Trigger Warning: there is a lot a talk about rape in this post, so if that is upsetting to you, you have been warned.
Certainly, there’s a horror to the thought of mind rape, or psychological torture. Villains with this kind of ability strike a chilling terror in their victims, and even in us, the audience. It goes without saying that the invasion of someone’s mind against his or her will often has long-lasting, damaging effects that leave us with little to no question on the morality, or lack thereof, of the perpetrator. These acts come in different forms, whether mind controlling, binding someone against his or her will, mind erasing, implantation or removal of memories, or just plain mind reading. The best way to describe such a thing is rape of the mind, or mind rape.
Rape is an accurate term, because often this trope comes across sexually, and sexuality will sometimes play a role in the torture. After all, when telepathy of any kind is done against a character’s will, it can not only be intrusive, but painful as well. When done consensually, it can be described as very pleasant.
And why wouldn’t mental relations between characters sometimes be played off sexually? Sex is an intimate act, and mind reading more so in many cases. Touching another person’s innermost thoughts would be intrinsically intimate, and many people associate intimacy with sex. The extension of physical sex sometimes accompanying mind reading makes sense in this regard.
The mind-rape trope has been used in many stories, both well known and not so popular, to villainize people and truly give them that extra touch of terror. Whether the villain simply knows the right things to say and do to drive his or her victims insane, or whether he or she actually has a special ability to control thoughts, there’s no doubt to the evilness of such actions.
This relationship used to scare me as a child. In some ways it still does.
A very good example of something like this would be between Cloud and Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII. Throughout the game, Sephiroth constantly enters Cloud’s mind and forces him to do things against his will. At one point, he controls Cloud into handing over the Black Materia, and at another he makes him summon a comet to come barreling toward the planet to kill everyone. Near the end of the first disk, before Sephiroth kills Aerith, Cloud’s friend, he almost succeeds in making Cloud do it himself. And certainly, Cloud would have murdered his friend in cold blood had no one else snapped him out of Sephiroth’s control.
The relationship between Cloud and Sephiroth is skin-crawlingly creepy, and it has led to many people questioning whether or not the relationship between the two is sexual. Emotionally, it’s very dominating, so it’s not much of a stretch when people theorize that it may be physical on some level as well. This kind of tension in their relationship even translated into the movie sequel Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children when Sephiroth delivers lines like, “Shall I give you despair?” What I’m trying to say here is that there’s substantial reasoning for the fan theories and bad fanfiction between these two.
Now, I’m not here to continue talking about how evil villains are for such a heinous crime. There’s no point to arguing how this makes them despicable, because we already know this. It’s obvious, more often than not. Here’s an excellent essay about Ms. Marvel being raped to talk about when it’s surprisingly not obvious—not obvious to the creators, at least. Sadly, not even the comic writers at the time realized the implications of what they had done until complaints like this arose.
I should point out that this article is called The Morality and Commonplace of Mind Rape, and not OMG! That Evil Dude is SO EVIL! Look What He Did with His Mind! We know mind rape is awful when villains do it, and we don’t accept their actions, which brings into question, why do we accept mind rape when committed by the protagonists? If such a thing is evil when the villains do it, then why is it okay when the good guys do it? It’s almost like the Christopher Paolini version of morality has been shoved in with all the other stories: everything the bad guys do is evil no matter what, and everything the good guys do is good no matter what, even when they do the same thing.
Mental hair sex! Oh, yeah!
These acts are probably more accepted when the protagonists commit them, because when presented as heroic and good, the sexual torture part is thankfully left out. Sexual torture brought on by villains would be completely unheard of for the protagonists. After all, good people don’t (physically) rape other people, no matter how evil, so there’s no need for sexuality in such a thing, unless the mind read is consensual, in which case, it can be entirely sexual. Just watch the extended edition of Avatar. I’m going to theorize that it’s the lack of sexual torture and malevolent intentions that make writers, directors, etc. excuse protagonist actions. In truth, mind rape, like actual rape, is a way of dominating another person, which is never something the good guys would or should want to do, and thus, the sexual torture is absent.
