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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sunday supervillainy - Amazing Spider-Man #700

I don't get creeped out easily, but even I am creeped out by this. Amazing Spider-Man #700 ends with a scene where Dr. Octopus is apparently about to rape Mary Jane Watson. Dr. Octopus has taken possession of Spider-Man's/Peter Parker's body and has access to all his memories. As readers, we know that Peter and Mary Jane still love each other, despite having broken up some time back (there was that whole "deal with the devil Mephisto" story, etc., etc.), and despite all the bad shit they've been through together.

Now, despite (on top of those other "despites") how oddly "Peter" has been acting, Mary Jane seems to be up for getting back to together with him. And Dr. Octopus seems like he wants to take advantage of the situation.

Ugh! Just no. I really hope that this is a fake-out and that Mary Jane is going to be revealed as too smart for what has been set up here and/or that Doc Ock, usually a relatively sympathetic villain, is going to be revealed as not that evil. Even if it does prove to be a fake-out, I'm going to be shaking my head at this development.


The Uncredible Hallq said...

I've never been a reader of Amazing Spider-Man, so I can't comment on how consistent this is with Dr. Octopus' past characterization. And my initial reaction is the same as yours.

But on second thought, this looks like a pretty strong signal that Ok is still the villain here, and *of course* this is not going to last and the next several issues will be about Peter getting his body back. Right?

J. J. Ramsey said...

A question. After the whole "One More Day" thing, was Mary Jane supposed to have remembered that Peter Parker was Spider-Man?

Russell Blackford said...

JJ - Mary Jane did not lose that memory. She's always known Spidey's secret identity, whatever the ups and downs of the plot and their friendship/romantic relationship.

More generally, I'm hopeful that Marvel is faking us out here. Mary Jane is supposed to be smart (e.g. she worked out that Peter was Spider-Man right from the beginning), and she's been in situations like this before. Sure she'd work out that something is "off", even if Doc Ock is that evil and tries to go through with it.

All the same, this story is getting very close to a certain line that I'd hate to see crossed.

Cafeeine Addicted said...

If you want to really be weirded out, just consider that Doc Ock was at some point romantically involved with Peter's aunt, May Parker.

ColinGavaghan said...

Intriguing, Russell. Marvel serves up villains who commit (or attempt to) genocide, mass murder and torture,
but impersonation rape is the line you wouldn't want them to cross? I can understand your reservations re these particular characters, but more generally?

Anonymous said...

You know the same thing happened with Buffy but with reverse gender roles (Faith took control of Buffy's body and had sex with Riley) and the show focused on Buffy's feeling of betrayal, rather than Riley being "raped".

Not saying I have a problem with either interpretation, just interesting is all.


Russell Blackford said...

Colin, I've been wondering about this, too.

I don't actually claim that it's an intellectually defensible reaction. It's doubtless more an emotional one, and it is partly to do with these particular characters.

Still, it's a reaction that might be worth talking about. Why do I (and I suspect many people) find it more troubling that Mary Jane may be raped before the next issue of the story (presumably SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN #1) than that Peter has been killed? Is it that Marvel can find a way to bring back a character who has been killed, but there is no way in the Marvel Universe to un-rape somebody?

Or is it something else?

ColinGavaghan said...

I was sure you would have given it some thought, Russell!

I can understand your feelings re PP's possible death - which is surely unlikely to be permanent! - as opposed to MJ's rape. But what about torture? It's now a pretty routine part of the entertainment industry. Since Stuart brought it up, torture became so common in the Buffy-verse that it was treated as little worse than a trip to the dentist - with about as much recovery time required. Yet Spike's attempted rape of Buffy was seen as a whole different level of badness.

I can understand people arguing that none of torture, murder or rape - and certainly not the Holocaust (as it was in the X-Men films) - should be used for entertainment in this way. I can understand people arguing that anything can be used for entertainment, if it's done in the right way (with none of these acts being glamorised or trivialised). I can even, just about, understand those who would say that absolutely anything goes in entertainment, that we should be adult enough to realise that the violence we see in films and comics is nothing like the kind that occurs in real life.

But I'm struggling to see how one should be treated - in general - as sui generis.

Russell Blackford said...

I suppose one problem is that rape so often actually is trivialised in popular culture, making many of us very suspicious when we see it as a story element.

Now, let's think about MJ. Suppose she does actually get raped by Dr. Octopus. Given the emotional investment of the average reader in MJ, who is a much-loved character, this would be pretty harrowing for readers, and it should not be depicted as anything less. Then there's the emotional trauma for her afterwards - for it to be taken seriously, it would completely change the character. She'd have to be presented in future as a rape survivor in a way analogous to Magneto's presentation (to use your example) as a Holocaust survivor. I have nothing against the use of the Holocaust, but I'm glad that the Magneto Testament mini-series exists, where this is treated very seriously, and that Marvel shows no sign at the moment of ever taking away the dignity that goes with Magneto's past (it did to some extent in the 1990s, but it also tried for a time to bury the Holocaust back story).

