Rubens Won’t Save You: You Don’t Get to Use Art History to Justify Violence Against Women in Comics

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.

Rape of the Sabine Women, Giovanni Bologna
Rape of the Sabine Women, Giovanni Bologna

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.

It’s art.

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?

Europa, Titian
Europa, Titian

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!

The Rape of the Sabine Women, Peter Paul Rubens
The Rape of the Sabine Women, Peter Paul Rubens

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 Rape of Proserpina, Gian Lorenzo Bernini
The Rape of Proserpina, Gian Lorenzo Bernini

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.

Detail, The Rape of Proserpina
Detail, The Rape of Proserpina

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.

The Killing Joke, Moore/Bolland
The Killing Joke, Moore/Bolland

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.

Batgirl #41 Variant, Rafael Albuquerque
Batgirl #41 Variant, Rafael Albuquerque

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?

Rape of the Daughters of Leucippas, Peter Paul Rubens
Rape of the Daughters of Leucippas, Peter Paul Rubens

(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.”

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson
Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

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.

Series Navigation<< The DC Daily Planet: The Artist SpeaksThe Killing Joke: Starring Barbara Gordon >>
Laura Harcourt

Laura Harcourt

Part of WWAC's editorial team, Laura has loved comics ever since her very first copy of Betty and Veronica Double Digest. Until her own superhero training is complete, she spends most of her time writing about others. She is most usually found in Western New England and is easily startled by loud noises.

8 thoughts on “Rubens Won’t Save You: You Don’t Get to Use Art History to Justify Violence Against Women in Comics

  1. Nngh, i really liked the subject and the necessity to discuss this very important topic not only in art but also as a vein that acts upon the larger picture in the depiction of women and men in all media. That said, i think this is really badly written. The mode of narration and discurse jumps from one type to another and it doesn’t feel like the two accompany or complement each other but hinder (With this i mean to the writing, not the topic) instead.

    I think there are two great articles here, one more in the mode of dissertation and the other with a more expressive nature; the thing is the two are mixed and become sloppy. I do think it could have been better with just a few more drafts before publication. That way they could have complemented each other instead of having a bullet sentence sloppily changing the type of discourse

    Of course, this is only my opinion and as such can be disregarded but i think this article could have been better in composition (in ideas and topic is excellent nonetheless)

    Also, the thing that really bothers me with that Killing joke cover is the fact that Barbara is depicted afraid. I remember someone made an edit where she was in a more aggresive position towards the Joker and her expression was different of a sobbing person. That edit depicted the long story that Barbara had in all these years instead of freezing her in time.

  2. Great article. You know what makes me even madder about this on top of all you said? The pro-cover guys saying “Nothing is sexual about this! The cover doesn’t show sexual assault!” and then two days later finding a version of the cover that some horrible human being photoshopped so that Barbara is nude in it, with the gun to her head. It’s was that easy for someone to do. But yeah, clearly rape culture doesn’t exist, right? (Sidenote: a few hours after seeing that photoshop, a stranger on twitter actually sent me that, laughing)

    1. Being nude makes an image more powerful because the person is more vulnerable. This is why the Americans kept Iraqi prisoners nude as seen in those leaked pictures. It is not always about sex. A female threatened can also awaken the protector instinct not the sexual instinct.

      I would agree, however, that using sex as a weapon has been in existence forever, as the author suggests.

      Both men and women use sex to control the opposite sex. Men do it violently; women do it passively. The problem is when a women is shown using her sexual power to get what she wants, she is deemed as portraying woman negatively. It is a no win situation.

  3. This was brilliantly and insightfully written. I’ve great fondness for mythology and fairy tales (the dark, original stories, not the sanitized Disney versions), but I’m not as much of an art student/historian. Pulling in historical visual examples of storytelling and using that to present your case makes for a very strong argument. Plus, any time you can reference Calvin and Hobbes in an article… always reference Calvin and Hobbes. 😀

  4. I love this post. Great job, Laura! I really like your point about the differences between the functions of (I would say “high”) art and comics. Most pieces of Renaissance and Baroque art were intended to convey a specific message or cluster of messages, often focused on religion or the social status quo; comics are telling stories to specific audiences, and what is the function of the story if not to draw a reader in and take them along for the ride?

    I think there’s further discussion to be had when we get into narrative and so-called “folk” art forms, and I’d love to dig into the representation of women in these forms of art. Regardless of that, though: just because we’ve been telling stories in one way for however many centuries doesn’t mean that we have to continue telling them that way. Tradition does not dictate future practice.

    1. Thanks, Amanda!

      You hit the nail on the head with the fact that we’re dealing with deeply different provenances for these images: a statue or painting which hearkens back to a myth but which also utilizes religious iconography has an explicitly different intention than a comic book cover intended as an homage to a watershed moment. And, like Claire, I love your last line!

      Just because these images and this subject exist in art, and just because the purpose occasionally is to shock or thrill or offend doesn’t mean you can paint each similar image with the same brush.

      (So to speak.)

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