Let’s Look Back With Grim Sadness At Ill-Conceived Domestic Abuse Plotlines in Comics
[Trigger Warning for discussion of domestic abuse.]
The cringe-worthy page above comes courtesy of a piece over at Comic Book Resources today that describes Spider-Man‘s regrettable “Clone Saga” storyline written in 1995. In issue #266, Peter Parker accidentally hits Mary Jane while in the midst of a fight with his clone. Although Spider-Man’s strength varies from comic to comic, he definitely has super-powered muscles, and because he’s also presumably in the midst of a rage here, his attempt to shrug off MJ while mid-combat ends up hurting her severely.
This uncomfortable moment comes across as a misstep for a lot of reasons, not least because it concludes with Peter fleeing the scene while MJ sobs for him to come back. In the page I’ve included above, we see MJ after the event, self-justifying Peter’s behavior in a pretty depressing way. She then starts brainstorming a way to get his attention and convince him to come back. That’s … well, it’s not the comic I would have written, that’s for sure.
This is not the first time that comics have included plot-lines in which men who are narratively positioned as “heroes” inflict abuse upon women in their lives. Many notable examples can be found in the comments over at CBR, such as: Reed Richards hitting Sue Storm (who was a villain at the time, or so the common justification goes) and Hank Pym hitting The Wasp (which seems to have been retconned in the film adaptation).
When it comes to most of these examples, I’ve heard these excuses many times: “it was just that one time!” Or, “it’s been retconned!” Or, “no one even remembers that — why bring it up now?” Those are all fair points, actually. I’d prefer to forget about this stuff, too. But I’m not yet convinced that current-day writers have learned anything from these former missteps, so that’s why I don’t think it’s valuable to just act like they didn’t happen. What’s more, I think a lot of people are still confused about the “right” way to navigate abuse in stories. Especially when it comes to stories about super powers.
When it comes to the Spider-Man story-line above, Peter’s inappropriate behavior seems pretty clear. He’s got super-powers; Mary Jane doesn’t; that makes the scene feel all the more disturbing. But when it comes to situations in which both characters have powers, or in which a male hero fights a female villain, doesn’t that make things tricky? Shouldn’t I be explaining how there are situations in which fictional men are allowed to hit fictional women? Eh … well, it’s complicated.
The reason it’s complicated is because we still live in a society in which women are strongly socialized against working out and building muscle. Hold tight, folks, we’re going on a factual diversion: although hormones do play a role when it comes to building muscle tissue, the difference isn’t that huge — and that narrow gulf would likely get even narrower if women’s fitness magazines weren’t so gosh darn obsessed with telling women how to work out without “bulking up.” (Why is bulking up such a bad thing!?)
Our recent coverage of the female Army Rangers should convince you that there are definitely some women who can “bulk up” just fine. But much of the way we discuss physical strength has very little to do with actual biology and more to do with long-standing social constructs about who “should” work out and who “shouldn’t” because it’s seen as unattractive. Because of those constructs and norms, a lot of women statistically tend to not have as much upper arm strength as men. That is why we end up with the old chivalric saying, “men should never hit women.”
This tends to be one of the first statements that you’ll hear anti-feminists try to pick apart. Take note, for example, of how many men responded today to the #MasculinitySoFragile hashtag by challenging women to physical combat. I’m sure I don’t need to tell anyone here this, but let’s all remember to be wary of any person who is that excited about inflicting violence on someone else. And do you see any of those guys lining up to fight those female Army Rangers? Okay, maybe they are, I don’t know. But, still, not cool. And not the point of equality!
What’s this got to do with super-heroes? Everything! Even though these heroes of ours are fictional, they still represent and sadly fall in line with a lot of our society’s preconceived notions about gender. That means they also tend to mimic our exact same emotional hang-ups. Maybe it is possible to have a story-line in which men and women fight on an equal playing field, but in order to do that, we first have to imagine a fictional world where that’s even possible and it’s also considered socially acceptable. I recently lauded the world of Street Fighter for attempting to do just that (although it’s not perfect), and one of the comments over at CBR today cited Thor and Sif’s homeland as another fictional attempt at a culture where men and women fight and it’s A-okay.
This is why framing matters. It’s clear from the structure of Peter, Hank, and Reed’s relationships that they have the power, regardless of what physical strength they may possess. Take, for example, this panel in which Hank jerks the Wasp around emotionally. And in the Spider-Man panel above, in which Mary Jane worries about Peter, it’s clear that the entire story is about his feelings and troubles, not hers. These men get to have redemption arcs; their spouses are lauded for “standing by their man” while he goes through a tough time. That’s an extremely troubling framing, given that it removes responsibility from these men. I’d much rather see a story that focuses the heroic spotlight on an abuse survivor who finds their way out of a bad situation. That, to me, would be preferable to framing these stories as a one-time mistake that we all should forget.
(via Comic Book Resources)
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