Rape and Murder in Media
Penny Arcade (PA) is big on stereotypical, immature, violent, misogynist, video game geek humor. I often find them hilarious precisely because they are poking fun of themselves and the culture that they are part of. When I don't get the reference for the joke, I'm offended, or I just don't find it funny, I move on. For one thing, I believe in freedom of speech, and I agree with George Carlin, who said nothing is off limits for jokes. (Whether or not everyone finds them funny is an entirely separate matter.) While I recognize that some speech has repercussions, and all speech is fodder for debate and analysis, I also don't conflate the fictional personas of Gabe and Tycho with the literal identities of the PA creators, and I recognize that a lot of the most offensive characters in media, including the likes of Borat and South Park, are often specifically trying to use irony to highlight problems with humanity. On the other hand, some people apparently take Stephen Colbert at face value, and I'm afraid that's part of what happened here.
On the other side of the ring, the major player is Melissa McEwan, who runs the blog Shakesville, formerly known as Shakespeare's Sister. They usually attempt to be very aware of current cultural issues and to speak up for the minorities and repressed in society, especially women and rape victims, and supposedly for non-100%-heterosexuals and transpeople as well. Sometimes they fail miserably, and sometimes it's because they are, in my not-so-humble-opinion, so wrapped up in the particular issues which matter to them that they overreact to whispers while ignoring shouts. In the process, they often react with immature snark to valid questions, and their posting policy is basically 'Don't, unless you've been hanging around for awhile and understand all the rules and don't say anything that we won't rip apart or delete before banning you.' They've been accused of being cultish in the past, but I digress.
To summarize the incident in question, Penny Arcade posted a webcomic which most viewers took as a poke at the difference between real-life ethics and in-game morality, by showing an extreme example of a computer-generated non-player character (NPC) being dismissed by a behind-the-keyboard-human's player character (PC) because that part of the game was finished. To illustrate how awful the NPC's living conditions were, they were hyped up and exaggerated: he was a slave who lived in "hell unending... Every morning, we are roused by savage blows. Every night, we are raped to sleep by the dickwolves." The PC's response: "Quest Complete... Don't make this weird." Hilarity was intended to ensue precisely because of the disconnect between the extremely heinous situation of the NPC and the blasé response of the PC.
This particular webcomic ignited a little online fire because of the use of rape in a joke (and to a lesser extent because the victim is male, and boy doesn't that get convoluted), and there's a nice little summary here about why the feminists were upset. Various people chimed in, and made a lot of interesting points along the way, including the idea of raping females as a trope in fantasy fiction. In some instances, the comment threads also explored the topic pretty thoroughly, although I think there was an awful lot of shouting down guests by the ingrained sycophants at Shakesville. Regardless, an opportunity was missed, I think.
A number of people reacted in various ways to the apparent cognitive dissonance in the original response on Shakesville--not written by McEwan but by a guest poster--which included this:
When I have a sense of humor, it is a little offbeat. I have liked, for example, Penny Arcade's comics about the numerous times they've killed each other. I have a dark sense of humor, and I'll admit it.
But unlike Gabe killing Tycho so he doesn't have to share a video game, a slave being raped is a real thing that happens in the world every day. I don't find this "joke" funny because, unlike characters cartoonishly killing each other repeatedly and coming back to life, just as in video games, rape isn't a central feature of (most) games—at least in the actual gameplay, totally aside from the language used by players.
Some commenters pointed out that slavery, violence, and murder are also daily occurences, and on Shakesville were told that their observations were "off-topic" and that rape is special because it's not taken as seriously as murder, as evidenced by the joke. Um, no.
It's true that almost all rapists are male and the majority of rape victims are female, and that most rapes are never brought to the attention of police, much less prosecuted, much less brought to justice. But it's also true that the mere accusation of sexual molestation or assault is often enough to sink a man's reputation for the rest of his life, which is part of why so many victims are painted as shrill, lying cunts who are trying to take advantage of the situation to smear someone's good name. Whether or not someone says it out loud, there is a tendency toward a great deal of speculation on what she was wearing, how she was acting, and whether she was sending mixed signals. I think some of this is due to the psychology of denial, because quite apart from what we believe about men and women in general, it is easier for the human mind to accept the crime of false accusation than the crime of violation, especially if we know the alleged rapist.
