On Sword Art Online 24

I noted a couple of months ago in response to the accusations that My Little Monster perpetuated rape culture that I acknowledged that rape culture was a real problem, just that I didn’t feel Monster-kun was one of the perpetrators. I’m beginning to wonder if I was premature on that.

I knew when I watched SAO 24 that people were going to say it perpetuated rape culture; what surprised me is, the more I thought about it, the more I realized there was absolutely nothing SAO 24 could have done that couldn’t have been, with a fair amount of legitimacy, accused of that. There is literally nothing the writers could have done that you could not make a rational argument was harmful for the reasons of perpetuating rape culture. I continue to believe there are trends in the media that popularize false, harmful ideas about rape, but in light of this situation, I don’t know if the term “rape culture” is even useful.

Why SAO Was Damned Whatever It Did

According to the anime feminist blog What About The Waifuz? the main problem with the scene featuring Asuna’s sexual assault (other than the fact that it was unnecessary and tasteless, which is fair enough), was that Sugou was too evil. By making him a completely inhuman monster, it belies the fact that men who commit real rapes are usually “ordinary,” people, generally known to the victims, who would never be called out as obviously evil.

 “The Lisak study indicated that the vast majority of sexual assaults were committed by people familiar with the victim many of whom were nice, average guys who didn’t consider themselves rapists. Depictions of sexual assault like in SAO 24 drive home the idea that these acts are the province of monsters. Which the Lisak study argues are not the usual problem.

I am willing to argue, then that using a tired and untrue tropes both signals lazy writing and helps perpetuate some of the memetic ideas against which Lisak’s hard data fights. The scene, then, is not only tasteless but also pernicious in its perpetuation of rape culture.”

–What About The Waifuz

 Okay, so let’s agree with this. Let’s say that the problem was that Sugou was too evil, and should have been more sympathetic, therefore not perpetuating false ideas about rapists. The show would have sidestepped the problem of perpetuating rape culture if only Sugou had been a nuanced, run-of-the-mill, fairly nice guy who just happened to assault and very nearly rape Asuna….do you see where this is going?

If Sugou had been a sympathetic character, a different group of viewers would have felt the show was perpetuating rape culture by normalizing his actions. At least making Sugou an incredibly evil bastard, there was crystal clarity that what he was doing to Asuna was supposed to be unequivocally wrong. What if Sugou was a character we sympathized with, maybe even liked, and his interactions with Asuna were less mustache-twirlingly evil and more realistic? Where’s the border between making him “normal,” like the writer of the Waifuz blog would prefer, and making him likable enough that the show would be accused of trotting out an overly positive depiction of a rapist?

It doesn’t really matter what Sugou’s character was like (although I thought his cartoonishly evil persona was meant to be an example of The Greater Internet Dickwad Theory at work, but that’s another issue). Just by including a scene that features sexual assault, something about it would have been offensive, and with some legitimacy (I can’t stress that enough), to a certain percentage of the viewers. Whether the villain was too evil or not evil enough, you could easily make the rape culture argument.

All that said, you may still think that my earlier statement—that there’s NOTHING the writers could have done to save themselves from accusations of perpetuating rape culture—can’t possibly be true. After all, that whole scene was icky and unnecessary and uncomfortable as shit to watch, why didn’t they just leave it out? Surely, if there was no sexual assault and near-rape, there would be nothing to be offended about, right?

Wrong. If the show had ignored the possibility of exploitation that Asuna faced in that situation, instead depicting her happily dispatching monsters with a sword while Kirito was fighting Sugou, that’s ignoring the very real threat of sexual assault that millions of people face every single day. Showing Asuna, a strong character who much of the audience already empathizes with strongly, in that situation may have made the issue of sexual assault finally real for people who have otherwise been oblivious to it. By leaving out the sexual assault, the show could be accused from running away from reality—trying to sweep sexual assault under the rug, not showing it because it’s too uncomfortable, too difficult to grapple with. In other words, contributing to the cloud of ignorance and denial that allows rape culture to exist.

Even if the controversial scene in SAO didn’t even happen, from the viewpoint that confronting our demons is always better than hiding from them in shame and fear, it still could have been perpetuating rape culture by squandering the opportunity to confront it.

I don’t think any of these views are crazy; they all make a certain kind of sense, depending on the way you choose to look at the material, and the audience. It just goes to show, writers who choose to address sexual assault will never be safe from the accusation that they are perpetuating it. And if they don’t address it, not wanting to deal with the political headaches, then they’re ignoring reality, which may even be worse. There is no way to do this right.

All that said, my point here is not that feminist critics should be silent. Silencing anyone is never my goal, and people are entitled to say what they think is sexist, dumb and poorly-written, all of which are fair criticisms of that particular episode in my opinion. No, my sole recommendation is that we stop being so quick to accuse creators of media of “perpetuating rape culture.” It’s an incredibly heinous accusation, considering there’s no consensus of opinion over what that even means.

Let’s criticize what we think is wrong, call a spade a spade, but stop short of correlating everything with this massive rape campaign that, as it turns out, we can’t even define.

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