I suppose Marvel could do all that with MJ, and there's a sense in which we couldn't complain. It would be character development, etc., etc. I'd be resistant to seeing MJ taken down such a path - she's just not that dark a character, and something would be lost if she were transformed in that way, especially when Stan Lee is still doing his own syndicated cartoons in which Peter and MJ are actually married, etc. But I certainly couldn't complain if it were done respectfully, etc.

I suspect, though, that she'd soon be shown as having just shrugged it off, much like Tigra, who actually had a baby (!) with an alien Skrull impersonating Henry Pym, and seems not much the worse for the experience.

You're right that even things like torture get trivialised, though I suppose part of this is the conventional idea that superheroes (and the better class of supervillains) are able to come back from mere physical pain or even, by one means or another, from actual death.

Of course, MJ is not a superhero or a supervillain - she is a relatively ordinary person (albeit extraordinarily smart, capable, beautiful, etc.). She is one of us. So maybe that has something to do with it.

But maybe even that is not the point. I think that treating rape in the way that ordinary forms of violence are treated in superhero comics, in a society where (it can be strongly argued) there is already (still) too much trivialisation of rape, and (still) too much in the way of callous attitudes to women and their fears and concerns in general, seems especially problematic. In that sense, perhaps it is sui generis, and special sensitivity is needed.

ColinGavaghan said...

Hey Russell (and happy new year),

Can you (or anybody) provide a recent example in popular culture when rape was trivialised? I entirely agree that this used to be part of popular culture, but I really can't recall the last time I saw that. (Exception: male rape in prison still is sometimes played for laughs. I'm looking at you, Kevin Smith.) Perhaps I just don't watch/read certain kinds of popular culture any more, but the impression I have is that this just does not happen any more, and simply wouldn't be tolerated if it did. And, y'know. Good.

Torture and killing, otoh, really are showed as trivial, or funny, or instantly forgettable. Good guys inflict torture. Good guys get tortured, and just shrug it off. Put this in a context where at least some of our governments are seeking to justify the infliction of real life torture as no big deal, and it strikes me as ... not exactly unproblematic.

I think my working thesis is that, if there are good reasons not to make entertainment out of rape - and there surely are - then they apply equally to torture and at least some kinds of killing. Or at least, it isn't obvious why they shouldn't.

Russell Blackford said...

Well, the example I had in mind from comics was the Tigra/Skrull-Hank-Pyme one that I mentioned. Tigra had sex with an alien shape-shifter believing it was Hank Pyme - and she actually got pregnant and had a little cat-person baby which she and Hank are bringing up. And there must have been a lot of these situations during the Secret Invasion storyline, with nothing much ever being made of it.

But there are other examples of rapey situations that come to mind from Marvel. E.g. the Scarlet Witch had sex with Hawkeye not that long ago, in a situation where Wanda had lost her memory of who she was, her previous relationship with him, etc. That at least seems like a huge power imbalance, even if Wanda initiated it, but it was glamorised.

Back in the day, Lyja had sex with Johnny Storm while impersonating Alicia Masters - and we could probably find a lot of examples of female shapeshifters doing this sort of thing to men, with no indication that this kind of male rape would be especially problematic or much more than annoying.

Ms. Marvel was sort of raped at one point and not much is now made of it.

MJ herself had a similar situation to her current one with the Doc Ock with a shapeshifting villain, the Chameleon - though it was later explained that they only kissed erotically when he was impersonating Spider-Man (they never actually had sex).

At the other end of the scale there are situations that are not at all rapey as far as I can see, but which upset some fans, such as the kerfuffle a couple of years ago when Magneto and Rogue had sex.

ColinGavaghan said...

Ha! I defer humbly to your astonishing knowledge of the Marvel-verse.

So it looks as though this sort of impersonation-rape (and I'm assuming we all agree that it is rape) is viewed differently from what we might call coercion-rape - which is still a taboo for mainstream comics. Maybe this is because the former is so far removed from the real life experiences of actual people. I mean, there are a handful of documented cases where the rapist pretended to be the victim's husband or whatever - enough to establish that the common law views that as rape - but on the whole, the circumstances would have to be pretty unusual for that to occur. Taking over other people's bodies just isn't something we can actually do, so we have no real life examples to which we can relate these stories.

So maybe that's why this sort of thing is deemed acceptable for comics; while it's still rape, it's very different from the sort of rape that happens to actual people. Consent is unfairly circumvented, but no-one is forced or battered or injured or terrified.

If we're uneasy about it, maybe it's because the badness of the act is sometimes being down-played a bit too much. I'm thinking of a Swamp Thing storyline (post Alan Moore, I think, so probably during Rick Veitch's run) when John Constantine allowed ST to take over his body to have sex with Abby Holland - all with her knowledge and approval. But we were left to suspect that JC had resumed control a little while before the act was over, and hadn't let on or desisted. That this was depicted as a rogue-ish act rather than a rapacious one always left me feeling a little uneasy.