Imaginary Rape: Two Pop Culture Case Studies

Amidst the furor over the scene of implied sexual assault in the new Tomb Raider game, I discover a rape scene I had never even noticed.

The Setup
On June 11th of this year, Kotaku.com, a popular video game news site, ignited a firestorm of criticism and debate when they published a preview and interview from Crystal Dynamics, the designers of the upcoming Tomb Raider game, titled Crossroads. The 3.5 minute trailer for the game, which you can view below, is an origin story meant to show gamers how Lara Croft came to be a… well, tomb raider.

Maybe you missed it, the way that countless other gamers and reviewers did before Kotaku’s interview, but there’s a scene in this trailer where Lara is attempting to escape from a camp where she is being held against her will and one of her captors touches her face and waist suggestively. When she kicks him and tries to flee, he pulls her back and begins to kiss her neck aggressively. It flashes by relatively quickly, but the implication of an impending sexual assault is clear. (To view the scene in question, watch the video from 2 minutes and 12 seconds in.)

The scene was largely ignored until the interview because it was then that executive director Ron Rosenberg from Crystal Dynamics first used the word “rape”:

      RON: “And then what happens is her best friend gets kidnapped, she gets taken prisoner by scavengers on the island. They try to rape her, and-“

KOTAKU: “They try to rape her?”

RON: “She’s literally turned into a cornered animal. And that’s a huge step in her evolution: she’s either forced to fight back or die and that’s what we’re showing today.”

Kotaku comment boards and blogs all over the net blew up with angry male and female feminists alike, blasting the creative decision. The more vociferous of the criticisms came in articles with titles like Crystal Wants You To Rape Lara Croft, which, incidentally, was later changed to the more speculative Does Crystal Want You To Rape Lara Croft? It continues to be the most hotly debated social issue in the world of video games, along with the latest Call of Duty title making Anonymous a terrorist organization.

Once the online controversy began, Crystal Dynamics was quick to backpedal. Their branding director, Karl Stewart, says he doesn’t know why Rosenberg used the word “rape”, but insists that the game does not depict any sort of sexual assault. He refers to the scene as a “pathological situation” meant to evoke fear and intimidation. This is obvious public relations maneuvering, and while the scene doesn’t actually depict rape, it is clearly implied where things were headed, had Lara not dispatched her attacker.

A Careful Prequel
Though I identify as a feminist who takes sexual assault very seriously, I felt almost completely confused by the controversy. This might offend some of the folks who have leveled these criticisms, and I hope that it goes without being said that I find common purpose with those who would do everything in their power to eliminate rape culture. I also – always – have to recognize my sex/gender privilege, and while I have certainly been sexually harassed, it is also true that I have never had to actually fear anything from those harassers. I accept the possibility that this privilege blinds me to aspects of this discussion that I have not yet realized.

And as with any discussion about sexual assault, especially those containing depictions, a trigger warning is appropriate.  Be safe.

New Body, Same Old Problems

Since her appearance in 1996, the character of Lara Croft has been controversial for those interested in the portrayal of women in media. The title of one particularly interesting article in the International Journal of Computer Game Research nails the extreme conceptions pretty handily:
Lara Croft: Feminist Icon or Cyberbimbo? On the Limits of Textual Analysis

Lara’s appearance has long been a target of feminists claiming that her physical proportions (which are nearly impossible for an actual human being) are the most readily visible example of hypersexualized objectification in an industry dominated by horny young males. For this new prequel in the Tomb Raider series, Crystal Dynamics wanted to change that.

Which isn’t to say that her body is now average, but gone are the double-D breasts, pencil-thin waist and quintuplet-bearing hips. She now resembles an actual human being, albeit a very healthy, athletic and attractive one. (And isn’t that how we like our heroes and heroines?) “The ability to see her as a human is even more enticing to me than the more sexualized version of yesteryear,” Rosenberg said. “She literally goes from zero to hero.” This was the starting point for the new Lara.

You might think that this makeover would be lauded by the feminist gamers who take issue with the scene in question (which we’ll get to in a moment), but the opposite has turned out to be true. One of the leading critics on the Kotaku boards sounds off thusly:

It’s like a female CAN’T be sexy and powerful, she has to conform to this notion of normalcy that I have YET to see any male character go through… to say that the only way a female character can be ‘respected’ is if she has a small chest and wears concealing clothes is just as sexist as making her a big jiggling beast donning leather straps and a thong.

Obviously, the designers can’t win. Hypersexualized characters that catch the eye of their primary demographic are objectifications, and normalized characters have been forced into conformity, their sexual identity suppressed. Confirmation bias is alive and well, and it seems that people will always see whatever oppression their ideological lenses dictate.

