Batgirl #41 and the Laziness of Rape
Below is an op-ed by comic creator Bryan Hill presented unedited (though images and links have been added). It touches upon topics that some might find upsetting, so proceed with caution. – The Management
I understand the cover’s connection to the seminal The Killing Joke story. That was a one-shot, written by a man who was already known for pushing the envelope. I remember buying it and it was presented as a mature exploration of those characters, and that universe. My retailer warned me (and my mother) about its content.
Batgirl #41 is a monthly book that’s been a soft PG-13 tonally for its entire run. Alburquerque’s cover, as brilliant as it is artistically, is an R-rated image that links Batgirl to an incident of sexual violence. It has no place on that book.
DC made the right call. It’s not censorship. It was common sense.
I’d like to use this moment of debate around that cover to talking about raping characters in genre stories.
I think it’s usually a terrible idea and lazy writers need to stop doing it.
The National Institute of Justice & Centers for Disease Control & Prevention states that 1 out of every 6 American adult women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.
Make a list of six women you know. Put your mother and your sister on it. The odds are someone on that list has either been raped or someone has attempted to rape them. Someone has used violent coercion (or narcotics) to forcibly penetrate them against their will. This is reality.
When you broaden your vision beyond rape, and include sexual abuse (any non-consensual sexual contact), the numbers get more horrifying. One in four girls are sexually abused before their 18th birthday.
1 in 4.
25% of the women you know were sexually abused before their 18th birthday. This is reality.
I don’t understand what it’s like to be a victim of sexual assault, but people in my life who have been assaulted have told me that the trauma can linger. The Post-Traumatic Stress of it can be triggered by depictions of rape in entertainment. That stress can cause women to self-mutilate, it can cause eating disorders, it can lead to deep depression and in some cases, suicide. This is reality.
That is why I will never put a scene depicting sexual assault in any fiction I have the power to control.
I’m not advocating censorship. I’m a firm believer in the freedom of expression and everyone needs to make their own choices about this, and any other horror they choose to explore in fiction.
I am advocating thoughtfulness, and the admission that when you put these moments into your fiction, vibrant and dramatized, the potential effect is that 25% of the women who consume this work will revisit their trauma, women who have done nothing more than pay the price for your book.
Rape is the rare horrifying act that is equally familiar. It’s relatable, and when we witness its dramatization, we are horrified. That’s the reason people use it in genre fiction. It’s an easy way to provoke an audience into an emotional state.
Want to create the impetus for vengeance? Have someone get raped.
Want to demonstrate that the villain is a monster? Have them rape someone.
Want to give a female character a trauma to bear in a story? Have her get raped.
Want to create incredible tension before a moment of salvation? Have someone almost get raped.
Want to give yourself credibility as a storyteller for being bold? Depict a brutal rape.
It’s a reckless trope caused by a lack of imagination and insight. It’s exploring racism by having someone yell “nigger.” It’s facing anti-semitism with a swastika. It’s reducing a multi-layered issue into a moment of visceral repulsion to give a story more weight.
Although Alan Moore has since denounced The Killing Joke, it remains a thoughtful, challenging exploration of futility, insanity and the price of trauma on the traumatized and the people who love and care for them. The Joker sexually abuses Barbara Gordon (yes, non-consensual nude photographs are sexual abuse), but Moore is aware of both the horror of the act and the residual effects of that horror. It’s not a cheap thrill. Moore reminds us of The Joker’s evil in the same tale he creates empathy for the character. That’s hard work.
Alan Moore’s work is the exception that proves the rule. It stands in stark contrast to the cynical and opportunistic depictions of sexual violence in genre fiction. It’s not the gold standard. It should be the only standard. Rape in fiction should not get judged by gradients. Rape in fiction is pass/fail.
If that story made a reader relive one of the worst moments of their life, was it worth it? Perhaps. I’m not sure. Alan Moore’s talent creates a worthy debate.
Most of the writers raping their characters aren’t nearly as talented as Alan Moore. Don’t hide behind his genius. The truth will still find you.
The questions are simple:
Is the depiction of sexual violence in your narrative so essential to your story that it’s worth 25% of the women who read or see it being dragged back into the center of their trauma?
Is it a meaningful act in your narrative, or is it simply a way to cause repulsion?
Are you one hundred percent convinced that no part of it is exploitation?
Does its inclusion break a tonal pact with your audience?
I’ve never created a female character, considered their arc, and thought: and then she gets raped. Other writers have, and I don’t advocate censoring those works. I do urge that when that thought occurs, those writers accept the potential effect of that choice on the innocent people that will experience those stories.
Make no mistake, for a many readers and viewers that choice will cause them pain. Only individual artists can determine if their work is more important than that pain.
For me, it never has been.
Bryan Hill is Los Angeles based screenwriter, and comic book author. Currently he’s writing POSTAL for Image Comics. One day, he’ll figure out what to do with Tumblr. Twitter: @bryanedwardhill