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The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing Sexual Assault and Rape Narratives in Biblical Comics

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Zanne Domoney-Lyttle teaches and researches at the University of Glasgow. Her research centres on comic book and graphic novel adaptations of the Bible through the perspectives of literary criticism, art criticism, comics theory and gender studies. Her doctoral thesis explored the space of comic books as visual aids to scripture, the tension between authorship and authority in biblical comics, and who has the right to reinterpret ancient sacred texts in a new graphical-visual medium. The following essay is based on Zanne’s presentation at the Religion and Rape Culture Conference organized by the Shiloh Project in July 2018.

The Handmaid’s Jail: Framing Sexual Assault and Rape Narratives in Biblical Comics

Dr Zanne Domoney-Lyttle

“Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.

He went in to Hagar, and she conceived.” (Genesis 16:3b-4a)

In a post I wrote for this blog in November 2017, I discussed how biblical comics tend to avoid difficult scenes from the Bible, including visual depictions of rape, torture, violence and slavery. I argued that there is a reason and a need to represent such events in the graphic medium, because excluding difficult narratives erases not only violence and horror but silences the voices and experiences of the victims involved.

An alternative perspective is that comic book artists who choose to leave out “texts of terror” (Phyllis Trible, 1984), may do so because they do not want to be complicit in any act of sexual violence or of assault on the memory of the victim. Another reason is that they do not want younger or otherwise vulnerable readers to see violent scenes. Because of this, biblical scenes, which are unambiguously about rape and sexual assault – such as the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34) or the rape, murder and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine (Judges 19) – are intentionally left out in the majority of biblical comics.

But while these stories, which we might term “obvious” rape narratives, are often left out and often for reasons such as those just proposed, less “obvious” stories also depicting rape and sexual assault are often included. Moreover and disturbingly, there is often no indication that these stories can and should be read as stories of sexual aggression. Instead, violence is elided, rape becomes “just sex”.

To give one example, the story of Hagar in Genesis 16:1-4 is usually included in biblical comics, but never with any indication that Hagar is subjected to sexual servitude and abuse – namely, rape – in order to fulfil God’s promise to Abram for descendants.

A number of feminist biblical scholars, including J. Cheryl Exum, Phyllis Trible, Renita Weems and Susanne Scholz, have written compellingly about the importance of reading Hagar’s story as one of enslavement, rape and forced marriage and pregnancy. This is a burgeoning area of research in biblical studies and yet, the idea of reading biblical stories through the lens of classism and enforced motherhood is not one that is represented in mainstream comic adaptations of Bible material.

Comic book adaptations of Hagar’s story are always shown from the perspective of Abram and his “need” to have children. Depictions rarely, if ever, concentrate on the perspective of Sarai his wife, let alone on Hagar, a slave. Hagar is not so much suppressed in biblical comics but her representation is “shallow”, without autonomy and reflects a purely patriarchal perspective. Added to the exclusion of her voice, comic book creators also employ certain visual tools and word-choices, which further misrepresent the experience of Hagar. The effect of this is to imply her consent to sex and surrogacy and to normalise the treatment she receives at the hands of God, Abram and Sarai.

© R. Crumb, 2009

Let us turn to R. Crumb’s visual rendering of the story of Hagar (Genesis 16:1-6) in his The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R, Crumb: Hagar is introduced here as a solution to the problem of Sarai’s infertility. Given to Abram “as a wife”, the striking image which accompanies Genesis 16:3-4 depicts Sarai presiding over the “marriage”. This ceremony (of which there is no trace in the biblical text), moreover, resembles a traditional heterosexual Western wedding ritual, complete with officiant (Sarai), binding of hands and the face-to-face positioning of “bride” (Hagar) and “groom” (Abram). By referring to Hagar as a “wife” and graphically capturing her union with Abram in this way, Crumb encourages the reader to view the union as legal, consenting, sanctioned by God and as legitimate – rather than as a forced marriage between a slave and a powerful man for the purpose of producing Sarai’s surrogate child. This is further supported by Crumb’s word choice in his remediation: he uses “handmaid” rather than “slave-girl”.

Throughout the creation of his Genesis, Illustrated, Crumb relies heavily on three translations of the book of Genesis: the King James Version (KJV), the Jewish Publication Society version (JPS) and Robert Alter’s translation of and commentary on Genesis. The latter is the most prominent in his work and is clearly the source he relies on most.

This makes Crumb’s decision to use the word “handmaid”, rather than Alter’s “slave-girl”, even more conspicuous. Alter argues persuasively in his commentary that to describe Hagar (and Bilhah and Zilpah) as handmaids imposes a misleading sense of gentility on the sociology of the story. He goes on to suggest that describing Hagar as a maid rather than as a slave conveys the sense of a person in paid employment of their own volition, as opposed to somebody who is forced to work without wages, rights or freedoms.

