The idea that there’s someone out there with telepathic abilities certainly has an element of horror to it, and that’s an element pop culture likes to latch onto. 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, the 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”. Unfortunately, mind rape is not always committed by the bad guys. Often in fantasy and sci-fi, the good guys will do this as well. And even more unfortunately, when our heroes commit such a heinous act, the narrative will either excuse or refuse to acknowledge the rape in question.
Trigger warning for rape after the jump.
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 was just raped. In fiction, authors can talk about real-life issues through their characters and story. Maybe mind rape being an allegory for actual rape wasn’t intended, but that’s what it has progressed into. It is the fantasy/sci-fi 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. Whether authors realize it or not, when they put characters with telepathic abilities into a story, they are calling attention to the issue of rape. 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.
These acts are probably more accepted when the protagonists commit them, because heroes don’t rape, right? No one wants to root for a rapist. Additionally, our heroes almost never invade another person’s mind with malevolent intentions. 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. 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.
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. The angels are shown as being in the wrong, that they have committed a heinous, unforgivable act against the Winchesters. However, later in the show Dean wants to abandon Lisa and Ben for their own safety, and he thinks that in order to do that, their memories of him need to be erased.
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. Additionally, 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 it only puts them in more danger.
This idea of altering someone’s memories for the better good shows up just about everywhere. Let’s not forget Charles Xavier from X-Men. He has a habit of simply reading people’s minds, invading their thoughts, and controlling their actions. Charles Xavier’s mind reading was one of the 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.
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.
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.
The same thing also happens in The Inheritance Cycle. I touched briefly on the issue 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 battle? 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, they still have no regard for the violation they are putting other people through.
But in the books, it is always okay when the good guys invade other people’s thoughts, 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, but he is still excused in his actions simply for being the hero.
And this is not to say that all heroes and characters will never consent to having their minds 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.
I think that the prevalence of mind rape committed by the heroes is caused by one thing: laziness. While some stories may occasionally ask whether or not it’s morally acceptable, most of them 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. And the Obliviate spell is just a nifty little way the wizards and witches don’t have to deal with Muggles.
And all of these examples 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.