Let’s not mince messages here: Video games in general are worthy of excellent critiques regarding their portrayal of sex and gender. I bring up this intentional ratcheting down of Lara’s sexual identity because it is a strong indicator of the way in which Crystal desired for the character to be perceived, and is a good starting point to understand what they did not want to emphasize. This, I think, is a good thing.

Sexual Assault as Development
A healthy number of the objections to (i.e. rants about) the scene relate to the use of sexual assault as a “plot device”. Essentially, the argument is that it’s disingenuous and lazy to portray such a serious violation of human dignity as something that gives a character strength and determination. As one commenter put it, “Rape isn’t some radioactive spider that bites you and gives you superpowers.” Without question.

On the other hand, I can’t help but ask, “What is?” No one I can think of would suggest that attempted murder is physically or psychologically less damaging than sexual assault – as reflected by our penal code sentencing – but there is nary a word spoken about its constant, ever-present use as a defining, character-building experience for both men and women in fiction. The ubiquity of a hero or heroine surviving horrific physical violence is impossible to overestimate. It consumes most of the rest of the game trailer in question. What makes sexual assault a less-worthy struggle to be conquered? Surely people don’t believe that non-sexual physical violence and fear of death is like that radioactive spider bite.

It’s also worthy of note that though it lasts only moments, this potential rape is a major turning point in the life and experience of Lara Croft, as it is the first time she is ever forced to take the life of another human being. So what we have is not just the casual equation of rape with other problems, but an especially terrible and defining moment (which is what sexual assault tends to be) at which an especially terrible and defining decision must be made.

Demonization of the Audience
As I mentioned, I was primarily confused by the critiques leveled at the game, but there were also arguments advanced that made me angry, indignant. Representative of this ideological camp is the aforementioned article, Does Crystal Want You to Rape Lara Croft?  According to this argument, it’s not the assault itself that is the problem, it’s that the designers want the audience to like it, and lots of people will.

This argument is based on another part of the interview with Rosenberg in which he reported about how playtesters had described their experience with the game:

…they don’t really project themselves into the character. They’re more like ‘I want to protect her.’ There’s this sort of dynamic of ‘I’m going to this adventure with her and trying to protect her.’

Naturally, an angry feminist web presence interpreted this directly in relation to the scene of implied sexual assault. And boy did they get angry… at what they perceived to be the exploitation of a cowering, sexually abused female to boost the masculine protective urges of young men.

They did not take into account that the playtesters were not being asked about a scene which takes all of 4 seconds, but about an entire gaming experience. They did not take into account that in this game, Lara is not the kick-ass heroine that Tomb Raider fans know and love but a normal person thrust into terrible and unpredictable circumstances that she is not prepared for. They did not take into account that not only is the average gamer no longer young – 37 years old! – but they are almost half (42%) female. In fact, women 18 and older make up more of the gaming audience than boys 17 and younger.

Even if the statement was interpreted strictly about the scene in question, I think we might ask ourselves how messed up it really is that people are interested in protecting a character that they’re actually controlling from sexual assault. And again, why is this any different than protecting characters from non-sexual physical violence or death?

And what if we applied these critiques of protective sentiment to other aspects of media and society? Would we see feminists crusading against the Men Can Stop Rape campaign?

The author of that particular article goes so far as to suggest that the designers and players would create controls for the rapist if they could, directly (and disturbingly!) contradicting what the people who actually played the game said, and hopefully winning some award for most misanthropic view of humanity ever.  Notice here that this assertion inexplicably rearranges the relationships between characters (and therefore between game and gamer) into exactly the opposite of what the playtesters actually reported.

Depiction vs Advocacy
One of the final objections to the Crossroads storyline – and one which I believe to be as much or more implicit as explicit – is that the mere depiction of sexual assault is inherently negative.  True, sexual assault is such an emotionally and culturally sensitive topic that it is difficult to see it artistic representations of it without feeling as though the creator’s intentions – or worse, our own – are sexist, degrading and offensive. (This happens with other sensitive issues like race and politics as well, I think.)

Unfortunately, this leaves no social room for depictions of sexual assault itself to be portrayed as sexist, degrading and offensive, which is exactly how it should be portrayed. The aggressor in Tomb Raider: Crossroads is without a doubt the “bad guy”, a plunderer, a kidnapper, probably a murderer (I haven’t played it yet).

Do I want to socially support the idea that rapists are terrible people who are justifiably responded to with lethal force? Abso-fucking-lutely. And that’s exactly what happens here. If I had a daughter, I would let her play this game.

A Stark Contrast

It may come as no surprise to learn after an extensive exposition about a video game, but I’m kind of a geek. In addition to my part-time gaming, I am also a part-time reader of comic books and watcher of films. It would be hard to identify a single person who has influenced both of those worlds simultaneously as much as Kevin Smith. Without going into the scope of his work, suffice to say that Clerks was a landmark of independent film, and the characters that it generated – most notably Jay and Silent Bob – lasted more than a decade afterward. On several occasions, Smith’s films were bridged by lengthy comics, one of which is Chasing Dogma.

I own this comic, but hadn’t read it in years. While mulling this whole Tomb Raider issue over in my mind, something suddenly occurred to me about it for the first time ever:

This comic depicts rape.

To summarize the context, Jay and Silent Bob are living with Tricia, the young woman in Mallrats who is writing a book called “Bore-gasm: A Study of the 90s Male Sexual Prowess”. In the film, Tricia is only 15 years old, but let us pray that in the comic she is older.

The comic opens with Tricia in the shower, singing a song by Alanis Morissette (who wrote the introduction and also appeared as God in Smith’s film Dogma). Without warning, Jay appears naked behind her, singing along. Tricia freaks out and begins physically hitting him. When Jay expresses his desire for sex, Tricia denies him in no uncertain terms and commands him to leave before returning to shaving her legs. Then…

click to enlarge

This is actual rape. And not by some evil antagonist who is summarily killed by the heroine for his transgression. By a main character who is represented as goofy and lovable. “Oh that wacky Jay! Raping girls! He’s such a character!” This shocking nonchalance is expounded on in Jay’s justification:

So I ask you: Which of these two depictions of imaginary sexual assault is more disturbing? A story that treats it as a terrible, disturbing moment, committed by a shallow, evil “bad guy” character, responded to with violent self defense that inspires a sense of disgust and protection? Or a passing comedic moment committed by a silly hero character who not only has no idea what he has actually done, but who we’re obviously supposed to giggle at and continue reading the adventures of?

For me, the answer is obvious. There’s no fucking way I would give this comic to my child to read. The most disturbing part about it is that I had never consciously said to myself, “Oh my god, there’s casual rape in this book by a writer I have supported for years.” Granted, it was some time ago that I last read it, but still…

Maybe the scariest stuff doesn’t always look the scariest. And maybe our visceral reactions aren’t always the best gauge of how disturbing something really is.

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4 Responses to “Imaginary Rape: Two Pop Culture Case Studies”

  1. I am rolling my eyes that the mere reference to a woman who is the target of potential rape is actually controversial, especially since she blew the fuckers head off.

    And yeah, the Silent Bob comic, holy shit.

  2. I think a big part of the problem is not the depiction of rape but the ubiquity of that depiction in fiction throughout our culture. It’s a really common trope of the “strong woman.” I do agree that it can be a legitimate story device and yet it causes so much pain that I feel that the end result must be something that cannot be achieved from other means. With 20% of women experiencing sexual assault in the US, do we really need to alienate them for just a moment when other means would do?

    Many of us use games as an escape from reality, we don’t want to be reminded that rape is a common thing. That being said, I do enjoy this new Lara Croft, when I saw the redesign I was thrilled! I think she’s gorgeous.

    Also, your statistics on gaming is a bit off–I’m pretty sure those numbers include ipod and cell-phone games of which women tend to be a larger market share. Console games are MUCH less likely to be played by women, certainly not 42%. The estimate was less than 30% overall just 3 years ago, and many women stick to things like the wii fit or animal crossing, which is included in those statistics.

    Creepy on that last example, it’s done so casually. I don’t even. o.o

  3. Al the Chemist Says:

    First of all I question the classification of that Jay and Silent Bob comic as rape. It seems to me clearly attempted. I realize there is some debate as to definitions here, and I’m not trying to say that what is depicted is not reprehensible, but I do think there are degrees of everything, and the details are important.

    The depiction of sexual assault in media has long bothered me. It is such a taboo subject because writers are afraid of offending people, in exactly the way the TR plot did. It is a trope of B action movies that the hero’s wife/girlfriend/sister gets killed/raped or both in order to provide motivation for action filled revenge sequences. I find it sickening that sexual assault is cheapened so much. Yet other movies feature situations in which sexual assault or at least harrasment would seem likely, and yet for inexplicable reasons it doesn’t happen (ratings board, studio, actors or someone puts the ixnay on what would be a realistic plot development). Yet is there not a role for media to play in discussing sexual assault? My observation is that we are more interested in covering it up and pretending it doesn’t exist than in discussing it in frank and realistic terms.

  4. I’m not sure why but this site is loading incredibly slow for me. Is anyone else having this issue or is it a issue on my end? I’ll check back later and see if the
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