Rape Culture: Watchmen Edition

[TRIGGER WARNING — graphic violence/rape imagery]

by Shaker Scott Madin

Liss asked me if I'd be interested in writing about this, and I've got a couple shots of rye in me now, so here we go.

So, for starters, here's a little bit of non-Watchmen-related background. There's this guy, David Hayter. For most of his career, he's been a voice actor for cartoons, especially English dubs of anime. Most people who've heard of him, however, know him as the voice of Solid Snake, the main character of the Metal Gear Solid series of video games. (Although the focus of the MGS series is stealth, Solid Snake's character is mainly based on Snake Plissken from John Carpenter's 1981 movie Escape From New York. For comparison purposes, here is a photo of Snake Plissken; a photo of Solid Snake can be found here [second picture]; and photos of David Hayter are at his IMDB page.) Turns out that since 2000, Hayter has also been working as a screenwriter, including on the first two X-Men movies and the modern classic The Scorpion King. Guess what else?

Yep, he co-wrote the screenplay for Watchmen. And our David is a sensitive soul: he's been stung to the quick by criticisms of his movie* and, fearful that "if it drops off the radar after the first weekend, they will never allow a film like this to be made again," has decided to write an open letter, ostensibly addressed to "the fanboys and fangirls. The true believers. Dedicated for life," asking — nay, begging — nay, demanding that they go see it again and again, and to the people who haven't seen it yet, well...he thinks they deserve to be raped.

Oh, no! Not literally raped, of course, I'm sure he'd insist; he doesn't think anyone deserves to actually be raped. It's just a great, edgy metaphor for how his movie treats its audience! Who could object to a metaphor? Here's what he actually writes:
It may upset you. And it probably will upset you.

And all along, we really meant it to.

Because face it. All this time...You there, with the Smiley-face pin. Admit it.

All this time, you've been waiting for a director who was going to hit you in the face with this story. To just crack you in the jaw, and then bend you over the pool table with this story. With its utterly raw view of the darkest sides of human nature, expressed through its masks of action and beauty and twisted good intentions. Like a fry-basket full of hot grease in the face. Like the Comedian on the Grassy Knoll.
There, see? His hypothetical audience really, secretly, wanted the metaphorical rape! Because wanting to be raped is totally a thing that happens! And we know his hypothetical audience wants it because in the hypothetical future:
Trust me. You'll come back, eventually. Just like Sally.

OK, I can't keep up the sarcasm anymore. There are so many things wrong with Hayter's letter that I can't even point them all out. His second, fourth and ninth paragraphs, for example, I'll leave as exercises for the reader, and skip right to 11, which comes just before the bit I've already excerpted. This is, I think, where we first see just how wrong Hayter has gone. He explains that he's telling people to go see the movie again, not for his own personal benefit (and as far as I know what he says in 10, that writers don't get any extra profit from increased box office returns, but make their money on residuals from DVD sales, is true) but
for people who love smart, dark entertainment, on a grand, operatic scale. I'm talking to the Snake fans, the Rorschach fans, the people of the Dark Knight.
So, yes, this would be part of the root of the problem. He thinks fans of Rorschach, who's a sociopath, are a good audience to court. In the beginning of his letter, Hayter implies that he's read Watchmen many times; it seems he hasn't read it enough. I don't have a source for this right now, but I've read that when Watchmen was first being published, Alan Moore received a lot of mail from fans telling him how great they thought Rorschach was, and how much they wished there were people more like him in real life, and that this so disturbed Moore that he said he wished he'd never written the book. Hayter appears to think that being "dark" is a good and worthwhile quality in itself.

And he also thinks, as we've seen, that there's nothing wrong with using rape (which is a compliment, and which the victim secretly wants, and will come back for more of!) as a metaphor for a "dark" movie which mimics the story of the novel on which it's based without having understood it.

Now, I honestly believe that David Hayter really doesn't think rape is OK, or that rape victims "were asking for it" or "deserved it." Not consciously, that is; I believe if you asked him those questions, he'd say, "of course not!" But he's soaking in privilege and in the rape culture (though if he's ever even heard the term "rape culture," he probably thinks of it as a crazy thing that only crazy feminists like that crazy man-hating Andrea Dworkin say because they're crazy and hate men — because being so normalized that any challenges to it seem bizarre is one of rape culture's more powerful defense mechanisms).

This combination of socialization and privilege means that, in Hayter's mind, rape is something that happens to Others, i.e. women, and so it's not real to him (see the discussion in comments here); and that women's function is sex, so that must be why Sally "come[s] back, eventually" to the Comedian. Hayter probably also believes that the Comedian/Sally scene is what rape "normally" looks like: a man, probably a stranger or an acquaintance rather than an intimate, overtly using physical force to overpower a struggling, protesting woman while muttering clichés about how she's dressed. That's another clever trick of rape culture: teaching us that only the least frequent forms of rape count as "real" rape.

Hayter has provided a very clear example, but of course he's not unique in how he thinks. The society he lives in has taught him, as it has taught many, probably most, men (and believe me, I do not claim to be exempt; at best, I am just better equipped with the analytical tools to recognize this in others and in myself), to see women, and rape, and violence, and sex, in this terribly damaged way. On a visceral, sub-rational level, he believes that rape is something that happens to Other People, not People Like Him, that it's not really all that serious, and — since he's addressing his letter to "people like [him]" — he's just being "raw" and "dark" (he doesn't, but might as well have also said "edgy" and "un-PC" — all of which is, other issues aside, a gross mistaking of style for substance), which is to say, titillating to his audience. If you told him he was doing real harm by treating rape so flippantly, well. I guess we're all familiar with the litany of responses by now.

There's probably a lot of important ground I've failed to cover in responding to this. There's a lot to say, and even without people like David Hayter casually tossing around rape imagery as though it were just a bit of fun, I'd be angry and frustrated with Watchmen near to the point of incoherence, because I'm sick to death of people taking books which should never be made into films, and which they don't understand in the first place, and producing glossy, high-budget blockbusters that betray the source material but make gobs of money from a public easily wowed by special effects. I'm sure y'all will help fill in things I've missed in comments.


*Why yes, typically one does say that if the movie is anyone's, it's the director's, not the co-writer of the adapted screenplay, but Hayter sure seems to be taking it as personally as if it were solely his product.


Bonus question: what could make rape even more hilarious? When it happens to a man, because that's just wacky! Ugh.

[H/T to Shaker Failed Lurker.]

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