Women in Refrigerators: 13 years later - Part One
(Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of rape, sexual assault)
It has been 13 years since comic creator, then fan, Gail Simone made the Women in Refrigerators list. The list essentially was female characters who have been assaulted, maimed or killed in order to drive a male character’s storyline.
On that list are a number of female characters who also were sexually assaulted. Now, this list was sent to a number of comic creators who provided their responses to it, and some of them specifically called out the sexual violence that is often perpetrated on female characters.
John Ostrander said, “Only the female characters are victims of sex crimes; male characters are never subjected to that. (There may be one or two exceptions when the male character was sexually abused as a child, but that’s about it.) It is the number and frequency of THAT which troubles me.”
This much I knew was true. But how many female characters are subjected to sexual violence? Whenever I read posts or threads on rape or sexual violence in comics, it is almost often dismissed as being a rarity or that one exploitative time when Sue Dibny was raped.
Even creators have dismissed the amount of times female characters have been subjected to sexual violence: Mark Millar responded to the WiR list by saying, “As regards the female characters thing, I’m afraid I think it’s giving male creators a bum deal. The list does read pretty shocking at first until you think of everything the male heroes have gone through, too, in terms of deaths/mutilations/etc. Granted, the female stuff has more of a sexual violence theme and this is something people should probably watch out for, but rape is a rare thing in comics and is seldom done in an exploitative way.” (As a side note, Millar in his Nemesis series, had a serial killer force a police chief’s gay son to rape his sister and impregnated her. This was done in order to drive the police chief’s storyline and create tragedy for him. If this isn’t an instance of exploitative rape than I don’t know what is)
Women are disproportionately the victims of sexual violence in reality. One in six women have either faced some kind of sexual violence or attempt at sexual violence. One of the comments I read and hear over and over again is that women in reality face sexual violence, and therefore, ostensibly, women in comics will, too. This has a chillingly normalizing effect. These kinds of normalizations or rationalizations, condonations, excuses and tolerances are all too common in rape culture.
While we work to end sexual violence and tell the world that one rape is too many, we are told that because women experience sexual violence disproportionately anyways, that it’s going to pop up when creators of fictional fantasy escapist worlds want ‘realism.’ This ‘realistic’ element is often portrayed through grossly stereotypical tropes that are lazy, ignorant, and rely on heterosexist and misogynistic ideas. One extremely common such example is the woman running away from the gang of would-be rapist men (as seen in Green Arrow no. 1 [Brightest Day 2010] by J.T. Krul and Diogenes Neves). The hero swoops in just at the right time to save this woman from being viciously and violently gang-raped. This moment is never mentioned further because it is nothing of consequence; it is just a normal occurrence in the life of our hero. (And through my gleaning of the reviews, it seems to be of no consequence to the general storyline, either, except to show how heroic the male character is; and, it is almost always a male or more masculine character who does the saving in these scenarios)
This particular trope is based on the idea that the rapist is almost always a stranger (or strangers), and comes out of a dark alley or dark woods to attack. While this is absolutely an occurrence that happens (ie. Paul Bernardo would attack and rape victims at bus shelters), 73 per cent of sexual violence is not perpetrated by a stranger — that’s right, two-thirds of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone known to the victim. (it should further be noted these particular stats only discuss ‘victims’ and do not specify gender)
Rachel Edidin discussed sexual violence in comics for Girl-Wonder.org. She described many of the common plots containing sexual assault against female characters: “Unfortunately, it’s also become a popular shortcut for “developing” female characters. In this capacity, it tends to fall into one of three plot roles: an attempt to give the character a “dark” history, usually as a context or explanation for neuroses; a female hero’s primary motivation for heroism or her catalyst for becoming a hero; or a means of diminishing a strong female character by emphasizing her vulnerability.”
I will give you examples of each of the three instances she further explains in detail.
Gloria from Batman #424. This famous issue is where we see Robin/Jason Todd possibly push a serial rapist off a balcony to his death. This issue and the prior dumpster killers arc (Batman #421-422) by Jim Starlin set a basis for darker stories for Batman. In this story, Batman and Robin find a battered woman, Gloria, in her bed. She tells them that Felipe Garzonas, a diplomat’s son, raped her. Batman and Robin take Garzonas in to jail, and Jason is sure Garzonas will go to jail. Garzonas uses his one phone call to taunt Gloria, and ends up getting out of jail because of his ‘diplomatic immunity.’ Jason discovers Gloria has committed suicide, and enraged, goes after Garzonas. Edidin describes this type of plot as such: “the victim is usually portrayed as a complete innocent–at worst, temporarily misled but basically virtuous–and the perpetrator is totally reprehensible and inhuman, an utter rogue who appears sympathetic only when he is deliberately manipulating his victims. He is also generally in a position of power–a parent or other older relative, a pimp, etc.–and the rape usually happens in connection with other abuse.” (This is also contained in one of Selina Kyle/Catwoman’s backstories - See Catwoman no. 1 - Metamorphosis)
Kate Bishop/Hawkeye II is walking through the park when she is attacked and raped. She spends some time recovering, and then decides to dedicate her life to fighting crime like the one that happened to her. Here’s what Edidin had to say about this plot line: “In these cases, the victim is either deeply traumatized and relegated to a semi-comatose state; or she is immediately incited to a life of crime-fighting, either as a means to revenge or as a way of preventing other women from suffering a similar fate. In these cases, the assailant is almost always a stranger or, at most, an acquaintance, and the assault is usually anonymous, apparently arbitrary, and particularly brutal.”
Artemis of Bana-Mighdall. Carol Danvers/Ms. Marvel. Jessica Jones/Jewel. Mia Dearden (who was saved from the sleazy rapist politican by Green Arrow. As Speedy, she was threatened with rape by Dr. Light). Silk Spectre I (her attempted rape by the Comedian was stopped by Hooded Justice). This plot line involves female heroes, or those who would be female heroes, and Edidin describes it further: “In the final instance, a female character who is already a hero is assaulted as a means of emphasizing her vulnerability and/or femininity: in effect, “cutting her down to size.” This instance is particularly insidious, as it is most often used as a means of diminishing a previously powerful and confident female character. If the assault is completed, the character is generally deeply traumatized and left either catatonic or violently self-destructive to an extent that affects the character’s ability to function as a hero for an extended period of time; if it is attempted, it is generally prevented by the intercession of a male superhero. Either way, the ultimate result is the disempowerment of the character.”
Head under the cut for more, including a discussion on male victims of sexual violence, and the issue of same-sex sexual violence in comics. I will present the list specific to female characters who have been sexually assaulted in comics as the part two.