But even without the malevolent intentions, or the want to dominate another person, are protagonists and heroes truly excused from any consequences? We know the bad guys aren’t. In the end, the hero will win and the villain will face punishment of some kind, most likely through death. However, good guys very rarely, if ever, question the moral implications of reading another person’s mind.
Possibly, this is because we don’t live in a world where people are capable of such a thing—well, as far as I know we don’t, and it’d be really scary otherwise—so victimization of the mind is something we don’t deal with, and therefore maybe the creators don’t fully understand how telepathy would change our lives and perception of privacy. Ask yourself this, dear reader: how would you feel if someone forced his or her way into your thoughts without your permission? Would you feel raped? I know I would, and why shouldn’t I? This would be the biggest violation I would ever face. Would it matter if the attack was malicious and evil or done by a hero just looking for the right information to defeat the big bad? Sure, the hero’s not going to stick around in there after finding what he or she needs, but I’d imagine anyone shoving into my thoughts would be painful regardless, and it wouldn’t change the fact that I hadn’t consented.
And with no consent, reasons matter not, because it would be rape.
So, no, it would not be morally acceptable for the heroes to forcefully read, control, or manipulate another person’s thoughts. And it’s only more upsetting when such actions are played off as noble and righteous.
Supernatural gives a fantastic example of showing how hypocritical it is to hold villains and heroes on differing levels in this situation. Sam and Dean, our heroes, discover that they have died numerous times and that the angels have simply brought them back to life on every occasion—which, first of all, good attempt at killing any suspense the show may have had—and erased their memories of heaven each time. What?! Those bastard angels! How dare they?! They have committed a heinous, unforgivable act against the Winchesters—wait! What’s this, only so many episodes later? Dean’s character needs a contrived way to leave Lisa and Ben behind while appearing noble and self-sacrificing? Well, this certainly is a conundrum, isn’t it? How will we solve this problem?
I guess her opinions matter less than Dean’s.
Solution: mind rape.
Lisa and Ben do not consent to this. Dean makes the decision for Castiel to remove their memories of him for them. He doesn’t ask them, nor does he even considering asking them or trying to explain the situation. He just does it. This isn’t like during the episode “Dominion” in Stargate SG-1 when Vala has her memories erased. Vala at least chose that option. In fact, she came up with the idea, and she and the team set up a way to explain the information she had lost back to her. The reasoning behind this made sense in the episode, in the show, and helped to progress it, but this is not the case in Supernatural. The decision to remove Lisa’s and Ben’s memories makes no sense and only serves as a cheap copout to no longer have them in the show. Dean believes that they’ll be safer without them, but unless Castiel removed Lisa and Ben from the memories of everything trying to kill them—of which, there is a lot—it only puts them in more danger.
This idea of altering someone’s memories for the better good transcends all medias of storytelling. Let’s not forget Charles Xavier from X-Men. He has a habit of simply reading people’s minds, invading their thoughts, controlling their actions, the works. I admit, I don’t know much about him outside the movies and cartoons, but I have been told that he acts about the same way in them as he does in the comics. Though, at the very least, in the comics people on occasion question the moral implications of him removing Magneto’s memories—with the “for his own good” excuse—simply because Xavier believes the only other option is killing him.
Well, at least he doesn’t mind rape him in this movie… for the most part.
Charles Xavier’s mind reading was one of three things that first had me questioning the morality of telepathy when growing up. Around the same time as coming to the realization of what Charles Xavier’s power really meant within the story, I was also reading one of the most beloved series of all time. Sadly, no, we will not be getting though this without discussing Harry Potter.
Although Harry himself does not partake in anything remotely mind-related until Order of the Phoenix, mind rape is present throughout the whole series, and it comes across in the treatment of muggles. Muggles, for the mere crime of their birth, have any and all memories of the Wizarding world removed should they stumble across something they shouldn’t see. The Obliviate spell is used in abundance, and if not in every book, at least mentioned in just about all of them. Though there are wizards who fight for muggle rights, even they don’t seem to care about how easily wizards and witches alike alter muggle memories, and the issue is never brought up. The morality of such a thing is never brought up. The only time the series shows how awful it is, is when Lockhart tries to use it on Harry and Ron, but outside of that, no one cares.
