Cover Yourself Up: Rape in Comics

In reviewing many of the comics we’ve been presented with in class, such as Watchmen, Sandman,  A Contract With God, and Die Stadt, I’ve noticed a reoccurring theme of rape. In Watchmen, Sally Jupiter is the victim of attempted rape from one of her fellow heroes. In Sandman the Greek muse Calliope is raped by one of her captors. In A Contract With God  Goldie is raped by another guest at the resort whom she was attempting to court. In the same graphic novel Maralyn is raped by her husband. Even in Franz Masereel’s Die Stadt, one of the main precursors to the present-day conception of what is a “comic”, rape is an integral part of the content matter.

Seeing this recurring theme across so many of the different comics I’ve been presented with, I’ve taken to wondering why this is. One of the central factors that comes to mind when I think of the pervasiveness of this particular plot device is the issue of women being over-sexualized in comics. CMCCRZY has written a detailed blog that examines different examples of women being drawn in a hyper-sexualized sense and argues that it is a very real problem. I’ll elaborate on why this is later. It also seems to be that women aren’t just over-sexualized in the western world, several of my classmates have commented upon the heavily sexualized content of eastern manga and MOSTLY sums it up when they said “There have been articles on the blog beforehand about manga, and especially of how it over-sexualizes women and men alike, and how often, manga falls to using stereotypes (something Western comics are just as guilty of). “

These stereotypes that MOSTLY speaks of are one of the reasons that drawing women in such a sexually suggestive way is damaging. It’s no new revelation that popular culture and all of its icons have a potent effect on what the average Joe thinks is normal. And if we repeatedly show crime-fighting women (or women characters in general) as thin, with a sexualized musculature, and wearing underwear for their outfits that might even make Madonna think twice, that is the stereotype that then becomes reinforced and expected for real-world women (albeit minus the crime-fighting). This expectation is not only completely bogus but demeaning as well. When we take a look at what some of these characters, such as Sally Jupiter in Watchmen, are wearing it’s no wonder that both men and women alike can look at her and think sex. She’s wearing virtually no pants and what she does have on is highly reflective of an S&M fetish. Sally is supposed to be seen as a sex object and apart from her initial appearance in the comic, Sally herself acknowledges that she’s seen in a sexual light and takes pleasure from it (she’s the feature of a small porn spread that she proudly presents to her daughter Laurie, whom also wears an outfit that screams for sexual attention).

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Image taken from http://www.ign.com/articles/2012/11/29/before-watchmen-minutemen-5-preview

With this in mind, we can see that Sally becomes, right from the start, an object of sexual desire. This whole notion of suggestive dress and the sexuality it then evokes, brings to mind the recent rise in real-world rape. Especially in India, there have been several reported attacks within the last year where women are being raped because, according to their rapists, they were “advertising” (asking to be raped because they were scantily clad). This idea, though absurd to me and many others I’m sure, isn’t entirely without support. A recent poll by a British newspaper, Mail Online, stated that “A third of Britons believe a woman who acts flirtatiously is partially or completely to blame for being raped. . . More than a quarter also believe a woman is at least partly responsible for being raped if she wears sexy or revealing clothing, or is drunk, the study found.” Perhaps most disturbing is this: “In each of these scenarios a slightly greater proportion of men than women held these views – except when it came to being drunk, when it was equal.”

Image taken from DC Comics' Watchmen By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.
Image taken from DC Comics’ Watchmen By Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

If this study is correct, more men thought that it was the woman’s fault for an unwanted action perpetrated by a man. This brings me to another point. All of the writers and authors of the above comics are male. Since it is impossible for me to gauge the respective psyches of each of these men or to interview them and know their feelings on rape, I cannot say for certain what their views or aims were in presenting these scenes of rape to us. An exception is Neil Gaiman, creator of Sandman. In his annotated script in the scene where Calliope is raped, he says that he wanted to depict the horror of such an event. Either way, I have to be fair here. I have not yet read a comic for the class authored or drawn by a woman which depicts rape so I cannot make a male/female comparison as to their takes on rape drawn in comics.

