**Trigger Warning: Sexual Violence**
I am a pretty big fan of the show Sword Art Online. I might even call it my favorite show after Legend of Korra, but it’s not losing by much. But now that the Phantom Bullet story arc is winding up, I’m seeing what could become a pattern starting to form. This is the second story arc in a row where the final climax uses rape as a plot device to increase the tension and dramatic stakes for Kirito.
As I’ve been thinking about the scene from the last episode, I’ve come to two conclusions. The first is that, from a storytelling perspective, the attack on Sinon isn’t done wrong, especially in comparison to the abuse that Asuna suffered at the end of the previous season. But the second is that, whether or not this one incident was well-written, I’m still concerned about the messages about women and violence in the show. And I’m not sure how to feel.
So I asked the Postman (aka Rob Bricken) at io9’s mail column, Postal Apocalypse. If you’re unfamiliar with Postal Apocalypse, it’s kinda like an advice column for your questions about nerdy things. Bricken then responds to the questions he deems fit for the column from within the character of the Postman, who lives in the post apocalyptic future delivering mail and evading zombies and sentient gorillas and the like. Out of all of Gawker Media (including io9 and Jezebel and Kotaku), Postal Apocalypse is probably my favorite column. Bricken regularly addresses issues of sexism in the column, so I decided to email my conflicting feelings with a cry for help to the Postman. I have yet to find out if my email has even been read, but I guarantee that should it be chosen for a column, I will be posting about it again. Until that moment, here is the text of my email (I’ve added the pictures now):
Dear Postman,I hope all is well and that the inevitable acid rain has not eaten through your skin or your mail bag.In the most recent (as of 9/30/14) episode of Sword Art Online, there is a complex sequence of events that culminate in Sinon’s best friend trying to rape her in the real world. I’ve talked a lot about this scene with two of my male friends, both of whom were frustrated or upset by the scene. As a female and a twice-over survivor of sexual assault, though, I felt..oddly pleased and simultaneously concerned. Apart from the crazy-eyes animation and Shinkawa repeating Sinon’s name over and over again, everything about the attack was realistic. That’s how rape often happens–your friends, intimate partners, family members, they’re the ones attacking you. And as someone who was assaulted by someone close to me while I already struggled with PTSD, I felt…represented? All season long, I’ve connected with Sinon through her PTSD, and I’ve scrutinized the show over how it portrays her struggles and juxtaposes them with Kirito’s. Over and over again, this season I’ve been impressed with how much the show has grown and changed since the sexist and problematic Alfheim Online story. I felt like the attempted rape fit within the characters and fit within the story line, and when Sinon decided to fight back, I felt triumphant because not everybody has the strength to fight back.
Like Asuna…didn’t fight back. The previous story arc in SAO revolved around Asuna’s virtual self having been kidnapped and spirited away into the game Alfheim Online, where she’s kept in a literal cage. Her attacker Sugou fondles her real body without her consent, assaults her and rapes her all on screen. Asuna is resigned to wait for Kirito and wait for Kirito to rescue her–it’s tropey as hell. Asuna breaks out once, but it’s short-lived.
I feel like there’s a right way to talk about rape in fiction, and a bad way to talk about it. Sinon’s story does it mostly right and Asuna’s does it mostly wrong. When I compare the end of the Alfheim story, where Asuna is chained to a ceiling and Sugou rapes her with oral sex (it’s in the background and blurred, but obvious what is happening), to the wrapping-up process of the current story arc, the sensitivity with which the show treats women and victimhood has gone up substantially. Even in just the little details of the season, like when Kirito enters GGO for the first time and ends up in a feminine avatar, and then he has to deal with street harassment from the other gamers, demonstrate that the writers of the show have increased their awareness of the difficulties that women face both online and in their daily lives. So in that, I applaud them. But still…
Even though the recent rape scene, from both an activist and storyteller perspective, does almost everything right and shows growth and understanding from the writers, my concern is that the writers will continue using rape as a means to increase the grittiness and danger of the world, and to up the stakes for Kirito as the hero. While the trauma of living in Aincrad and participating in SAO is being thoroughly explored, Asuna’s assault has not been dealt with within the show yet, and I’m afraid that Sinon might get similar treatment after the fact. It feels like sexual assault is considered a traumatic thing, but not traumatic enough to warrant the depth of exploration that goes into death and killing. Like it’s traumatic in the moment, but has no lasting effects. So even though it’s well-done and sensitive, and in the moment I totally buy it, the attack on Sinon feels like a cheap plot device when viewed alongside what happened to Asuna in the previous season. If the next story arc includes a rape or attempted rape an episode or two away from the end, I will be incredibly disappointed. I haven’t read any of the light novels, but I am tentatively optimistic. I hope I’m optimistic.
One of my male friends who’s also watching SAO was livid with the attack scene. He said he found it disturbing and troubling, and that the show might be getting too dark for him. I feel like I should feel that way, especially as a survivor, but I don’t. I’m just cautiously anticipating whether or not this rape problem is ever going to be addressed within the show, or if rape will become shorthand for “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!,” and then Kirito saves the day. Should I be more incensed now? Or should I save my wrath for if my cautious optimism is crushed? And will I ever get to see Asuna being a badass again?Thanks!