On the Use of Fending Off Sexual Assault as a Way of Defining Strength in Female Characters

In the past I’ve written in an attempt to pinpoint what I find so troubling about some portrayals of “strong” female characters, especially in American superhero and fantasy comics, but despite having expressed various reasons for these impressions as such I still have never felt that the answers I’ve given were entirely adequate. It’s been an on-going process of self-questioning and observation, and the reason I’m making this post is that I’ve come to realize another issue when it comes to the representation of female strength.

It came to me while I was reading the comic Flipside, which features as its main character a sexy and strong female jester named Maytag. Throughout the first volume, Maytag is repeatedly  confronted with a similar sequence of events. Some bad men confront her, threaten her with rape or call her a bitch, and then Maytag turns their expectations upside down and defeats them (for the most part), while still emphasizing her sexuality or making some sexual innuendos.

Keep in mind that Flipside isn’t a particularly egregious example, as it suffers more (at least early on, I haven’t read further) from a lack of experience and characters overly designed as wish fulfillment, nor are anime and manga completely innocent of this. Also, the act of knocking out your would-be rapists can be empowering imagery. Instead, what I realized by seeing this two-step process over and over in such a short span of pages is that the the seeming need for sexual threats to happen in order to establish a female character as strong diminishes a story because strength winds up being defined as the ability to not get sexually assaulted. In these scenarios, the girl can’t be strong in a world which accepts the possibility of strength in a woman as a believable occurrence, only in a world which has to constantly remind her what a girl she is and how as a girl she’s liable to be attacked.

Another problem is what I would label the “straw misogynist,” or characters who are purposely set up to be extremely sexist so that they can be put in their place when the girl fights back. The way straw misogynists are used in situations like the ones I’ve been describing is that by threatening rape or sexual abuse they immediately bring attention to the sexuality of the girl target, creating this mixed message where the thrill is both in that danger but also in the sexual way the girl fights back. As a result, it ends up conveying something along the lines of, “You might not be able to overpower me sexually, but if you could oh boy would you be having fun!” And even a sexual fantasy such as that is not a problem because it’s just fantasy, but if it’s being touted as an example of how female characters can be strong, then there should be no surprise if some readers reject that notion.

This is not to deny the use of dangerous situations for women in stories, nor do I think that stories need to “ignore” gender. Instead, what I want to emphasize is how showing someone is strong is a different experience from showing someone is strong with constant and persistent caveats to that notion.

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7 thoughts on “On the Use of Fending Off Sexual Assault as a Way of Defining Strength in Female Characters

  1. Great topic. Certainly the trope is restrictive by design, as well as just plain tiresome in those works. Measuring female “strength” through these situations is tantamount to measuring male “strength” through how many damsels in distress he can save, or some other generic dilemma. It weakens not only the strength of the story but the strength of its themes; and in the case of the female one, it reaches a diminishing return upon further and further use—so much so that it ostensibly contradicts the messages it tries (or pretends) to present. In other words, writers should be more creative!

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  2. Very true. This has always been especially off-putting to me personally, since I’ve worked on a helpline for victims of abuse. Especially the incredibly shallow portrayal of the “straw misogynist” as you put it. To me it never felt like few authors wanted to do the topic serious justice, and just used it as a crutch to remind us that there was a vulnerable human there somewhere.

    On a not-entirely-related tangent, I haven’t been quite able to put it into words, but a similar-feeling effect is what bothers me about shows like Railgun. A kind of glorification of boy’s ideals wrapped in girl’s clothes, where the only truly girly character is the one that’s weak and always on the verge of getting raped or doing drugs, etc.

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  3. @Evirus: Perhaps not intentional, but it’s a funny homage to Index’s first episode, where Touma plays the girl surrounded by testosterone-pumped gangsters, and Misaka saves him like she does with Saten. Also what’s interesting is that the gender roles are swapped in that scene (i.e. Touma the girl and Misaka the boy hero), whereas they sort of just play it straight in Railgun S. Sorta loss of subtlety there. :\

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  4. Railgun actually uses this repeatedly throughout the series. It seems like the trash mob enemies are always gangs of roving thugs; not sure why they let them into a secret school city in the first place…

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  5. This totally reminds me of the bondage scene in Hanasaku Iroha.

    Which kind of makes sense given the point of the series is about a line of … well, headstrong female characters at least.

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  6. Pingback: Strength in Precure | OGIUE MANIAX

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