[Trigger warning: as you probably realized from the title, this post discusses the (overuse) of rape in fantasy settings]
I’m going to start with saying that I thought the Penny Arcade comic was actually pretty well done. But explaining why it resonated with me takes some work. Thankfully, our excellent commenters have already got the ball rolling:
I don’t understand why this PA strip is so wrong. To me, it’s not funny because the guy gets raped. It’s funny because the action is so obviously wrong in real life, but so absurdly motivated by limited game logic. I didn’t get an endorphin-strengthened appreciation of rape from that strip, quite the opposite.
And that’s where the comic hits me: the rape isn’t supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be horrible (if perhaps abstracted to ridiculousness) and make you suddenly more aware of how supposedly heroic actions in games sort of fall apart when they run into game mechanics.
This is a parody of the way that MMO questing works because the people still need saving even though you’re only told to save a limited number of them, and with any understanding of the quest dynamic involved I think it’s fairly clear what they’re trying to poke fun at.
If you don’t play massively multiplayer online games, you may never have encountered this problem: in a single player game, you always can try to save all the hostages. But in a massively multiplayer game, you want all players to have a chance at the quest, so you have the hostages reappear (often before the hero has left the area), or you limit it so that each hero can only save 5. That way, there’s always plenty of people crying for help from the next hero. In many cases actually impossible to continue saving people in an area due to the developers’ attempt to balance game mechanics. And frankly, that’s pretty unpleasant. There’s usually no explanation given as to why as a hero you would deem this acceptable. If this were a movie, the hero would be making a hard choice of who to save and there’d be a reason only 2 people could fit on the boat/spaceship/whatever. But in the average MMOG, the entire world continues along as if it’s perfectly normal for you to leave people to unspeakable horrors.
I’ve been squicked out by this on numerous occasions while playing games. The comic doesn’t exactly make me laugh so much as think, but it’s pointing out a real absurdity using some dark and twisted sense of humour and it’s more effective for me due to the contrast of humour and horror here.
But the question remains, “why did it have to be rape?” Surely, there are plenty of other horrible things that could have been happening to these prisoners that would have gotten the point across just as well? And maybe if you tried hard enough, you’d think of something. But we don’t live in a vacuum, and sometimes you have to use the tropes the genre and culture hands you to make your point most effectively.
Guess I’m part of the minority here, because I think the PA strip makes it point brilliantly. It mocks this absurd morality of games, homophobia, demonstrates that rape culture is deeply ingrained and the root of many evils, and they do it in three panels. Aren’t dickwolves the absolutely perfect symbols of much of the BS we struggle with everyday? Isn’t the “hero” a perfect representation of the narcissism, lack of empathy, and apathy we beat our heads against?
Not only do we deal with rape culture in the real world, but also in our fantasy ones. Rape is a disturbingly over-used trope, especially in fantasy, as a placeholder for “something horrible happened.” Even in modern urban fantasy reading I’ve gotten hit with a storyline like, “a prophecy says so-and-so’s son will overthrow the king (or whatever), so everyone in fairyland tries to rape her to be father to that son.” How many heros have back stories where their mom was a raped tavern wench? How many would-be queens are subject to assault? Heroines? The hero’s tragic back story might be that his family was killed in a raid, but in the heroine version there’s a good chance she or maybe her sisters were raped in said raid. Can’t we come up with better reasons for adventuring? Maybe not — virginity is often highly prized in these worlds where sometimes it has magical properties. Can’t we come up with worlds that don’t turn rape into a plot device?
There was one month where I compared notes with my sister, and we realized that every fantasy book we’d read in the past few months had included rape. It’s disturbing, it’s pervasive, and fantasy novels don’t come with trigger warnings.
I imagine there’s a much lengthier discussion to be had about rape as a fantasy trope. But the point I want to make here is that part of what made the comic effective for me was the absurdity and the evocation of that trope in an overdone way really made it resonate as “yeah, this sounds like a quest I might encounter” rather than “that’s horrible; it’d never be written that way.”
And that’s why the comic worked for me. It was effective because it hurt and reflected a reality that I don’t like to see but get shoved in my face regularly as a genre fan and a game player. That doesn’t mean it will work for you, or even that it should. There’s plenty of people for whom this is simply triggering and horrible and cannot be effective because of that, and that needs to be recognized. But a comic that’s horrible for some may still be effective for others. There are often many legitimate feminist readings of a subject, and dark humour and satire are hard to handle because it feels a lot like the same old stuff getting thrown in your faces again.
But I think shielding us from the overuse of rape as “some horrid thing” would only lessen the effectiveness of the comic within the context of the genre and culture. Darker humour sometimes is most effective when it embraces the dark.