The Mary Sue Exclusive: Mairghread Scott on Respectfully Depicting Sexual Violence in Facets of Honor
[Trigger Warning for discussion of rape and sexual assault.]
If you’re a regular Mary Sue reader, you know that we frequently critique the way violence against women is depicted in media. It’s not that we think rape or assault are off limits in art (there’s a lot to be said for depicting rape culture without also buying into it), but that we want creators to be aware of the influence and context of their work and consider the ramifications of how they choose to depict certain subjects.
But how does a creator depict rape or assault in a way that’s respectful to survivors? When Mairghread Scott began writing Mended, her contribution to the Honor Harrington anthology Facets of Honor, she knew she was tasked with incredibly fraught subject matter—and to make sure readers knew where she was coming from, she posted the following to her blog:
Hi Comics Fans!
My latest comic, a digital mini comic called “Mended” written for the Honor Harrington anthology “Facets of Honor” just went live.
Normally I’d just give you the link, but I felt this particular book deserved a bit more. “Mended” is, hands down, the most difficult project I’ve ever written. It focuses on the assault Honor Harrington suffered early in her military career and how it affected her long after the actual incident took place. It’s always hard to shed new light on a pre-existing character, especially one with such a rich history already tackled in David Weber’s excellent books. It’s also always hard to write such a traumatic event in a character’s life. So put those hands together and you have one tough assignment.
I feared upsetting fans, upsetting actual assault survivors and upsetting readers new to Honor, but I also feared that ignoring this moment would be a disservice to the anthology. It happened. It shaped Honor afterward and I felt it deserved to be talked about. So I got some help.
Many thanks to my editor, Jackson Lansing and the good folks at Evergreen for allowing me to call in the one person I trusted to guide this project, the psychologist to the superheroes herself, Dr. Andrea Letamendi. Getting the help of an actual trained psychologist gave me insight into Honor that I would not have had on my own and, with Andrea’s help, I felt we were able to hit on a theme that not only resonated well with Honor, but would contribute to our community as a whole.
While I don’t want to spoil the issue, which I am so proud of, I thought it was important to say that this issue was not made to sexualize Honor or use her for shock value. Kate Brown did an amazing job of keeping Honor feeling like Honor and keeping us firmly in her shoes throughout the story. Thank you so much, Kate.
Not all of you will agree with our choices as storytellers, Honor’s choices as a character, or even the company’s choice to make this comic and I welcome your critiques, but I just wanted to assure that we tackled this difficult tale with all the respect and resources we could muster. I also wanted to thank everyone on this team for taking this leap with me.
Scott and her collaborator, Dr. Andrea Letamendi, also spoke to TMS about the creative process behind Mended.
The Mary Sue: Mairghread, can you speak a little more to your concerns about approaching Mended and the responsibility you felt to survivors in tackling such a sensitive subject?
Mairghread Scott: Of course, for those who may not know, Mended deals with a sexual assault perpetrated on the main character while she is at a military academy and her evolving reaction to it over time. I was initially reluctant to tackle this part of Honor’s life because, frankly, there are a lot of ways that kind of story can go south fast. I’m not someone who believes any topic is off-limits but since Honor never reports the rape in the books’ continuity I knew this was going to be a very difficult issue, one where I was going to need to handle the narrative’s judgement, the audience’s judgement and Honor’s judgement of her actions all at the same time. Fortunately, my editors were willing to reach out to psychologist Andrea Letamendi. When in doubt, work with a professional.
TMS: Mairghread, what did your collaboration look like? Did you work on numerous drafts together, and if so, how did Mended change overtime?
Scott: Andrea and I discussed the outline, first draft of the full script and the final art, but it was at outline that Mended changed the most. It was a real struggle for me to overcome my own prejudices against Honor for not doing the “right” thing and reporting the assault and I liked the idea that Honor herself might have the same conflict. In talking with Andrea, I was able to gain a lot of insight into how real survivors come to terms with their situation and use that when writing with Honor. I decided that the most important message I wanted to convey was that however Honor chose to handle her assault was the correct way for Honor to handle her assault. It was important to communicate that all Honor had to do was the best she could.
TMS: Andrea, often when The Mary Sue writes critically about the way violence against women is depicted in media, we’re told to calm down because “it’s just a show/movie/comic/game.” As a psychologist (or as a nerd!), what are your thoughts on the influence of comics like Mended on readers and fans?
Andrea Letamendi: The characters themselves may not be real, but their stories are very real; so to dismiss narratives about trauma is similar to silencing those who have lived that experience in one way or another. As a mental health provider, I’ve worked with both men and women who have experienced what’s called MST – Military Sexual Trauma – which includes exposure to sexual assault or repeated sexual harassment occurring during one’s service in the military workplace. MST deserves attention because it often goes unrecognized and is associated with difficult feelings like shame, guilt, self-blame and other damaging emotions that impact a person’s commitment, outlook, and dignity as a service member. This is why Honor’s story is so important to me. Honor is the women, men, and children I have worked with who have survived something life-threatening and disparaging, and who have the perseverance and willpower to keep moving on. It’s because Honor, and characters like her, are not real that we are able to carry a safe and educational dialogue about these issues, and welcome those who are trauma survivors into these roles we call “heroes.”
TMS: Did either of you turn to other comics (or books, movies, etc.) for inspiration and guidance while working on Mended?
Scott: It was very important to me that it be very clear what happened and didn’t happen in Mended to avoid the whole Killing Joke “but what really happened?” conflict. I also looked to Identity Crisis because I respected that they kept their assault from being titillating in the art. It wouldn’t let you view this act as anything other than horrifying and I wanted to make sure Mended did that as well.
TMS: What has the response to Mended been like so far?
Scott: Surprisingly supportive. In a rare instance for the Internet, I think people saw how hard we worked to try and portray this in a genuine manner and appreciated it. I’ve also heard some really touching and heartbreaking stories and am so grateful to those who felt that Mended helped them in some small way. I’d always hoped this story would help to start a new kind of dialog on this matter I don’t think it would have succeeded nearly as well without Andrea’s guidance and Kate’s amazing art.
TMS: Mairghread, what are your personal opinions on how sexual violence against women is often used to provide motivation for characters, and what do you feel distinguishes a respectful depiction of rape or assault from a problematic one?
Scott: Rape and sexual assault can be very blunt instruments, from a narrative perspective. And I find it problematic when a character is assaulted as a quick way to garner sympathy. In the same way that you can’t like the villain once he kicks a dog, you pretty easily feel sympathy for a woman who’s been assaulted. What intrigued me about Mended was the idea that we could work with a more real, nuanced and problematic situation. Honor’s assault both informs her character in a meaningful way (and a way unique compared to another kind of altercation) without dominating it.
I talked a lot with my editors about the portrayal of the assault and worked hard to ensure that we found an artist who wouldn’t over sexualize Honor, or focus too much on her nudity, but instead focus on how Honor felt and reacted to her situation. I wanted to ensure her agency throughout this story.
TMS: What role did Kate Brown’s art play in ensuring Mended told Honor’s story with respect?
Kate was an amazing choice. she made Honor look like a real woman, not a paper doll and I think that made our story that much more real. She also did a great job of keeping your focus on Honor and her emotions. In short, she did an excellent job on a really challenging piece, and I respect the hell out of her for taking it on.
And without further ado, here’s Honor herself!
What do you think of Honor, Mended and Scott’s approach?
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—