Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Friday, May 18, 2007

This One's a Thinker

My friend, Gwen, just read Pride of Baghdad, and totally hated its guts.

I always thought Brian K. Vaughan was beyond reproach when it came to the gender stuff. In the sexist world of comics writing, he's one of the good guys - he wrote Runaways, for cripes sake! However Gwen's reaction to the rape scene that takes place in Pride of Baghdad made me wonder, is Vaughan no better than the likes of Robert Kirkman and Brad Meltzer when it comes to "rape as plot device?"

On a first read, I didn't agree with her at all. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I thought the matter deserved more careful consideration.

Bookslut agrees with Gwen, its reviewer making the comment, "the rape is unnecessary for establishing Safa's jaded attitude towards freedom." Other reviewers had no problem with the scene. Karen Healey of Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed) was surprisingly silent on the issue.



Gwen said...

As you know, I didn't like the book. But I don't think that necessarily means Vaughan ISN'T one of the "good guys" of the comics world in most of his work. I think he may have made a misstep BECAUSE the book is about lions, and therefore ostensibly 'nature,' and thus just 'biology' and not culture. And when we anthropomorphize nature, I think we often say or think things we would NEVER say or think about human beings.

I respect your intelligence enough that I am certain you would not like the books of an author who made his female characters pathetic, passive, weak, shallow, or otherwise stereotypical. So I'm guessing his works that depict fictional human characters may be quite progressive, or at least less offensive than the norm.

But I think when people talk about biology, they often forget there is still human interpretation going on--and this goes for the average person on the street as well as professional biologists. We think "I'm just reporting what I SAW! It's not a STEREOTYPE, it's BIOLOGY."

And since we think that because it's biology, it's free from human cultural obfuscations, we don't notice that we interpret animal behavior based on what we think the motivation or feelings of HUMANS would be if they did the same thing. We think we're just reporting what is "real," as though humans are capable of seeing anything without their cultural biases filtering what they see. And so they don't take as much care to think about their biases, or how common social understandings might have crept into their usually more critical thinking without them noticing.

And so Vaughan watches some lions. He sees that sometimes the lionesses fight. If it was two female characters, probably he'd give them some good backstory to explain this. But it's "just instinct." But what instinct? We are convinced, from all of our 8th-grade biology classes that most of us never went beyond, that male animals instinctively want to have lots of mates and female animals instinctively want to have a monogamous mate. So female animals fighting must be jealousy. That jealousy must be over the male, not over the best shade in the pen, because we're pretty sure that's what female humans would be fighting over. And so when Vaughan is anthropomorphizing the lionesses fighting, in comes a really old trope about what females are like, in the guise of being just an observation of REAL TRUE LION behavior.

So I don't think it's necessarily a choice between "Vaughan is totally enlightened about gender issues" and "Vaughan is a sexist ass." I think it may be a question of "How does the way we choose to explain and describe animal behaviors reveal some of our (possibly unacknowledged or even personally repellant) cultural beliefs about what men and women are like?"

One thing the Bookslut reviewer pointed out that I wasn't really able to conceptualize or put into words was the creation of artificial conflicts in a story that already had plenty of inherent conflict to make it interesting and move it along. I think that's part of why the rape scene bothered me--there was no NEED for it, in terms of the story's coherence, so it felt gratuitous to me. The whole scene with the bear was just stupid to me--I mean, I get that the animals and their conversations are symbolic of Iraq and all, but the fight between the lions and the bear had no point as far as I could tell, and I kept thinking "But, um...the horses would turn around and run over the CUB rather than the HUGE BEAR THAT WAS MUCH BIGGER THAN A GROWN LION." That scene existed just to let Zill and Ali have their moment, not because it moved the story along or was realistic or whatever.

I guess I felt that the story of the lions themselves, and particularly how anthropomorphised animals might make sense of tanks and bombs, was already fascinating enough in and of itself, and all the additional stuff like the rape scene and the bear reminded me of our problem with "Drive Like Hell": trying to spice up a story with unnecessary subplots when you have a perfectly good story staring you in the face already.

KPhoebe said...

Karen Healey of Girls Read Comics (And They're Pissed) was surprisingly silent on the issue.

Not all that surprising, since I haven't read it!

mary_m said...

Well, yes, that would explain it!

Tamora Pierce said...

I actually thought the rape scene was just his idea of the fate awaiting a female lion out of her own territory and away from the protection of her pride. Call me simplistic, but I took it pretty much as his interpretation of natural behavior.

I thought the gang bang was a serious misstep, since as far as I know single lions aren't inclined to act together, but I'm used to other people making bad calls on animal behavior.

I was reading the whole thing as Vaughan's anthropomorphization of the animals' reaction to human outrage. With that in mind, I wasn't prepared to apply my usual ruler of wedgeassedness about proper animal behavior, and cut him all kinds of slack. I certainly didn't get the whiff that he threw the rape in for titillation, or to victimize a female hero, as I've gotten in superhero comics. It seemed to me to be more his idea of "nature red in tooth and claw."
Tamora Pierce

KKGlinka said...

I honestly thought that whole scene was just plain weird - it didn't even parse for me. I know he was anthropomorphizing the lions, but he was still trying to stay within their natural behaviors.

Yes, young male lions will form temporary prides, but lions don't rape. They male kill a wandering lioness' cubs to drive her into heat so they can form a new pride, at which point the males will fight for dominance amongst each other with the winner driving off the others. If a male pride encounters a lioness that is not in heat they usually kill her because she's competition for limited prey.

So my problem with that scene was the excessive disney-like anthropomorphic elements. Either the lioness was in heat and there was no rape, despite the hostile behavior they would display toward each other, or it was a human gang bang. It broke the fourth wall and threw me completely out of the narrative.

Shannon said...

I was just reading your "Pride of Baghdad" post and comments. Wow. I never gave it so much thought! I was disturbed by the rape scene as any normal person would be, but I certainly didn't translate that into Vaughan being sexist. I also didn't try to wonder if that's the way normal lions act - who knows... I thought that he was just "short-handing" the plight of women in the Islamic world.