Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Friday, August 8, 2014


It's debatable as to whether there have been "good rapes" in the medium of comic books. There have been a lot of bad stories involving rape, like the aforementioned IDENTITY CRISIS, and there have been stories in which rape is addressed as An Important Issue, like this issue of Alan Moore's SWAMP THING.

By my own lights, though, a "good rape" in the comics medium would be the same as it is in other media: a fictional scenario that speaks to humankind's inescapable nature.  That nature is the desire to dominate, which, as Francis Fukuyama has pointed out, is inseparable from the human desire to excel.  *Megalothymia* is not, as the Marquis de Sade was pleased to believe, the essence of human nature, for it has its opposing number in *isothymia,* the desire to share a commonality of rights and privileges with others. Both are equally part of our inherent nature, even if we exercise their respective desires only through the medium of fantasy.

I said earlier that (1) I did not want to take refuge in examples taken from Established Literature, and (2) the examples I would take from popular fiction would be "works aimed at particular genders." With that in mind, I'll begin with what may be the most famous rape in a work of bestseller fiction aimed predominantly at a female audience.

Though the 1936 novel GONE WITH THE WIND has had many male readers, there can be little doubt that it was primarily aimed at female readers. Not only does the novel stay almost completely in the viewpoint of protagonist Scarlett O'Hara, most of its action takes place in domestic settings, upon which the male world of violence only occasionally intrudes.  Even Rhett Butler, consistently portrayed as a "man's man," fades in importance when he's out running guns or belatedly joining the Confederacy's lost cause; he becomes important to the story primarily for the many ways he pays court to Scarlett-- one of which is that he falls in love with her long before she reciprocates.

The novel also makes much of the feminine propensity for gossip, and Mitchell makes clear that a great deal of it serves to displace the women's own sexual desires.  Every time Scarlett scandalizes the straight-laced community of Southern women, there's a sense that they enjoy a forbidden pleasure in fantasizing about her misdeeds, even while they excoriate her.  One might extrapolate that this does not speak well for the sexual capacities of Southern men, if their women's greatest pleasure stems from fantasy-sex.

One of those fantasies is, of course, that of being raped, whether by ruthless Yankees or bestial black men. While Mitchell is too fully implicated in the fantasy to invert it-- as a politically correct author might-- it is ironic that no character in the novel actually gets raped in the general sense of the word, that is, in terms of a criminal assault. Twice Scarlett is confronted by threatening males, but though in both cases rape is a possible outcome, it's clear that both the pilfering Yankee soldier at Tara and the two lowlifes in Atlanta are primarily out to rob her.

As for normative sex, the reader only knows that Scarlett has had sex at least three times prior to the novel's famous scene of spousal rape. One knows this because Scarlett has three children, one of whom is born only to be killed in the novel while the other two might as well be phantoms for all the presence they have.  It's not surprising that in 1936 Mitchell was circumspect about the sexual act when writing to a majority audience, although she herself was a devotee of erotica ranging from Cabell to Cleland.  Yet Mitchell-- whose second husband, the putative model for Rhett Butler, was rumored to be a wife-beater-- isn't merely being circumspect.  Rhett Butler's rape of his wife Scarlett is, in essence, the culmination of the fantasies of the fallen culture of Southern womanhood and of Mitchell's female readership.

Yet GWTW's rape is more than a mere "bodice-ripper:" it speaks to specifically female issues, not in terms of the relationships of women to men, but of women to other women.  Few if any female readers will fail to realize my earlier point, that Rhett has fallen in love with Scarlett even at a time when she primarily thinks of him as an attractive scoundrel who has a lot of money.  Scarlett commits many sins for which readers will want to see her punished, as do her detractors within the novel-- but for many readers this will be her worst sin: failing to love the man devoted to her, and forbidding him from her bed simply because she does not want more children.  In addition, her continued pursuit of Ashley Wilkes-- although somewhat on the wane by the time the spousal rape takes place-- adds fuel to the fire that causes Rhett to lose all control.

Of course, as both the book and its film-adaptation make clear, the "punishment" is something less than punitive. By the generally sunny disposition Scarlett displays the next morning, Leslie Fiedler surmises that Scarlett has had her first orgasm, though Fiedler admits that Mitchell does not say this in so many words.

For many feminists this may be the novel's worst ideological offense, and many would rush to condemn the novel for supposedly validating real-world instances of rape, spousal and otherwise.  Some might even accuse Mitchell of indirectly supporting Sigmund Freud's thesis that the sexuality of women is inherently masochistic.

Nevertheless, good intentions aside, they would be wrong to do so.  Though GONE WITH THE WIND is directed at female readers, its evocation of a world in which sexual predators lurk around every corner is not entirely without appeal to male readers as well. In its thematic orientation Mitchell's Civil-War Atlanta is no less a fantasy than one of James Branch Cabell's horny otherworlds, and should be evaluated on that basis.

Next: the "He Said" side of the question.

No comments: