Content warning: we’re talking rape imagery and rape culture.
You’re in an elegant gallery, looking up at a statue of a woman and a man. The man has his arms around the woman. Her face is contorted in fear. Tears stream from her eyes.
“Wow,” think you, the art critic. “What an emotionally raw and evocative image.”
You feel her terror. You feel his power. You feel unnerved, but also smug. It’s art. You understand it.
You’re in a comic book store, leafing through monthly issues, looking at a picture of a woman, and a man. The man has his arm around the woman. Her face is contorted in fear. Tears stream from her eyes. You feel her terror. You feel his power. You feel unnerved. You stare into the mirror this cover has become, and, steadily, you grow afraid.
The purpose of art is to make you feel, amirite? Them women are sobbin’, sobbin’, all over classic art. Their tears saturate your high school AP Art History textbook. Persephone gets abducted, dragged into the pit of Hades. The Sabines sob, dragged to Rome. Europa, Leda, the Daughters of Leucippas, Cassandra — well.
It’s art. Like Poe said, the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic in the world. Like DC said, cripple the bitch.
Stop crying about it, little girl. Them sobbin’ women are just too much in the real world.
But let’s talk about them, and their tears, and whether great art encapsulates all the rest of art, ever. Let’s examine this question: can we excuse a comic book cover as art that’s designed to make us feel? And, if so, are we then to disregard those feelings?
I see comments that tell me both. They say: sorry, girls, that wrench of fear in your gut, that kneejerk, retching disgust that has you pulling violently back, the terrifying flashback of trauma: it’s got no place in pure analysis. Rape culture ain’t a thing, honey. What, so we can’t have heroines in danger anymore? Your criticism demands sanitization of art. Let’s put black censor bars across the bare breasts of Sabine Woman #3, and dry her marble tears.
Don’t worry: if you don’t like this, leci n’est pas une critique.
The argument, your honor, is that canning the Batgirl variant is akin to censorship. Must we burn all of Rubens’ paintings? His Rape of the Sabine Women is ubiquitous, and it sure does depict violence, of all sorts, against women. If the Batgirl cover is guilty, than all art showing women afraid and endangered is on the chopping block. Q.E.D!
Did you know the rape of the Sabine women is generally considered a patriotic image? Those women saved Rome. Sure, it was by force, but biology tends not to care too much about petty speedbumps like fear or grief or despair. Rubens painted chaos, but Rubens painted El Gallo’s version of rape — the literary sort, the kind that backpeddles and waves its hands and glosses over the typical end-result: this rape is an abduction, a kidnapping. Let’s just forget about the magical repopulation of an empire afterwards. The Sabines are half-disrobed, but it’s not lewd. For the most part, they try to evade, or push away, their captors.
And, of course, they cry.
Rape is a popular theme in classic art. Consider the rape of Proserpina, immortalized in marble by Bernini (a favorite of your humble narrator, she must add). Bernini enjoyed depicting women trying to escape amorous men: he also carved Daphne morphing into a graceful sapling in a desperate bid to avoid Apollo.
The lesson here, as in so many Greek myths: don’t piss off Eros.
Let’s look at Pluto and Proserpina.
The title still refers to the literary rape — the actual abduction, rather than the act of sexual assault — but it’s surely a violent, unwelcome one: tears stand out on her cheeks, as she shoves at his jaw with the heel of her hand. His fingers sink deeply enough into her rump to bruise any more tender flesh than marble, and he lifts her bodily from the ground.
But she fights back. Impotently, perhaps, and in sobbing terror — but she fights back.
How does it make you feel?
Here’s another question for our critics: do you really think rape culture is a new thing, a modern idea, simply because the term was coined after these paintings were painted, myths were told, statues carved? (If you need more examples, give a yell: I have several hundred more.)
Let’s be fair to our cohorts, the men: the history of art is littered with pieces where abused women take their revenge. Caravaggio has a particularly grotesque depiction of Judith beheading Holofernes. If you have a fondness for pre-Baroque Italian art, you really can’t do better than Caravaggio.
Comics, too, love to torture their male heroes. Each of our square-jawed, wise-cracking vigilantes has been broken down more times that I can count: physically, emotionally, psychologically. It’s a well-loved and oft-did subject, and The Killing Joke, the book this variant was based on, covers it extensively, while utilizing another popular theme: hurt the girl to hurt the man. In the comics industry, we call it fridging. You remember, don’t you, that Barbara Gordon was just a casualty in TKJ? That her injury and subsequent sexual assault were just part of her father’s one bad day?
It’s not like it was a banner day for Babs, folks.
