What responsibility do you have as a creator, when it comes to depicting rape? Mileage will vary, but here’s my take.
One evening last summer, as my family and I were renting a lakefront place in northern Vermont, I rewatched the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen movie. It was, just as I remembered from the early aughts, some interesting ideas buried under a mound of stupid. This was, after all, best known as the movie that made Sean Connery quit acting.
But I found myself wanting to go back and read the source material, to see how the ideas were originally explored. It was such an interesting concept: 19th-century literary figures brought together into one story as a superhero team. Surely Alan Moore, creator of Watchmen, had to have done a better job with the comics. I recalled that Moore had refused to watch the movie version (well, he refuses to watch any movie based on his works).
So that fall I began ambling through the graphic novel series, and found that, at least initially, the comics really were better. Mina, a character relegated to a support role in the movie, is actually the leader of the Extraordinary Gentlemen. She’s not a superpowered, immortal vampire. Her only superpower is her cool-headed rationality and intelligence. She pulls Allan Quatermain out of a drug-addicted haze and recruits him to the team. Whereas in the movie Quatermain is the team leader, Connery playing Connery the whole time.
Wonder why Mina couldn’t be the leader in the movie? Perhaps the decision was made by the same people who decided to make Mina into basically a pair of boobs on the movie poster? (No, really, look at it again. Her chest is bigger than Mr. Hyde.) Perhaps the same people who decided they needed to add a fucking Tom Sawyer character to the movie — thus making the story fundamentally about a father-son dynamic between Quatermain and Sawyer and further eclipsing Mina?
So. No Tom Sawyer in the comics. A lot more character development for our one female “gentleman.” So far, so good. There was some troubling stuff with the Invisible Man raping and impregnating teenage girls at a school devoted to spanking, but otherwise . . . no, actually, that was pretty creepy. But on balance I thought Volume 1 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was awesome. So many interesting references to the whole canon of 19th-century British lit (you could play around in here for hours).
Then Volume 2 featured the Invisible Man graphically beating and possibly raping Mina. And Mr. Hyde raping the Invisible Man to death in retaliation, and then being regarded as a hero by the end of the story. And I started to think, “What am I reading?”
Volume 3 (which finished just a few years ago) got even worse, somehow. As the story jumped ahead by decades, sexual assault became featured more and more often. Captain Nemo’s daughter gets raped as character motivation to become a badass pirate. Mina’s breasts are fondled by Voldemort (!) while her astrally projected self is nearly raped by a penis demon thing.
Meanwhile, I was also reading Richard Matheson’s Hell House, which (spoiler alert?) features gratuitous sexual violence against the female main characters, but nothing of the sort for the male characters. And Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for U.S. president, reveled in misogyny and openly advocated for sexual assault (while many women stepped forward to claim that he had assaulted them). I just ended up feeling disgusted by it all.
Now Trump is just weeks away from beginning his presidency. His ascent is a powerful normalization of sexual violence and misogyny. And we as creators need to ask ourselves whether our work speaks out against that message — or bolsters and perpetuates it.
I’m not going to call Alan Moore a misogynist based on his work. I believe in absolute freedom of expression for artists, and I would hate to see people shy away from depicting rape altogether (while continuing to depict murder, torture, etc.). We can’t infer a creator’s strength of character solely from their work. And creators need the latitude to explore all dimensions of the human experience, in whichever ways they choose.
But we have to admit that, sometimes, we are really not helping things. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. What we create joins a larger conversation. And what we say, for our little piece of the conversation, affects real people in the real world.
Here’s one way to look at it. Nothing is stopping you from painting a beautiful picture of Hitler, nor should it. You have the freedom to depict the Fuhrer lounging in a pastoral landscape. But is it really a good idea? When there are people still alive who lost relatives to the Holocaust, how do you think they would react to it?
Now think of the millions of sexual assault survivors in the U.S. Think of their experience reduced not just to a boast by the president-elect, but also to a plot point in pop culture. Over and over and over again. Think of how that looks through their eyes.
You have the freedom as a creator to wield rape as a plot device. But do you really want to boost that signal, in the real world in 2017?
My hope for the New Year is to see a powerful outpouring of creative work, from artists in all media, that joins the larger resistance against normalizing misogyny, sexual assault, and racism. As creators, we have a role to play that is suited to our skills — and can make a real difference in influencing the cultural conversation with our own values.
Finally, if you need any additional motivation, as a creator, to be a little more respectful toward your female characters, consider this. Someday, we’ll view careless and exploitative depictions of rape in stories to be as antiquated as characters in blackface. Those stories will largely be left behind. No disrespect to Mr. Moore, but someday nobody will be able to read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen without cringing in embarrassment. Do you want your own work to suffer the same fate?
Jeff Deck is a Today Show-featured author who lives in Maine with his wife, Jane, and their silly dog, Burleigh. Deck writes science fiction, fantasy, horror, dark fantasy, and whatever else goes under the umbrella of speculative fiction. Deck’s new book is the supernatural thriller novel The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley. His previous book is the sci-fi gaming adventure novel Player Choice. Deck is also the author, with Benjamin D. Herson, of the nonfiction book The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time (Crown/Random House). Deck is also a freelance writer/editor and has contributed content to a couple of video games.