December 3, 2015 by Devin
Just a heads up: this is an article that will deal with rape and sexual abuse.
I want to preface this article by saying that I am going to talk a lot about what I see as childish entertainment and contrasting that with mature entertainment. It can seem like I am attaching value judgments to these classifications, that something is inherently better just because it is geared toward adults, but I want to stress that this is simply not the case. These are categorizations, not assessments. I think Avatar: The Last Airbender is the best show I have ever seen, and I think Law & Order is a more mature show, and these two ideas are in no way contradictory or even work against each other.
But this idea exists. People think things that are more adult are better because being a child is childish. But this view in itself is flawed. As CS Lewis once said:
When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.
Or, as the immortal philosopher, Spongebob Squarepants noted in a landmark speech:
Yes this was incredibly relevant and yes I had to post the full video
This distinction is important to note especially when talking about geek culture. Geek culture is one of the most insecure cultures I have ever seen or been a part of. It just is. Granted my view is limited, but I have never seen another culture so intent on convincing people that it is “legitimate” and “mature” as geek culture, especially when it comes to comic books and video games.
People are trying to fight the stigma that stories about costumed men fighting bad guys are strictly made for children or that games where you are a floating gun mowing down aliens in glowing armor cannot also have nuance and meaning, and while that argument may seem ridiculous, I get it. Costumed men beating up bad guys does often have meaning beyond it feels fun, and interactive entertainment can lead to deep conversations about choice and narrative that other mediums simply cannot reach.
I have never related more to a TV show.
But this insecurity leads to a lot of childish attempts at “maturity.” These attempts are often only surface level and rarely are meaningful. The thinking goes that because serious dark stories that have sex and violence in them are taken seriously, stories with sex and violence in them are automatically in the “mature” category.
This is the reason why DC has to have dark and violent animated films or why Game of Thrones just has to throw in some rape scenes. Heck, I remember hearing that in the Ant-Man comics, Hank Pym beat up his wife, and I thought it was so cool that the comics could include an issue about domestic violence without ever wondering if this would portray it well. I just thought it was “mature” that they had it.
But what I have learned throughout the years that there is a difference between having difficult content that matters and having difficult content that just sounds like it matters. More often than not, too, these attempts at maturity do not actually engage mature discussions and simply add flavor to stories that are still childish and immature. They are the media equivalent of a child cussing to make it sound more adult.
The most egregious use of this trope was probably in Mark Millar’s comic, Wanted, whose toned-down blander movie version was an improvement simply for not being written by Mark Millar. In that comic, the main character, a member of a super villain organization, rapes women. Just for fun, because he is a bad guy and that’s bad, right, so of course he does that.
Now this character had been shown robbing places and killing tons of people, but this comic was R-rated, so it need something more. It wanted to feel “adult” and “mature,” and rape is something that you do not see kids entertainment talking about or dealing with, so therefore adding rape into this is making it mature.
But Wanted is the most immature and childish book that I have ever read, and the fact that Millar felt the need to include this detail shows how immature and childish his writing actually is.
Rape adds nothing to this story. It is not a central part of the plot nor does it affect any significant characters in any significant ways. It does not even make the main character seem more like a bad guy because the actual effects of this action are never discussed or shown. It is the equivalent of showing a character firing a gun but never showing the wound.
Here is the thing about “maturity”: it relates to experience. In other words, if you speak about something with maturity, it means you speak coming from a place of experiencing that thing enough. We often use maturity as a general catch-all of growing up, that when you have spent a certain amount of years on this planet, you have the required experiences to discuss things from a mature perspective.
But I feel like that perspective is flawed. When I speak about the philosophies behind teaching, I feel like I have a good amount of experience that I can draw back onto, at least more than the average person.
When I talk about financial growth plans, I feel like a 6-year old.
This distinction is important for understanding why media is really sensitive to depictions of some areas of trauma and why it is really terrible at depicting others. Media is actually really good about depicting violence and death. Our language for depicting violence is developed and nuanced; films know how to depict violence that is supposed to be meaningful and know how to depict violence that is supposed to be silly and ridiculous. It understands why a character dying is a big deal and how killing a character can be justified.
But with rape, what is bad about it?
That seems like a silly question because all of it is bad, but I feel like so many movies and TV shows do not understand it. Movies and TV shows treat rape the same way they treat violence. With violence, showing images of mangled or dismembered people disgusts us, and the more details, the more we understand the gravitas of the situation. So by that logic, showing more details of the rape should give us a stronger sense of the terrible nature of this act.
