Hello and welcome to Friday’s Feminist.
I recently did two guest posts over at Verbal Remedy; Women in Comics: Women in Refrigerator and Women in Comics: The Sexy Lamp Test. They explored the double standards and excessive sexual violence aimed towards women in superhero comics. This post will follow a similar exploration.
The depiction of male victims of sexual violence is a different realm to their female counterparts. They do not add to a systematic oppression based on gender, nor are they indicative of how the general character pool are treated. In most cases, the victim either receives some reward or benefit from the encounter, thus coding the encounter as necessary or somehow worth it, or else it is never brought up again. Both of these are problematic, especially for real life victims of sexual abuse or assault. It portrays assault as either a good thing, or it endorses a culture of silence around male victims. Some of the biggest names in superhero history have at some point been the victim of sexual violence in various forms, but you wouldn’t know that if you weren’t a reader or only read recent issues.
This post comes with content warnings for domestic violence, sexual abuse and sexual assault.
In Hulk #23, Bruce Banner is cornered in the showers at a YMCA by two men. Bruce says no, only to have one of them respond that that only means he won’t like it this time, but his attacker will regardless. Bruce is only able to keep them away from him when he tells them that he is The Incredible Hulk, and if they touch him he’d rip them apart. Bruce was almost gang raped. It’s never referenced again, though one could see how this might impact his life in a significant way.
There is no almost in Nightwing #93. Nightwing, the adult moniker of Dick Grayson, has teamed up with a young woman named Catalina Flores, code-named Tarantula. Catalina murders Blockbuster, and driven mad by Blockbuster’s attacks on his personal life, Nightwing lets her. It’s a traumatic event for Dick, and it takes an even darker turn when Dick lies in the street, injured and unable to move. Rather than help him, Catalina climbs on him and rapes him in the street. He clearly protests, but it doesn’t deter her.
This scene is not treated as rape by the creator. In an interview, the series writer Devin Grayson said of the issues: “For the record, I’ve never used the word “rape,” I just said it was non-consensual”. Grayson wants to draw a distinction between rape and non-consensual sex when there isn’t one to draw. Dick did not consent and could not do anything to stop her. After, she takes a drunk and shaken Dick to the registrar’s office to trick him into marriage. He does manage to stop this though when he is summoned away by Batman.
After this, there are no ramifications. Dick and Catalina continue working together, and two issues later he’s even tempted to kiss her. Dick doesn’t mention it again and Catalina doesn’t receive any punishment until she is eventually incarcerated for the murder of Blockbuster.
In The Invincible Iron Man #30, Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit gains sentience when it is struck by lightning. What follows is a nightmare. The suit believes it loves Tony, murders Whiplash, and abducts Tony and takes him away to an island to torture until he loves the suit back.
The scene is ridiculous, but the pattern is a familiar one. The suit hurts Tony. Apologises. And then makes it Tony’s fault. It is all done out of love and only because he doesn’t understand his feelings for Tony. And yes, it is a romantic love he feels, as the suit states there is no difference between his love for Tony and Tony’s love for his then-love interest, Rumiko Fujikawa. The suit is no longer his captor, and instead becomes an allegory for an abusive relationship. He locks Tony away and threatens to kill anyone important in Tony’s life. When Tony tries to escape and suffers a heart attack in the process, the suit rips out its own heart to give to Tony to save his life. Despite the torture, Tony tries to save his suit and the suit rejects him, saying “you’ve done enough”. The cycle of abuse ends only when Tony is burdened with the guilt of essentially killing his suit.
Perhaps the most famous example is Batman, in Grant Morrison’s 2006 series Batman and Son. In it, one of Batman’s many love interests, Talia al Ghul, drugs Batman and rapes him. This results in the conception of Damian Wayne, the son of Bruce and Talia. Damian is sent to live with Bruce when Ra’s al Ghul is attacked in his home. Bruce takes Damian under wing, and teaches him compassion and the way of the batfamily. Damian is the ultimate reward for Bruce’s hardships; he is given a son and new sidekick from it.
It is worth noting that from 2011, the events of this saga were changed to make it a consensual union, and the 2014 animated movie Son of the Batman follows this retcon.
Finally, we come to a character with two stories to tell—one handled poorly, and one handled surprisingly well.
Back when Tobey Maguire was playing Peter Parker in 2002, it was decided that they should update Spider-Man’s web-slinging power. Gone were the web-shooters invented by Peter; now he could organically produce webbing as a side-effect of the bite. This was all well and good, but Peter in the comics was still using machinery. To fix this, Marvel introduced a storyline called Changes. During this, Spider-Man is restrained by The Queen and assaulted with her kiss. That kiss mutates him from the inside, causing him to become pregnant. He becomes a giant spider, only for the mutation to become unstable and for him die. He somehow manages to birth himself though, with all his old memories and his new webslinging powers. His assault and violation are once again deemed worth it because he benefits from new powers and he doesn’t deal with the trauma.
Sadly, Spider-Man has been in a sexual abuse storyline that was handled well. In Spider-Man and Power Pack #1 (1984), Spider-Man is talking to a young boy who is being abused by his babysitter. It leads to Spider-Man telling his own story about his own experience with Skip, an older boy that he trusted who abused him. It is not even a lie he told to make the child feel better. As he swings through New York in the end, Peter is able to come to terms with what happened. He admits to feeling shame and to thinking it was his fault, which are very common emotions to have after abuse.
This is not the only time it has been mentioned. It was referenced again in 1987 in Spider-Man: National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse #1. It’s a part of a monologue where he talks about the sexual, emotional and verbal abuse he suffered through because of Skip. He urges people to get help if they need it, because there is no weakness in that. He understands the pain.
Both of these were special issues, meant to help children going through the same problems, but they were handled well. There is no reason that it couldn’t be referenced in the new continuity. If characters like Oracle are expected to relive their traumas and have it as a constant part of their character history, then Peter Parker could have it too. He would be no less heroic; he would be even more of a hero, especially to young people from similar situations. His gender does not preclude him from coping with trauma.
That men suffer from sexual abuse is something which the media does not always handle with sensitivity. Superheroes would be perfect avenues to explore this in: they are renowned as being strong, even if it isn’t their core power. It would be an easy way to combat the stereotype of weakness in male victims, and give hope towards a better future for readers with similar stories. Instead, superheroes are either rewarded, or these episodes are not referenced again. It’s like they never happened; sometimes they are retconned so they never did. If you are a man and have been affected by this post, there are some UK resources available for you below. If you think you need help, please seek it. You deserve to feel safe too.
Men’s Advice Line – 0808 801 0327
Survivors UK Web Chat – https://www.survivorsuk.org/ways-we-can-help/web-chat/
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