Another aspect of this that I’m compelled to share is Frederick Wortham’s research on the effect of comics on troubled adolescents. I wrote a blog on the recent debunking of his research, but I think it’s pertinent to this discussion to add that when Dr. Wortham presented his patients with comics that depicted rape and torture the young men tended to respond in a positive manner. Dr. Wortham claims he asked the young men if they would do such things to a girl or woman they found lost on the street and a significant percentage of them “nodded”. In light of the recent scrutiny Dr. Wortham’s research has come under, I’m not sure just how valid this information is, and the link between comics causing sexually aggressive behavior or not is still being argued. However, that is a moot point here. Whether caused by comics or not, these young men, if they were telling the truth, were already victims of an aggressive, criminal culture where the life they knew already glorified such things. The statement I’m making here is that rape is a societal problem, and as such, no matter what light its presented in, is going to appear in our pop culture.

So what can we conclude from all of this? To me, it seems that comics in which women are scantily clad are just perpetuating the sexual objectivity of women. They continue to set the stereotype of women as sex symbols in popular culture and some of the negative effects of such ways of thinking include rape and sexual assault. As CMCCRZY states in their blog, “This is not a small problem – a lot, if not most, of the artists referenced are big-name artists who cover many of the popular titles in companies like DC and Marvel.” In short, the writers and artists of these comics are tremendously influential and if they continue to reinforce women as objects, they are continuing the cycle of domination, abuse, and rape that they draw in their comics.

  3 comments for “Cover Yourself Up: Rape in Comics

  1. alliecat
    March 28, 2013 at 10:47 pm

    This is a really great post; I think it synthesizes a lot of issues about sex and gender that have been discussed across the Graphic Novel blog. I agree that the overly sexualized dress of women in comics creates an unhealthy desire to imitate in the real world. I would venture to say that it is almost undebatable that such poor images are reflected in the way society treats women, and this is not just confined to comic books- it’s in video games, like Chun Li from Street Fighter and movies, where women are far more likely to be scantily dressed or naked than man.

    You brought up the lack of female comic book writers too, which I had not considered. As comics and graphic novels are seen as “male” literature, I wonder how many female comic writers there are, and how they address social constructs, like females as the weaker sex- both mentally and physically, and sexualized depictions, as well as how unified they might be in adhering or challenging these constructs.

  2. nscarbro
    March 28, 2013 at 11:47 pm

    Your blog was a great read! You are very detail oriented and I appreciated that you had so many different arguments about this very serious topic and didn’t just stick to one viewpoint. It was very blunt, which captured my full and undivided attention. For starters, women are most certainly over-sexualized in comics. And as mentioned, it is truly saddening because the youth reads this for pleasure, unlike most of the school assigned novels they will soon forget. Therefore, giving them the idea that this is even socially acceptable and all throughout comics worldwide is sickening. I do like that you touched base on everything from the risqué clothing the artists seem to all put women in, to the topic and breakdown of rape as a whole. To begin, and to agree with both you (the author) and Alliecat, women are portrayed over sexually and in very little clothing. Not only does it give readers a sexualized and unhealthy (and not a respectable) view of women, but it makes them more comfortable even when they do come across these far to common rape scenes. The fact that these women (even these female super hero’s) are shown as objects, wearing close to nothing, and almost always below men; this makes them look down upon the female characters. Therefore, when rape does occur, they justify it by what she wore, or if she was drinking, or simply by saying she was not smart like the men. It is rare to see a naked man in comics, if EVER. Yet, there aren’t many comics that women are clothed. How ironic. I agree completely that this is not just a problem within the comic readers world, but a social issue that is far to accepted and need to be “nipped in the butt” before it grows into acceptance. Equality is a right, not a gift that only a clothed, sober woman deserves.

  3. Sara Weinstein
    March 29, 2013 at 8:33 am

    I thought that this was an excellent blog entry. Your details were really good and I really enjoyed the depth of your analysis. Women are definitely over sexualized in comics. I think that is one of the few things almost every comic has in common. I also enjoyed that you brought up a few points instead of just one. I liked the fact that you pointed out the lack of female writers. We have talked a lot about women in comics during class, and looking over your blog I am surprised this has not really come up.

    I also thought the last few lines of the comment above me were very interesting and on point. All of those women that were raped in the comics, according to other characters, brought it upon themselves. Which really reflects our culture today in a very disturbing manner. If a girl is raped she is asked was she drinking? what was she wearing? they will ask almost anything to put the blame on the girl.

    Overall I thought this entry was really good and really thought provoking. One of my favorites so far!

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