Why violence against women in film is not the same as violence against men

My blogpost about the treatment of Batgirl in Batman: The Killing Joke had plenty of readers asking why I didnt get upset about depictions of men getting hurt. But theres a crucial difference

Whenever you mention that a piece of art shows violence against women, you can be sure that the comments section will reply, with confused gusto, What about the men?! Men get shot in movies too, after all; why doesnt anyone complain about that? Hurting men, the argument goes, should negate hurting women. As long as everyone is being treated with equal violence, gender is irrelevant, and we can go back to enjoying murder and mayhem untroubled by conscience, or, indeed, thought. So goes the argument.

Earlier this week, I pointed out that the treatment of Batgirl in The Killing Joke is sexist. Barbara Gordon, AKA Batgirl, in the original 1988 comic by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, is gut shot, stripped naked, and photographed by the Joker as part of his plot to terrorize her father. Sexualized violence against women as a way to motivate men is a wearisome misogynist trope only compounded in the recently released Bruce Timm cartoon version by further character development, which presents Batgirl as emotionally unstable and incompetent.

Inevitably, some folks leaped to defend gut-shooting as egalitarian entertainment. After all, Barbara is not the only person killed or humiliated in the original comic. The Joker casually kills numerous men over the course of the story, as the Joker is wont to do. He strips Gordon naked and forces him to view pictures of his nude daughter with a gaping wound in her stomach. Men are killed; men are tortured. The brutal violence against Barbara Gordon is, therefore, simply par for the course in a brutal comic book world. It doesnt have anything to do with gender.

Its certainly true that The Killing Joke, and pulp entertainments in general, are replete with instances of violence against men. Batman and Superman spend most of Batman v Superman beating the crap out of each other. A 38-minute supercut of all of James Bonds murders shows him slaughtering his way through bad guy after bad guy, punning cheerily all the while. In the shark attack film The Shallows, numerous men are bloodily devoured. And so forth. Men dying: audiences love it.

Violence against men and violence against women are both common in genre entertainment. But as The Killing Joke demonstrates that doesnt mean that the violence is the same.

When women are targeted for violence, that violence is overwhelmingly sexual. The Joker doesnt just shoot Barbara; he strips her and takes nude, voyeuristic photos, transforming the violence into a symbolic rape. In the cartoon version, the main male antagonist of the first half hour keeps up a steady stream of sexual remarks directed at Batgirl. As a result, their physical confrontations are suffused with sexual threat a threat almost never present when male heroes like Batman fight villains.

Sexualization makes violence against women exciting, important and motivating. The Joker violates Barbara to humiliate her father. Batman, in the cartoon, becomes protective when the villain sexually threatens Batgirl and not just protective, since the villains lewd comments lead, not very indirectly, to Batgirl and Batman having sex. Women are sexual objects; violence against them creates conflict between men, because men have an interest in controlling womens sexuality. Thats a good thumbnail definition of patriarchy.

Violence against men works differently. When men are the target of violence, the violence is not generally sexualized, and, indeed, its mostly not even emotionally fraught. Heroes or villains kill other men casually, as a way of showing how tough they are. And heroes and villains suffer violence stoically, also as a way of showing how tough they are. For women in media, violence is sexual, exciting, and defines them as when Barbara is shot and permanently crippled. For men, violence is nonsexual and establishes their strength as when Commissioner Gordon endures horrific punishment, only to emerge unbroken and unbowed, his commitment to law and morality unshaken.

Violence in The Killing Jokeis directed at both men and women. But the violence is not equal. Instead, it is apportioned out according to gender stereotypes. Women are the victims of sexualized violence, which means theyre seen as innately vulnerable and unheroic. Violence is done to them and for them. They are the erotic stimulus to someone elses story.

Men, on the other hand, are not victims even when they are on the receiving end of violence. They have to be stoic and strong. Gordon cant break down under torture, because hes a guy and a hero. The Joker, before he is the Joker, does break under mental strain but when he does so he becomes a monster, more unmanageably violent than ever, piling up bodies like cordwood to affirm him as tough guy male villain. Meanwhile, men who arent the protagonists die without comment or fuss. Even when theyre superheroes, women arent allowed to be heroes, only victims. Even when theyre violently murdered, men arent allowed to be victims only heroes or nonentities.

The sexist distribution of violence hurts women, who are told, over and over, that they are first and foremost sexual objects, that they are constantly endangered, that they must rely on men for protection, and that they arent able to be heroes on their own account.

But the sexism also hurts men. Onscreen, men are rarely allowed to be vulnerable; theyre always supposed to great violence with indifference, and/or with greater violence. Men are told, over and over, that violence, by and against men, is natural, and not to be remarked upon. Men die, onscreen and in war, and thats just the way of things. Men, if theyre men, dont protest.

Women cant be heroes; men cant be anything but heroes. Thats the logic of The Killing Joke, and not just of The Killing Joke. Throughout popular culture, gender reinforces violence, and violence reinforces gender. Representations of violence against men dont negate representations of violence against women. Rather, they compound and enable each other. The sensational, sexualized violation of Barbara makes the violence by and against men in the rest of the comic natural, necessary, logical. The punchline is always the same: gender is the joke that can kill.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/jul/29/the-killing-joke-batgirl-violence-against-women-men

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