Sure, Harry and the Order aren’t fighting so much for muggle rights as they are to survive in a world where they and their muggle-born friends are accepted, but they do feel sickened whenever muggles are killed or tortured just for being muggles. So this begs the question: why don’t they consider the removal of their memories just as insidious? Do they think that a lack of physicality in the act excuses it? I’m going to guess so.
At the very least, Hermione feels guilty about obliviating her parents, which she says she did for their own good. But one still has to wonder whether or not her parents consented to it, and by the end of the series, the issue is never resolved.
This scene was completely written off and forgotten ten minutes later.
As for Harry himself, the first invasion of mental privacy he commits is during Snape’s lesson, when he steals a glance into the Pensieve. Snape reacts as any normal person would to such an invasion of privacy and throws Harry out and refuses to continue teaching him. Harry does feel a little guilty, as he should, but he doesn’t question his own actions in this situation for long. Instead, he turns the blame on Remus and Sirius for their treatment of Snape as students.
Furthering the mind rape in the series is the Imperius Curse, and to Harry Potter’s credit, it is presented as unforgivable and deserving of a life sentence in Azkaban. Unfortunately, all pretense of this is dropped in Deathly Hallows, when Harry starts using it on Death Eaters at every opportunity. While we could argue that this is the result of the Horcrux inside him, it is never explained that way, and it was rather unnerving to see our hero go from good and righteous to stooping down to his enemies’ level in order to win.
Certainly, Harry Potter was the series I questioned the most, but my uncertainty of it was preceded by my thoughts regarding the Jedi Mind Trick. Star Wars has always been a part of my life, but even as a small child, the Jedi Mind Trick, while seeming cool and awesome, left a bad taste in my mouth. Now, unlike other mental powers, the Jedi Mind Trick comes across more as hypnotism. Hypnotism is impossible of people that don’t want it, and hypnotized people won’t do something they wouldn’t normally be willing to do. Because of this, I would classify the Jedi Mind Trick more as mind sexual assault than I would mind rape, though I know some people would disagree on calling this one assault of any kind due to the hypnotism comparison.
Regardless of what you want to call it, it could never reach the levels of hypocrisy presented in its cheap knockoff, Inheritance Cycle.
I know I touched briefly on the mind rape issue in my review of Inheritance Cycle here, but I feel the need to reiterate. From the first book, we are told that mind reading is something to do sparingly, and of course, it is a powerful tool in battle. But what about outside of battle? The characters, notably Eragon and Arya do it whenever they feel like it. Even the Varden, our supposed good guys, uses it to interrogate prisoners, failing to realize that it is a form of torture. In the series, mind reading is incredibly painful if non-consensual, and can be used to inflict torture. While Eragon and Arya don’t do it to be torturous—except for the many times Eragon does do that in the treatment of people he doesn’t like, like the Urgals—they still have no regard for the violation they are putting other people through.
Here’s a scene from the forth book, when they capture the lord of a city:
It’s okay when she does it, because she’s pretty.
Arya nodded and placed her hand over Bradburn’s face. She closed her eyes, and for a time, both she and Bradburn were motionless. Eragon reached out with his own mind, and he felt the battle of wills that was raging between them as Arya worked her way past Bradburn’s defenses and into his consciousness. It took a minute, but at last she gained control of the man’s mind, whereupon she set about calling up and examining his memories until she discovered the nature of his wards. Inheritance, page 24.
Bradburn’s wards are spells designed to protect him from harm. After Arya discovers them, she puts the man to sleep. Now, they had just captured him and his city, did not intend him any physical harm, so his wards are all but useless, and were standing in a room with Bradburn’s armed guards, and went after him and not the men with swords. There was no point to the scene, or even putting him asleep as Arya does in the next paragraph, unless they plan to leave him in a coma, which they didn’t do to the other lords they had captured, so one has to question Arya’s actions here.