© R. Crumb, 2009

So, Crumb choosing to call Hagar “handmaid” and depicting her transaction with Abram as a consenting marital union, suggests to the reader that Hagar enjoys some status and privileges, including the ability to choose marriage and pregnancy. This is further enhanced by Crumb’s commentary on his graphic version of Genesis where he provides his thoughts on Genesis 16:4b, “and when [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress seemed diminished in her eyes.” Crumb argues that Hagar’s attitude towards Sarai is threatening, because by being pregnant, Hagar is in a position to usurp Sarai’s position as matriarch of the family.

Crumb encourages readers to see Hagar’s treatment in Genesis as consensual and in her favour by choosing specific words and visual codes for his images. By doing so, narratives of slavery, rape and assault against Hagar are erased or forgotten and the reader glosses over her story, understanding it only as a means to fulfilling God’s promises to Abram.

One could argue that Hagar’s depiction in Crumb’s Genesis, Illustrated is representative of her appearance in the biblical text. The biblical text, too, is primarily focused on Abram and his role in God’s plan. The biblical text, too, focuses on Hagar’s role as child-bearer, which addresses the situation of Sarai’s apparent infertility.

© Siku, 2007

Let us now turn to the treatment of Hagar by Siku, artist and writer of The Manga Bible as well as the first section of The Lion Hero Bible. In both these versions by Siku, representation of Hagar is minimal. In The Manga Bible, Hagar’s story is glossed over entirely. Sarai hangs off Abram’s shoulder, whispering into his ear like a seductress as if playing into, as Susanne Scholz suggests (2010), an androcentric fantasy that imagines wives inviting their husbands to sleep with other women. Hagar is in only one panel, where she is represented as an object shaped like a trophy or vessel ready to be filled with Abram’s seed.

In The Lion Hero Bible, where Abram is called “Faith Man” Hagar is given space across four panels. Her face is either turned away from the reader or is in darkness. Most troubling with this remediation of her story is the panel where Abram leads her into ominous darkness. Rape is not visually depicted. Instead, one narrow panel fits in between the panel of Hagar being led into darkness and another showing her advanced pregnancy. This panel alludes to the circumstances of conception but functions like an ellipsis. Still, at least the panel creates a small space for the reader to imagine what happened rather than being presented with Crumb’s version, which assumes consent and respectability.

Siku briefly acknowledges Hagar’s enslavement by visually alluding to her bondage but he spends no time reflecting on what this status means for her as a victim or on what it means for the reader receiving the text. Possibly, this is because Siku focuses on Abram and his progression as a patriarch – not on Hagar. Hagar remains above all a tool in the narrative, a way for God to fulfil his promises.

© Siku, 2015

Brendan Powell Smith’s The Brick Bible: A New Spin on the Old Testament is similar in its execution of Genesis 16:3-4. This time Hagar’s slave class is highlighted by her ragged clothing, which is juxtaposed with the robes and jewels of Abram and Sarai. Unlike Crumb, Powell Smith chooses to use the designation “slave-girl”. However, again Hagar’s status as slave is not challenged, highlighted or problematised: once more there is no allusion to forced marriage, or rape or involuntary impregnation. The Brick Bible is known for its humorous take on the Bible and this might be why Powell Smith chooses to ignore “difficult” or violent elements in the text.

© Brendan Powell Smith, 2011

Choosing whether to, and how to depict violent stories in biblical comics is a choice rife with responsibilities.

In a recently published essay, actor Molly Ringwald reflects on watching a scene of sexual assault in the film The Breakfast Club, in which she stars, given the revelations of the #MeToo movement. She asks:

“How are we meant to feel about art that we both love and oppose? […] Erasing history is a dangerous road when it comes to art – change is essential, but so too, is remembering the past, in all of its transgression and barbarism.”

This is a question that must be asked of the Bible as well – especially when it is adapted in modern times into new media. The responsibility of those who make biblical comics is to represent the troubling texts and multiple voices within the stories instead of presenting only the version of the Bible that aligns with any one dominant ideology. This might include, for example, acknowledgment of Hagar as a victim of a class-driven system wherein God, Abram and even the matriarchal figure of Sarai are guilty of oppressing and abusing lower-class women in a quest to produce children “for Abram”. By not problematizing the text, retellings only reinforce and endorse damaging (such as androcentric) readings of the Bible. They fail to free Hagar from the constrictions of her story, thus jailing her both graphically within the panels of the comic book, and literarily within the word-choices of the written text.

Skipping over narratives of rape and sexual assault in the Bible can be a dangerous road when it comes to biblical interpretation. It is essential to remember also the violent stories and to revisit them with all of their transgressions and barbarities. In the conclusion to her essay, Molly Ringwald suggests that that it is up to future generations to respond to stories of rape and sexual assault like those in The Breakfast Club, in order to make those stories their own.

Biblical comic creators also need actively to challenge and reframe stories of rape and sexual assault in the Bible so that we can redeploy them as potential challenges to androcentric readings, and to oppose their examples of female subjugation. By accepting the existence of these texts and by probing and if necessary problematising and challenging their effects, resonances and implications, by both cherishing and opposing them, we can both remember the violence of the text but also ensure the victims in the texts are given focus and centrality, so as to recover and honour their voices.

 

Tags : AbramBrendan Powell SmithBrick BibleComic ArtComicsGenesis 16HagarRobert CrumbSaraiSiku

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