The Rotten Tomatoes description for the latest Batman movie, Son of Batman reads like this:
The Dark Knight discovers that he has a son with Talia al Ghul and that the young boy is driven by the same fiery vengeance as his crime-fighting father in this adaptation of the 2006 comic book arc by Grant Morrison.
Disappointingly, that description overlooks something key to the story, something content makers should always be upfront about. It conveniently skips over the fact that Talia al Ghul didn’t just secretly have Bruce Wayne’s baby, she actually drugged and raped him first. Then she raises their son, a product of the rape, in secret for years (well, basically. Being a comic book, the story’s a bit more convoluted than that).
Now imagine with me that the film’s description is a bit more up front about things, reading like this instead:
The Dark Knight discovers that his one-time lover, Talia al Ghul, drugged and raped him. Adding to this traumatic discovery is his perpetrator’s eventual revelation that she has raised their son, a product of the rape, in secret for years. Batman must now cope with the assault and decide how to handle the son he never knew he had; a young boy driven by the same fiery vengeance as his crime-fighting father.
Looks more honest to me and it still sounds like an interesting story.
When Batman learns what happened, his response can basically be summed up as problematic. I get that Batman is bad ass and all, but the; “You raped me? How could you?!? Oh well… guess I’ll just get over it and raise this child now” approach that’s written for him minimizes the issue. We’re talking about a character that invested billions into becoming a secret crime fighter in response to his parents being killed. You’d think he’d respond to being raped with a bit more pain, or brooding or darkness, something! But I can’t say I’m surprised by Batman’s generally tepid response. Why? Because it’s indicative of the way “female on male rape” is usually handled in our society. And by “handled” I mean overlooked or often treated as a joke.
The timing of Son of Batman‘s release is something else that’s interesting. By some weird twist of fate, it’s coming out mere months after a newly released and mostly overlooked study highlighting the prevalence of women raping men. Those in my field already know that women rape men, of course. However, according to this new study it’s happening far more than we expected. The study found that 43% of its high school and college-aged male participants had experienced “unwanted sexual contact” before, most of which (95%) was committed by a female acquaintance. 18% of the men reported physical force being used to commit the rape and in a Son of Batman-esque twist, 7% reported “substance coercion” (which I’m assuming means some sort of drug or alcohol). It should be noted that the study is small and further research is needed to verify its results, nonetheless, these are some pretty disturbing numbers.
Troubling as those numbers are, this sort of research highlights only one part of the problem. As Son of Batman demonstrates, an even bigger issue may be the way these assaults are generally viewed by society, regardless of prevalence. Me being me, as some sort of processing mechanism I decided to see just how prevalent these scenes are in our media. Honestly I didn’t expect to find much, but as it turns out depictions of women raping or assaulting men are surprisingly common in modern movies and comic books. But, as you might expect, when it does happen it’s mostly treated as a joke. In the Batman comic book universe for example, Nightwing, (the identity Batman’s sidekick Robin took once he went solo) has been raped by women multiple times and in one instance even entered into a relationship with his perpetrator afterwards. In the HBO show True Blood Jason Stackhouse was gang raped by a group of “Werepanthers,” a moment presented (and processed by Jason) as justice for being a massive player.
There are also a number of comedies which use women raping men as a punchline, as you can see in the following clips: trigger warning!
In Get Him To The Greek, a woman rapes Jonah Hill’s character, after which he says to his friends; “I think I was raped.” They respond by shrugging off his disclosure and moving along to the rest of the movie never mentioning his disclosure again. His character also seems to simply shrug off what happened:
In 40 Days and 40 Nights, the girlfriend of Josh Hartnett’s character handcuffs him to a bed and rapes him while he sleeps. He later apologizes to her for her raping him (well actually he apologizes for breaking his no sex, no masturbation vow… sooooo he basically apologizes for her raping him). Other than being upset about the vow thing, he seems not to care or even realize he had been raped:
In Horrible Bosses, Charlie Day’s character is repeatedly sexually harassed at work by his boss, Jennifer Anniston. Eventually she drugs and rapes him, then later shows him pictures of the assault. While Day is clearly bothered by what’s happening, his friends are jealous (of course) and never take his complaints seriously. The harassment and rape are simply plot devices, used to set up the rest of the movie’s hijinks. Also of note, the clips of these scenes on YouTube carry titles like: “Jennifer Anniston sexy scenes.” Because you know… if she’s sexy it can’t be rape!
In Wedding Crashers, Vince Vaughn’s character wakes up tied to a bed with a naked woman straddling and eventually raping him. The next morning he tells his friend about it, even saying at one point: “I was like Jodi Foster in The Accused last night.” Which if you don’t remember is a movie (based on real events) about a group of men gang raping a woman in a bar and the subsequent court case. His disclosure and the trauma he alludes to are mostly overlooked (surprise, surprise) and as the movie progresses, he even ends up marrying the woman who raped him:
Finally, in a bit of “these things happen in threes” weirdness, not long after learning about Son of Batman and the previously mentioned study, I stumbled across a movie from 2001 tiled Tomcats while aimlessly flipping through channels the other night. I landed on a scene with the comedian Bill Maher in it, which intrigued me because I was unaware Maher had an acting career. So I stopped to watch as much as I could take, until this scene happened: again, trigger warning!
In all honesty, it’s a bit unclear if the librarian rapes the guy. Regardless, he was clearly restrained against his will then sexually and physically assaulted, despite his screaming, crying and repeated pleas for the librarian to stop.
This troubling minimization of women raping men and its after effects doesn’t just happen in comics and the movies. The same sort of reactions are common in the real world too. I’ve presented to many all male groups (sports teams, fraternities, etc) and 9 out of 10 times when a participant discloses an attempted or completed rape, or sexual assault at the hands of a woman, it’s treated as some sort of joke. Comments like; “ha ha, yeah… that chick was all over you man!” or “I can’t believe you don’t even remember hooking up with her!” are the norm. Even when guys recognize these events as problematic and mention how “disturbing” the near or completed rape was, the story is often full of laughter and joking as it’s retold (even if the victim’s discomfort is visible).
To my male readers, here’s an idea; if a man bravely opens up about his assault to you, or near you, treat that disclosure with respect and support, not jeers and laughter. In these situations, you may also have to take a stand and shut down other men who are making light of the situation.
And what about dealing with media that make jokes out of the issue? Here’s a suggestion; when you review or talk about a movie, a scene, a comic book…or whatever, start by putting events in their proper context. For example; this is the story of Batman’s rape and his struggle to deal with the repercussions… or; this is a movie about a boss who rapes and repeatedly harasses her male employee and the employee’s struggle to find relief… or; at the end of this movie the main character gets raped… I think you get the point. By properly contextualizing this stuff when we share it, or discuss it with others we can help to open people’s eyes to what’s really going on (of course you can always choose to just boycott any content that treats rape so flippantly).
As we learn more about just how prevalent this issue is, I hope that we will all begin to take it more seriously. Rape is rape and we need to get over this outdated and grossly inaccurate belief that men can’t be victims at the hands of women. If more people did these two simple things we could really begin to change how we treat this issue. My suggestions may seem like small steps but they matter, because in the end it doesn’t take a superhero… just a willingness to say: “hey man, what she did was not right and I’m sorry it happened to you.”