consensual context, dealing with the way that violence has affected his reactions to his partner. I mean, he himself might struggle with the idea that he wanted or deserved what he got, and have to remind himself that it isn’t true.

    Any way you slice it, though, those things aren’t easy. It’s one of the reasons I’ve mostly avoided writing about them myself: I know I need to give it more thought before I can do it right.

    • tooth_and_claw

      I’m kind of relieved to see your suggestions are exactly some of the things I plan on having happen, because it tells me I’m I’m the right track. It helps, too, that I intend for this to be something that character’s deal with over several books, so I hopefully won’t have the compression of time problem. One of the things that drives me nuts is when authors like Martin *have* an epic and a time scale in which they can explore these things and still don’t bother.

      Martin, you drive me crazy. You do SO WELL in some places, and then there’s this issue. It’s the problem of being double plus irritated at someone who is SO CLOSE to getting it and just . . . hasn’t yet.

      • Marie Brennan

        Yes, I almost added that: it’s easier to deal with trauma in a realistic manner over a series, or if it’s in the character’s backstory rather than an event in the plot itself.

  5. Anonymous

    Also thank you for putting up with me babbling about my own stuff on a topic that is far bigger than just that.

  6. misslynx

    One of the other things I thought was significant about that scene was Bond’s response. Considering how much of a heterosexual male icon James Bond is, having him reply to Silva’s “There’s a first time for everything” with “What makes you think it’s my first time?” was a huge break with tradition. I’d never expected to encounter even the faintest suggestion that he might have had some same-sex experience before…

    Also, the fact that Silva totally loses interest as soon as he says that, making clear he wasn’t actually sexually interested in Bond as such, only in using sexuality to threaten him, and when he realizes it’s not having the desired effect, he immediately drops that tactic, which I think undermines the “Evil Gay Man” trope somewhat.

    • Marie Brennan

      Yes, that’s true. It does a lot to defuse the “evil gay man” thing, not only because Silva breaks it off immediately afterward, but because Bond doesn’t react with disgust. And no kidding about it being a stupendous break with tradition!

  7. Anonymous

    My stories tend to start with a crystallized moment. A character in a setting, and facing a moment of drama. Then I have to build back and forth from that.

    So — hard to tell. 0:)

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