While this approach may work in a limited sense, treating the rape like violence misses a lot of the unique challenges and nuances of this act. Talking with friends who have gone through sexual abuse, I hear them so often talk about the way it affects how they view themselves and men around them. Sexual abuse leaves long lasting wounds, but these are often invisible, even to friends.
Furthermore, the depiction of this act often walks the line between disgusting and titillating. As terrible as we may consciously know these acts are, the visual language often does not convey that. As Syd Field once said, “screenplays are stories told with pictures,” and pictures are still the strongest way we identify and connect with these stories. These pictures that compose the film often convey more of the raw sexuality of the act rather than the trauma associated with it, especially when you consider how these images affect us biologically. The wounds are invisible; the sexuality is not.
In other words, more often than not, in these stories we are supposed to believe that rape is bad almost by faith. We are told that rape is bad, but do these stories actually make a compelling argument, both in the text and in the visuals, for that?
Enter Jessica Jones.
Jessica Jones is a story about an ex-superhero turned film-noir-private eye in New York, but it is about a rape survivor facing her rapist, learning about her rapist, and finding empowerment to overcome her rapist. That is not subtext, by the way. The villain of Jessica Jones, Killgrave, literally raped her.
This approach is more level-headed and mature than other depictions of rape. Jessica Jones does not just throw in difficult content in as window dressing; it weaves in this conflict and builds the story around it to approach this subject in a way that explores all the consequences and implications.
We never actually see the rape. We do not need to. Instead of depicting rape by focusing on the physical violence, Jessica Jones understands that the effects of sexual abuse are often much more sinister and have consequences that last far past the actual act.
Killgrave, the villain of the show, is designed to reflect this. His power is to control people around him. When he says, “You want to give me your wallet,” you are compelled to give him your wallet. You will not want to, and you will know that you do not want to, but you will do it anyway.
This is a strong metaphor for the ways abusers control their victims. Watching this reminded me of a story I heard on This American Life when an abuse victim chronicled her attempts to leave her abusive boyfriend. She knew that he was a terrible person, and she knew that he was controlling her, but, as Jessica Jones depicts, just knowing that you are being controlled does not stop you from being controlled. The average abuse victim leaves and returns to their abuser 7-10 times before they get out for good.
I have heard people talk about abuse victims with their abusers as if they should just leave or get over it, but the truth of the matter is that abuse acts a lot like an addiction and requires more to it than that. This is powerfully depicted in Jessica Jones when Jones has to carry one of Killgrave’s victims, kicking and screaming, away from the place he told her to stay.
There are other areas where Jessica Jones seems to understand the experience of being a rape survivor better than any other media I have seen. Jones has PTSD and has to deal with constantly feeling danger from Killgrave; Jones attempts to change him at one point, something abused people often do; and one of the main conflicts of the show is that people do not believe these victims, a problem that happens far too often in society.
I hesitate to go too deep into analysis on this simply because I am not an expert here. There is so much about this subject that I do not know, which is why the fact that the showrunner for this show was a woman who took an active role in bringing women writers. These themes and plots in the show feel like they are coming from actual experiences. They have a perspective that moves beyond the physical and visible and into the psychological and mental areas of this problem.
That is ultimately what “maturity” is about and why Jessica Jones succeeds where so many other properties fail. For all of its talks of economics and politics, The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately about a guy finding it in him to beat up another guy. Despite all of its sex and violence, Game of Thrones is about how people are selfish and do not get along. No amount of gore stopped 300 from being closer to a child playing with toys than a perspective on the Battle of Thermopylae.
And that is absolutely fine, but let us stop pretending that these things are adult and mature and therefore better. We absolutely need mature media, but that means more stories that treat mature subjects with the respect and gravitas they need and less stories that throw in rape because the world is bad and that is something that is bad so therefore we should put it in there without understanding what it actually is or does.
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 For the record, that particular plot point was because of an overzealous artist and it annoyed the writer behind it.
 No I don’t watch Game of Thrones, or at least I have not seen past the first season, otherwise I would probably put that here. For the record, I have read much more of the books, which are marginally better in this area.
 Yes I know that those ratings do not actually apply to comics. People who are looking for a reason to nitpick a small detail to dismiss my entire argument, please stop.
 Which is why it is really noticeable when a movie does not understand this language.
 This is one article that had some cool stuff in it.