But in the books, it is always okay when the good guys do mind control, because they’re gentle about it. No, that’s seriously the reason. That, or it’s just always okay when done by the heroes because the heroes did it. When bad people read minds, it’s painful, even if it’s consensual, such as when the Twins examine Eragon’s mind in Eragon. It’s unpleasant, and it shows how evil the Twins are. Then, at the end of Eldest, Eragon does the exact same thing to an Urgal, and even though his dislike of Urgals is presented as a character flaw—his only flaw—he is still excused in his actions simply for being the hero.
The heroes in this series get away with a lot of things that Galbatorix would be called evil for and are instead praised for their actions. Take the Dragon Riders, for example, our Jedi Order of sorts, if you will. What do we know about them? Well, we know that while they reigned the land was prosperous and that they were the embodiments of all things good and just, but the story gives us no examples to enforce those claims. The only action we know they did for sure was the Banishing of the Names. When the Dragon Riders realized that the Forsworn had betrayed them, their dragons got together and erased the Forsworns’ dragon’s names, turning them into mindless beasts that were shadows of their former selves. The Forsworn, being magically and mentally bound to their dragons had to watch helplessly in horror as their life partners descended into madness, and some of them went insane themselves. Think about it. Galbatorix went insane just watching his original dragon die, but what happened to the Forsworn was malicious. Their dragons did die in a way, but not physically, leaving the Forsworn to live out the rest of their lives with a constant beastly reminder of what they had lost simply for defecting. If the Forsworn had any hope of redemption—yes, some were sociopathic, but others felt the Order had wrong them—it died with their dragons’ minds.
The Banishing of the Names is written off as something the Forsworn deserve for being evil, but that doesn’t justify what the supposed good dragons did, even though their actions were condoned by their Riders. If the Dragon Riders were truly as good as the story tells us, then the Banishing of the Names has no place within the story.
Let’s go back to the scene with the Twins. Eragon and Murtagh have just reached the Varden and are having their minds examined. Murtagh refuses. He’s the son of Morzan, one of the Varden’s greatest enemies, but his want for not being examined goes beyond that.
The similarities between this character and actual rape victims are numerous.
“My mind is the one sanctuary that has not been stolen from me.” —Murtagh, Eragon, page 405.
If there is a form of characterization Paolini succeeded in, it would be in Murtagh as a rape victim. Murtagh, though using mental powers during battle, is the one character that seems to truly understand just what mind rape is and the one character who seems to have any respect for the issue. It is heavily implied that Murtagh has faced violation before, which makes what the king does to him and the treatment of him by the good guys all the more tragic. It’s also one of the reasons that he is arguably the most developed character. And if Murtagh is a rape victim, then by extension, so is Thorn.
Even though everyone says over and over again that mind rape is wrong, only two characters truly call attention to the issue, and they are Orik and Ajihad. Orik stands up to the Twins in Murtagh’s defense in Eragon. Then, after realizing who Murtagh is, wishes he hadn’t, and Ajihad scolds him and says “No, you did the right thing.” Page 418.
Then Ajihad dies, and the issue is never brought up again, which is often what happens with mind rape. If it’s mentioned as being bad, by the end of the series, movie, etc., no one will care. That’s what happens in Heroes with the characters HRG and the Haitian.
Now, we can give Heroes credit, as both HRG and the Haitian were not initially good guys, though they weren’t evil either. We were meant to question their actions, and we were meant to be horrified at the lasting brain damage being caused to both Sandra and Lyle, but as the story progressed, HRG became less ambiguous and more good. By that point, all his actions and the Haitian’s were forgiven, forgiven by being entirely forgotten. Sandra used to fall over due to the brain damage she had suffered, and at one point Claire takes her to the hospital where the doctor asks if her father abuses her. That’s how serious this issue is, but that subplot is dropped by the next season, never to be spoken of again.
And that doesn’t even touch on what Matt does with his power. Matt has the power of telepathy, and we can at least forgive that at the beginning of the show, he has no control over his power and reads minds by accident. Furthermore, he uses his power to help people, such as when he accidentally reads the mind of someone planning to commit an armed robbery and talks him out of it calmly.
