Trigger warning: this article discusses violent sexual assault and rape culture and includes images of disturbing scenes
By now many of you have probably seen Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s interview of Alan Moore (which I like to call The Longest Interview Ever). For those who haven’t – or who skimmed it because let’s face it, we have things to do like going to work and eating – here’s an excerpt from Moore’s response to Ó Méalóid asking him about his depictions of rape:
“Why should sexual violence be ring-fenced when forms of violence every bit as devastating are treated as entertainment? If I may venture an answer to my own question, might it be because the term ‘sexual violence’ contains the word ‘sexual’, a word relating to matters traditionally not discussed in polite society?”
Moore appears to be confusing concerns regarding the nature of his depictions of sexual violence with a call for all discussions of the issue to be banned outright.
The problem is not the simple fact of writing about it – as he himself notes, rape and sexual violence affect a “distressing number of women”, and expunging these issues completely from comics could well be seen as willful ignorance.
The problem is the apologism that runs through much of his writing about sexual violence.
In Watchmen, we see the Comedian (Eddie Blake) almost raping the first Silk Spectre (Sally Jupiter) until he’s stopped by another male superhero – who, interestingly, is widely rumored to be gay. Later, they have a consensual sexual encounter which results in the birth of their daughter Laurie, although she doesn’t discover her biological father’s identity until after his death.
It could be argued that Eddie is punished for his attempted sexual assault by being forced out of a relationship with his only child and being pushed out a window. However, his crime is somewhat absolved by the two people it most affects.
When Sally reveals her encounter with Eddie, we see Laurie reconcile with her. But within that reconciliation, there is no space for Laurie to continue condemning Eddie’s earlier act, to say that she loves and accepts her mother but that her biological father is still a horrible person.
Sally is also flattered by seeing herself in the sexually objectified, pornographic context of a Tijuana Bible and, more specifically, by seeing herself asking the man with whom she’s having sex to “treat me rough”. This is juxtaposed with a panel of Sally bleeding profusely from the mouth after having been savagely beaten in Eddie’s attempted rape. In other words, her experience of being assaulted is conflated with her willingness to be objectified, which implicitly buys into the myth that women can somehow invite sexual assault.
All that is pretty problematic. But what about one of Moore’s Stronger Female Characters, Captain Janni Dakkar?
After all, her depiction in Heart of Ice is great. She’s an effective leader and a sharp thinker, and while her gender is part of who she is (she has a daughter with her male lover, for instance), it isn’t overemphasized as though the idea of a woman being able to lead others is revolutionary.
Her origin story, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Janni is the daughter of Prince Nemo, commander of the Nautilus, and has been raised to assume command upon his death. She runs away from home to be a waitress/grunt worker in a disreputable hotel, where she is continually sexually harassed and groped and, one night, is raped by two hotel patrons. The assault gives her the impetus to send up a distress flare so that the male crew of the Nautilus can remove her from the situation. When they arrive, she assumes her father’s position of command and orders the patrons of the hotel to be “kill[ed]…slow”.
What’s especially worrying is that this sexual harassment and assault occurs wordlessly. The perpetrators point at parts of Janni’s body and grab their crotches, feel her up, pull her onto their laps, and rape her (off-panel) without speaking – and throughout all of this, Janni never gets one word of dialogue with which to speak out against what’s happening to her.
It’s possible that, as a woman in that time period, Janni could have felt less able to openly voice objections to sexual assault and harassment. But she is also a woman who was raised by Prince Nemo to assume command of the Nautilus, so it’s difficult to see where her silence is coming from. (Contrast this with Preacher’s Tulip, who – in the middle of a truck stop café – holds up the hand of an offending man for everyone to see and shouts, “Did anybody lose a hand? Because I just found this one on my ass!”)
I’ve always considered the rape backstory to be a form of apologism: by making sexual assault the genesis of a female hero’s heroism, there’s the suggestion that being assaulted has somehow strengthened (i.e. benefitted) her character. This is largely because we rarely see the ongoing emotional effects of that trauma. For comparison, look at the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Although that event does lead to his becoming Batman, he continually struggles with the negative emotions and thoughts that come from the sudden loss of both parents. Female heroes, such as Janni, whose primary narratives are the result of sexual trauma, don’t get that kind of space to cope; it’s as though they somehow just get over it, a mindset which is at best inaccurate and at worst highly damaging.
I mentioned Preacher earlier, and for good reason. It’s safe to say that Garth Ennis doesn’t always write with the most delicate hand, and that many of his depictions of sexuality – particularly anything outside 100% man-in-woman heterosexuality – are highly problematic. Any deviance from that extremely narrow standard is associated with villainy (think of Preacher’s Herr Starr, whose position as a bad guy is underscored by his inability to enjoy sex if pegging isn’t involved). Nevertheless, he is able to handle the issue of sexual assault much more sensitively than any of Moore’s works.
First, superheroine Annie is coerced into oral sex with the male members of the superteam she wants to join. When her boyfriend Hughie finds out, he ends their relationship. However, the reactions of other characters depict him as being thoroughly in the wrong and underscore Annie’s lack of complicity in the situation. When Vought-American – the corrupt organization sponsoring the superteam, with a history of destroying lives in order to make money and create superheroes – try to add a story of sexual assault to her origin (which she refuses), this links the idea of the rape backstory to the series’ antagonists and to a callous disregard for humanity.
Later in the series, we learn that Becky, the wife of one of the protagonists, was raped and impregnated by a superhero, and that the birth of this half-superchild killed her [for the image that goes with this fact, click here, but it’s nasty]. We mostly see the fallout of these events not through their immediate visual depiction, but through Becky’s reactions, particularly when she writes about it in her diary. As a result, her assault does not place her body as the subject of a sexualized gaze; instead, we become aware of the emotions, thoughts, and fears that she experiences as a result of it.
When her husband reads the diary, he simply sits there in shock, unable to respond actively in the face of her active response to what happened. This suggests that the response of the female survivor should take precedence, and that men should first take these responses into account before proceeding.
I should note that in one story arc, the protagonists wire a bomb to a woman’s vibrator so that she will blow herself up when she switches it on, so it’s not as though this series has the most forward-thinking attitude towards female sexuality.
But doesn’t that make Moore’s approach even worse? If someone who wrote the above scenario is also capable of writing perceptively about how rape affects women, then surely it shouldn’t be that difficult for Moore to strive for that same degree of perception and sensitivity.
Unfortunately, as implied by the length of his responses in the interview, Moore is prepared to take great pains to explain why his approach is correct and appropriate and to avoid listening to any criticism of that approach. And as long as he refuses to listen, that aspect of his work is never going to get better.