And, oh yes, that sequence of panels depicted sexual assault. We got a nice reminder of that, too, with this cover: even a first-year art history student must recognize the phallic imagery of the gun pointed at her crotch. No? Hie ye hence back to Art History 101, champ, and try again anon.
So Babs is shot in a book where she is three degrees from the plot — Joker to Batman, Batman to Commissioner Gordon, Gordon to his daughter — and yet, like the Sabines, this is the only image we remember clearly from the book. Joker’s Hawaiian shirt, his smile, the silver gun.
Shirt. Smile. Gun. It’s catchy. Pop culture loves a good, predatory hook.
Baby, I’m preyin’ on you tonight.
The image is powerfully evoked in our erstwhile variant cover: the Joker slings a friendly arm over Barbara’s shoulder. Gunmetal glints. Joker smiles.
And, of course: she cries.
How does it make you feel?
But we must, as would any good critic, dig deeper. So far, so many similarities. Nothing suggests we ought to allow one over the other. Ah! says our art critic. But we have forgotten context.
And we do so often forget context, but let us be rigorous in our critique (that is not a critique, but may well be a pipe).
Let’s see. Who commissioned Rubens to paint the rape of the Sabines? That would be art lover Phillip IV of Spain, in 1639, for his private collection. Rubens’ Rape of the Daughters of Leucippas was bought by Rubens fanboy Johann Wilhelm, for his private collection.
The Rape of Proserpina was carved under the patronage of Cardinal Borghese, and resided in Villa Borghese until it was given as a present to Cardinal Ludovisi, before eventually finding its way back home. Care to guess how many people saw these works before they were brought to galleries?
The variant cover for Batgirl #41 was commissioned by DC Comics, for widespread publication, on a book aimed largely towards teenage girls.
You think it’s a variant is a solid argument? Let’s guess how many people saw it within just five minutes of its online release alone.
The subject may be as old as time itself. Violent acts against women lace the Bible. Fairy tales wouldn’t exist without them. Imagine being Briar Rose, waking from a hundred-year sleep, only to find yourself impregnated with twins by a cad of a prince who’s already gone his merry way.
If you say that the Joker menacing Batgirl is part of her mythology, well, bully for you. It’s true. But if you then argue that the myth of Batgirl and the myth of, say, Proserpina are one and the same and equal in terms of cultural impact, I will gently tap your skull with my textbooks. Riddle me this: how many young girls inserted themselves into the myth of Pluto and Proserpina? How many do you think identify with the Sabine women, or Cassandra, or Leda, or the Daughters of Leucippas?
How many do you think even know the names of the Daughters of Leucippas?
(Phoebe and Hilaeira, btw.)
Now: how many girls identify with Barbara Gordon?
Well, I do. There’s a reason I chose Batgirl as the superhero I wanted to become, way back when I first started my fight training, and it wasn’t because she’s my favorite. It’s because you just can’t knock her down. Babs dragged herself up and out of The Killing Joke and became a mainstay of DC Comics. Cassandra Cain found all the broken pieces of herself and found that they created a wholer whole than she’d ever considered. Steph Brown’s inexhaustible optimism kept her fighting the good fight even after a death scare of her own.
Batgirl gets back up. Like Rubens’ Sabines, like Proserpina, she fights back. She inspires others to do the same. This cover? She’s not fighting. She’s not resisting. The Joker drapes himself over her like a blanket of fear, and she allows it. The cover removes her power, and leaves only her tears, her terror. There is all the hearkening back to her watershed moment, with none of the action or resistance of our similarly-structured classics. When I look at this image, I don’t only see Babs powerless. I see myself. Powerless.
“But it’s comics,” argues our critic, from his corner. “Comics aren’t real.”
Are we analyzing them like art? Do they make us feel real feelings? Is Babs Gordon quite as real as Proserpina or Hades? We can talk about the use of light, the manipulation of the medium. We can discuss the composition, the use of color on a stark black background, the difference between action and inaction, the passive threat of violence versus the aggressive actuality and why our artists chose the angle they did, what it means — but if we’re going to analyze this cover like art, my sophisticated pals, well, we need to discuss it in terms of cultural import and impact. We just can’t forget about the context.
It’s art. It’s supposed to make you feel, and it does, and sometimes art makes you uncomfortable, or offended. The subject isn’t going anywhere, but the analysis cannot be the same. Context, children, let’s remember: context. Show me a piece of classical art, and I’ll show you a comic book panel that can’t be equated to it, because it’s apples and oranges, my dears —
Golden apples, and space oranges.