However, by the second season—or second volume, not sure which—he accidentally discovers during an argument with Molly on the morality of his power that he can control minds too, when he thinks about how he wants to talk about it later and Molly agrees. Then, he purposefully makes her finish her cereal. Matt’s reaction to the discovery is excitement, and he continues using Molly to practice. I should point out that Molly is Matt’s adopted daughter. Not only that, but she’s a small child, and he’s subjecting her to this. Never mind the fact that his father tortures her mentally on a nightly bases, and that Matt, though unaware who her tormentor is, knows full well the horror she has been through.
During the fight with his father later in the season, though his father is evil, he traps him in a coma. Here, we might be able to say that it was in defense of himself and Molly, but by the end, he had full control over his father’s mind and thoughts.
Sometime after that, and Angela’s behest, he tricks Sylar into thinking he’s Nathan, and when Sylar figures out the truth, he goes even more insane and tries to kill Matt and every one else for it. Matt responds by trapping Sylar in a coma. And unlike Matt’s father, though Sylar was only comatose for a few days, Sylar believes that he is in a deserted New York City for years. That’s just torture.
At the very least, we know that it was Angela’s idea and that she is not a good person, but that still doesn’t change the fact that Matt agrees to do it.
At least when Peter discovers this, he has the good sense to be angry at Matt, but when trying to rescue Sylar, he also finds himself trapped. Such as the nature of what Matt did. So Peter and Sylar are now together, spending years in a desolate city.
There is no way to justify that.
This show is badass.
And this is not to say that all heroes and characters will never consent to having their mind probed, it’s just awful when the heroes do it without permission. Young Justice does a good job of calling attention to this with M’gann’s power. In the first episode, she communicates with her teammates telepathically and is surprised at their negative reaction to it, since that is how people talk where she’s from. Her teammates, especially Superboy, feel horribly violated, and those two seconds are all it takes so sow mistrust for many episodes. However, as the series progresses, they become so close with each other that M’gann has them all linked telepathically almost always, and none of them think anything bad about it. Young Justice had to build up that trust to show how something so bad can be good, but only if it’s consensual.
Here’s the thing with mind rape, and why it’s so horrible: it is a way of talking about actual rape. That’s why it’s so awful when villains do it, because the story is telling us that a character just got raped. In fiction, authors can talk about real-life issues through their characters and story. Teal’c from Stargate SG-1 is a way to talk about slavery and racism, for example. Maybe mind rape being an allegory for actual rape wasn’t intended, but that’s what this has progressed into. It is the fantasy/science-fiction way of discussing this issue.
And it does it really good job at it. It captures the horror, the pain, and the feelings of victimization. It has characters taking weeks, months, and even years to recover from what has happened. It’s a long, hard road. And that’s why it works, and that’s why the sexual torture fits in so well, because of how intimate such a violation is. Whether authors realize it or not, when they put characters into their fantasy or science-fiction stories with telepathic abilities or just a knack at figuring out and manipulating people’s thoughts, they are calling attention to the issue of rape when otherwise they may not be able to talk about it. And it is because of this connection between mind rape and actual rape that makes it even more terrifying when the good guys do it, because that’s saying rape is okay in some circumstances.
And there are people out there who do think it is okay to rape someone. There are a lot of people out there who think like that. Here’s a news report from Scotland on the issue, and it’s pretty safe to say that some of those ideals hold up in other countries, like America.
The prevalence of mind rape committed by the heroes is caused by one thing: laziness. While some medias, like comics, may occasionally ask whether or not it’s morally acceptable before ignoring the issue, books and movies and television use it as a copout, more often than not. Dean’s removal of Lisa’s and Ben’s memories made no sense and was just a way to stop the characters from continuing to feature on the show without killing them. The Obliviate spell is just a nifty little way the wizards and witches don’t have to deal with muggles. The Banishing of Names came across as though Paolini didn’t want to invent twelve more names, and in the process of it, he created a bigger plot hole in the series. If it was unbelievable that thirteen Dragon Riders took out an entire order of their own before, it certainly was after discovering they did it in such a weakened state.
And all of these were done with no consideration to what mind rape means to the audience, whether consciously or not. If villains are evil for mind raping characters, heroes and protagonists alike must be held to that same standard, at all times.