This is long. It is about comic books (with some spoilers.) It is about rape (which may trigger.)
I just read the new Amethyst comic. For those who don’t know, DC Comics is celebrating the one-year anniversary of their New 52 rollout with a month of Zero issues telling the back stories and origins of all their superheroes and roll out some new titles. One of the new books is Sword of Sorcery, which revisits the character of Amethyst, Princess of Gemworld. Amethyst filled the Harry Potter fantasy in my life before Harry Potter. She’s a normal girl, living a semi-normal life, who discovers she’s a princess with magic powers in another dimension. I mean, COME ON!
Sword of Sorcery #0 is coming under some fire for a controversial scene in which Amy Winston (Princess Amethyst’s Earth persona) saves a schoolmate from being gang raped. It goes down like this.
Amy and Beryl are both introduced as high school outcasts - Beryl (nicknamed Berry), the shy, awkward, misfit and Amy, the freaky new loner with the alienating hair. (Yes - she’s blonde on the cover, it’s one of her powers.)
Amy meets Beryl just as she’s being suspiciously ‘asked out’ by a handsome football player. We all knew what was up here, except Beryl.
Amy - hoping she’s wrong, but not willing to take the chance, follows her and interrupts the inevitable. Kicking some serious ass.
And even though Amy just saved her bacon and gave a couple of jerks some serious pain, Beryl isn’t exactly overcome with gratitude.
Okay, so the attempted rape itself is pretty cookie-cutter. We have a highly sympathetic victim who wasn’t drinking, or wearing revealing clothing, or saying yes before she said no. We have boring bad guys that have no substance or redeeming qualities that make them difficult to detest. And Beryl gets saved in the end, and remains ‘unspoiled’.
But on the other hand, Beryl’s reaction to Amy saving her is appropriately complex. At this point adrenaline will be rushing through her body. She’d be embarrassed, not only the typical shame that goes with being sexually assaulted, but also that she fell for so stupid a trap, and maybe even that she had to be rescued (and by a girl… we all have a little internalized misogyny and Amy isn’t exactly a handsome knight on a white horse, though she could own you with a sword.) She’d be dealing with all that on top of being angry, confused, naturally terrified. If anything, I was surprised that Amy seems to expect more from her - but then, Amy’s just seventeen.
This works, as long as it isn’t the end. As long as Beryl and her emotional recovery from trauma isn’t forgotten. As long as she isn’t a throwaway character who suffers only to give the protagonist an inciting incident for his (or her) journey - a trope known as “Women in Refrigerators” coined by Gail Simone. As long as we get more of Beryl’s story, told in an empathetic, complex, and multifaceted way, it has the potential to be really groundbreaking on this subject.
I have a vested interest in portrayals of women in media. The short of it is, I’m an actress and I want to work without compromising my principles. So when female characters are boring or simplistic, or worse insulting and damaging, this affects my livelihood.
I have a special fascination and simultaneous natural revulsion for the depiction of rape in media. It has often been described to me (mostly by men) as a ‘fate worse than death’ as an explanation for why it gets used so often as a plot device. If you want something truly terrible to happen to a female character and you don’t want to outright kill her then you write in a nasty rape scene. Writers do this because they want the pain and the damage to last as long as possible - the rest of the character’s life. It’s convenient for all kinds of lazy story telling: women who have been raped can have all kinds of new flaws, weaknesses, and also superpowers. And, more often, the men in their lives (who are naturally more important to any given story) can be moved to superhuman anger, grief, rage, depression and so forth.
Rape is an epidemic in the US. Every 2 minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted.* Every 2 minutes - more than once in the time you will take to read this blog. More than 1 in 6 women have experienced some form of sexual assault in their lifetimes. When I think of the 6 women closest to me and have to pick one, I feel physically ill. Men are also victims of rape, but since only 1 in 10 victims of rape are men, you’ll have to excuse me for focusing on the 90% here. This is not a small problem, but our society ignores it and brushes it aside to an absurd degree. You’ve probably heard about the nationwide backlog of rape kits waiting to be tested. That’s after only an estimated 57% of sexual assault instances are even reported to the police, and even fewer than that result in a rape kit actually being used. You’ve probably heard someone get angry at the use of rape as a punchline - and you’ve probably heard comedians and fans alike defend it vociferously. I’ve even heard the argument that rape is SO terrible that we ought to laugh at it and dismiss it so that we don’t have to deal with it… cause not dealing with it has worked so well for us in stopping it.
All that is to say that using rape as a two-dimensional plot point is not acceptable - it trivializes a violent crime that disproportionately affects women, one that already struggles to be taken seriously.
I understand why people react with a knee-jerk to seeing rape, especially in an inaugural/origin story. We who care about media portrayals of women have been burned by this so many times we’ve lost count. An encounter with rape should never be the only defining characteristic of a whole person. I felt a gut shot too when I first saw that panel of the predatory jock - I felt what Amy felt: “please let me be wrong about this.”
But I have hope for this story. From a purely story structure standpoint, the fact that this girl was mentioned by some girls in connection with our lead on the first page, and then given a name - not only that, but a name that has a connection to the protagonist (Beryl being another kind of precious stone, like Amethyst) and then returned again to be relevant to the plot, that’s a lot of reinforcement for a throwaway character. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Beryl.
It is undeniable that media portrayals of rape are uniformly terrible. We need to change that. Never writing about rape, rapists, or rape survivors is not the answer. Better quality stories about them *is.* Attempted rape happens, and it isn’t treated with the honesty or complexity it deserves in fiction or visual media. We need more stories about how rape and rape survivors exist in the real world. Writers who treat the subject of rape with kid gloves or as a ‘fate worse than death’ put victims on a pedestal, or in the gutter; In effect, placing a higher value on their perceived sexual innocence than on their lives. It is possible to survive rape, to come out the other side a full, realized person, with sources of happiness and sadness that have nothing to do with having been attacked. Don’t we owe rape survivors the chance to see if Beryl will get there in this story?
Sword of Sorcery #0 only tells us the beginning. And tells it better than we had any right to expect, given how this kind of thing usually goes down. Dismissing it now after we’ve barely had the prologue seems inappropriate and too-early judgemental. I for one am giving Christy Marx a chance to show us that Beryl can be stronger than the violence that has been done to her. Marx wrote Jem and the Holograms for crying out loud! If that doesn’t earn her a few issues of my attention, I don’t know what does.
Sidenote: I’ve also see a lot of criticism that this kind of story doesn’t belong in a children’s comic. Well, this book was never going to be Tiny Titans, and maybe I wouldn’t give it to a nine or ten year old (though I might, if they were mature enough) but I would give this to a fourteen year old right away! Those are high school lockers. These are high school students. Thirteen or fourteen is not too early to start having this kind of frank and respectful conversation about a real danger they or their friends might face, and how to be prepared for it. And a comic book character like Amethyst is a perfect opening.
*Rape statistics courtesy of RAINN