Let's Talk About Comics, Consent, and THAT issue of Captain America
Originally posted via The Carnival of The Random the author’s personal tumblr. Opinions contained within are the viewpoint of the author and may not represent those of other members of NiB staff.
I’m going to preface this by saying, (as it says in my About section) I’m a Marvel gal for life. Have been since I was a wee-me getting grubby fingerprints on my comics and grubby newsprint on my face after that. Ah, the days of literal pulp.
(Image description: Panel from Captain America #22 featuring Jet Zola, a young white woman in a black dress that is several bands covering her breasts, part of her abdomen, and groin/upper thighs sitting on a sofa with Sam Wilson aka the Falcon, in a black shirt/grey trousers, they are drinking wine and there is a background image that indicates Miles Davis music overlays the scene.)
Before ANYONE starts yelling, read what I have to say because it’s not going to be what you think.
TW: discussion of definition of rape, rape culture.
1. I don’t particularly like Rick Remender. I think he’s hostile to audience readings and assumes word of god means anything. It doesn’t. I don’t particularly dislike him in general, either. I think it’d be awesome if he (among others) learned to say, “Help me understand, because I’m not seeing it and you obviously feel strongly,” rather than jumping to rejecting the premise.
2. I don’t, and never have past reading the text, think that Jet was in any way coerced, assaulted, raped, or that her age was in question but I do get where other people might feel like it was shoe-horned in and I don’t judge them for that read.
3. I have never thought firing Remender was a good way to solve the problem of consent or hypersexualizing in comics. It’s a BIGGER problem than one person. Rape culture is as pervasive as air, we have to deal with that.
4. I view his remarks (and those of his supporters who used the same language,) of the questioning and crit regarding this scene as, “Libellous,” usually with something insulting tacked on, as not only overkill but the word choice of people who don’t understand what those words mean or are sending a message that dissent will not be tolerated. This is NOT productive, from a PR standpoint. Really.
Nobody accused Rick Remender of statutory rape, and people weren’t making things up. They just had a different point of view. One that might have lead to a spectacular leap forward in comics’ portrayal of consent if people would have listened.
So, let’s talk about the larger issues, shall we?
While a lot of the shouting may be borne out of the post-CATWS surge in Cap and Falcon’s popularity, it’s not without merit as a wholesale response even from non-readers. Historically, the portrayal of Falcon has had some highly stereotyped and racist features (whether intentional or not.) Portraying a black man as a pimp and thug is so entrenched that it is our dominant media narrative about black men in urban areas, rather than the socioeconomic factors at play or whether it’s even TRUE. If someone says a crime was committed by a black man, white people will believe it. The Susan Smith case is a prime example. (There is so much data on race and perception that I’m not even gonna dig up the links for you. GOOGLE IT.)
The matter of representation, in terms of both accuracy and quality is a major one in 2014. Whether we like it or not. And trust me, most of us who are doing a lot of talking about representation in media are NOT all that fond of having to do so. We’d much rather be able to enjoy media without worrying that something will make us want to tear our hair out.
As far as the text is concerned, Jet’s age is clearly established here. Alternate dimension or no, it’s part of the text. A cursory read might miss it, so I make room for alternate interpretations including that she’s LYING. Because I’m pretty sure most of us lied about our age at some point to seem cool, and one of the most frequently used excuses for statutory rape is, “I thought they were (over the age of consent.)”
It’s disingenuous to dismiss the potential to read this in ways that are not what the author intended, it’s there and authorial intent means doodly-squat when all’s said and done. Fundamental rule: We cannot determine how the message is received because intent is not magic and the audience isn’t psychic.
Moving on: the thing that had me hitting the mental brakes and spinning out here, is what’s in the text itself, specifically, the boldface, “ONE glass is enough for me… ” “Oh, C’MON, Falcon, live a little… I really like the effect that it produced.”
That set my flashing neon, nuclear accident alarms off. It’s so very much like tactics used by rapists to render their targets pliable or incapacitated. And that impression is not in any way ameliorated by the rest of the issue.