It's also true that we put all who are convicted of sexually-related crimes into the box called "predators," which has a distinct whiff of pedophilia. The FBI maintains a sex offender registry for each state, from which you can find all the sex offenders in your neighborhood, and some sites display a local map with photos of these individuals. Meanwhile, only a few states have registries for murderers. For those of us who are parents or simply love children, let's face it: are you more bothered by the idea of a sexual predator living next door, or a murderer? We know, or think we know, that serial killers are very rare and that victims of most murderers are one-time incidents, targeted for personal hatred or insanity. We assume sexual predators are prowling our neighborhoods looking for the smallest and weakest of the herd, indiscriminately. On the second count, we're quite wrong, because most of the time a rape victim knows his/her attacker.
But to link back to the tempest in the teapot on the table at hand, to say that rape in our culture is taken more lightly than murder is quite untrue, and I think a lot of the people who engaged in the fight knew it, at least subconciously. Many of them were outraged over the idea that rape as used as a stand-in for 'the worst thing ever that could happen to someone,' because--in a prime example of cognitive dissonance--that somehow cheapens the idea of rape.
Let's start with the media at hand, which is video games. The first poster as Shakesville admitted that she's willing to laugh at killing characters who are repeatedly respawned in games. It's ubiquitous. From Pac-Man eating the enemy ghosts, to Mario squishing mushrooms and turtles who fall off the screen, to heroes with swords slashing bad guys who fall down and disappear, to the brutal bloody things that are rated M-for-Mature, killing enemies is a staple of video games. Rape, however, is not, and is indeed a stand-in for 'the worst thing ever that could happen to someone' in M-rated games. Most of us are comfortable with our 8-year-olds controlling a character that kills things, but rape is strictly for grown-ups, and I can't think of a game offhand that does more than the mere mention of it as an NPC's backstory. I know they exist, but they're vanishingly rare.
This applies to movies, too. The Disney princesses and others often have characters (usually bad guys) who are killed onscreen: Ursula in The Little Mermaid was speared, Simba's father was murdered by his uncle in The Lion King, the witch in Sleeping Beauty turned into a dragon and was stabbed with a sword, and Pocahontas' friend was shot. Rape, however, is only mentioned in R-movies, and while murder scenes in horror films can get very gory, such as the Saw series, rape scenes tend to be a few seconds long because the audience can't stand to squirm much longer than that.
Of course, some of this lack of outrage is because the murder victims aren't around anymore. While their physical bodies are necessarily subjected to even more intrusive and lengthy procedures than rape kits, they can no longer feel humiliated or angry or grieving or anything else about it. They can't be cross-examined on the witness stand, or be embarrassed by newspaper reports.
But I mentioned earlier that an opportunity was lost. It's been estimated that about one in four women experiences domestic violence. It's also true that women are murder victims more often than men, and they are substantially more likely to be killed by someone they know than a stranger, such as their partners/husbands. And male murderers drastically outnumber female murderers. Rather than go ahead and parse that, and discuss that it's not simply a "rape culture" that we live in, but that violence against women is normalized in general, or that there might be more to the story, the folks at Shakesville decided to lament the lack of trigger warnings in the world for all those delicate rape victims who can't handle anything anymore. The really rich part was when Melissa said that it's true you can make a joke about anything... but that jokes about rape are restricted to victims bashing their rapists.
In closing, I'd like to point out that sticking up for the repressed does NOT mean silencing the voices of anyone who happened to be born with a skin color, sexual orientation, happy family, or other condition/situation that makes them more privileged than you. That attitude is the major reason why so many conservatives in politics dismiss the concerns of liberals as sour grapes and/or bleeding hearts. And providing a safe space is a noble goal, but we can't wrap all the injured in soft cocoons. Life ain't fair, and it's not healthy to wallow in misery and victimhood.