So the biggest question I had, factoring this in with Lorelei having sex with Grant Ward in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., is: Why are we not talking about men in the Marvel Universe being sexually assaulted? It may not be what’s intended, but that’s what’s happening.
If someone is unable to give consent by a legal definition, (and if you can’t legally drive due to intoxication, you can’t legally give consent to sex,) including due to magical mind-control, then having sex with them is legally rape.
Let that sink in for a moment, because this is me as a feminist and a survivor of rape saying that we are letting what reads to me and what in at least one case meets the legal definition of rape, slide because it’s happening to men. Whether that’s because we’re exhausted by trying to be heard about rape culture as it applies to women and the salmon-upstream nature of it, or that we’re being terrified and threatened on a daily basis and we’re overwhelmed at the task of emptying the ocean of male-dominant perpetrator/female victim apologism and rape culture, I don’t know.
Rape culture is excusing rape and harassment of men because we’re inculcated with the idea that men want sex all the time and that therefore any sex will be welcome, or that men can’t be raped because of physical strength, or that it’s impossible to rape a man because a man has to be physically aroused to engage in penetrative sex.
No. That’s not how it works.
And it is exhausting having to explain this, especially because during the, “Fire Rick Remender,” uproar, people were not listening to anything that might not toe the Marvel line on this.
Considering the subsequent announcement of Sam Wilson taking up the mantle of Captain America the following week, I get the united front and hardline, “Falcon is not a rapist,” stance. It doesn’t change the fact that there are nuanced discussions we need to have about not just representation and optics, but about the concepts of portraying consent, particularly in the context of drinking or other substances. Consent isn’t just saying, “No,” or fighting off advances. Consent isn’t just saying, “Yes,” either. It’s informed, aware, enthusiastic, “Yes’s” coupled with the ability to say, “No,” without fear. Adopting that in model in media could change EVERYTHING.
We need to talk about these things because in the real world, they happen and we can’t just say, “But it’s right there in the text.”
And I think we CAN have those conversations but there has to be a willingness of the people in power (writers, artists, publishers, and film/tv producers) to have that discussion even if it makes them uncomfortable.
I keep coming back again and again to the fact that what we see in media has the power to build empathy, to make us question the status quo, and inspire us to make changes in the real world or it can reinforce the status quo ad infinitum.
And don’t tell me it’s just a comic book. How often have comics been used to convey a message to readers like say, Spider-Man and the dangers of drugs? Facile arguments that reinforce the idea that comics are an infantile art form are not welcome here.
Superheroes have always given me hope for our capacity to do better, no matter how dark the circumstance or how fragile we may be, we can keep fighting with our last breath if it means making the world better and helping someone else.
I have faith that there are a lot of people making comics who want to do the best that they can to make them something that tells stories in the most authentic and inclusive way possible. I also know that learning the things we need to know to do that, is a little like having to battle our dark half while absorbing an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge.
It takes time, and it’s not comfortable or easy to dismantle the parts of ourselves that have become things we consciously detest. It’s worth it, though.
The absolute, unfettered, screaming joy I felt at seeing an image of Sam Wilson as Captain America and knowing how much that means to kids who don’t often get to see heroes who look like them and what it means for people who may not think of themselves as consciously racist when they reacted poorly to that image but then started to ask themselves why, or even just for people who are fighting to see a world in media that looks like the world we occupy and are so often told isn’t what’s, “Real,” was practically an air raid siren.
It’s every step, you see. Every step we take towards the light, towards equality, and every step towards media reflecting the world back at us in a way that doesn’t erase people is a step towards being better in the physical reality we occupy.
Representation matters. Conscious awareness of how what we do in narrative media can halt, subvert, or feed into our actual culture and toxic bias, matters. Listening to each other, whether audience or creators, matters.
Can we do that?
*NB: Author would like to add that this is an issue that affects all media, and Marvel is simply the case in point at this moment in time.