Robert Kirkman discusses rape in 'Walking Dead' with fan

Kirkman with Lauren Cohan (Maggie) at SDCC 2012
Courtesy AMC.
If you watched The Walking Dead last night, you know the scene that has been causing quite a bit of dialogue today on the Internets.

Well, if you are also a fan of Robert Kirkman's comic book series (and I am in a big way), then you were squeamishly expecting this to happen on some level. But when something similar did happen in the comics a couple years back, it caused a lot of conversation then.

In fact, rape was the basis of a fan email from Andrea Fordham to Kirkman in June 2006. She outlined her issues with The Governor and his rape of a major character. To his credit, Kirkman replied and discussed his choices as a creator (as well as giving Fordham kudos for a plot idea he says he wished he'd thought of). After seeing last night's episode where rape is threatened (implied?), Fordham wanted to revisit her conversation with Kirkman, and allowed me the opportunity to post the exchange in full.

But first a little background (which involves comic book spoilers)...

Although it was Maggie who was the focus of The Governor's violence last night, it was Michonne in the comics. Fordham - who was really tired and "riled up" when she wrote Kirkman - said she was alienated from TWD comics because Kirkman hadn't created strong female characters and the one he did create, Michonne, was then the victim of the "horror rape card." 

And the reason she told me she wanted to revisit the conversation now? Because of the seeming mutually inclusive relationship between horror and rape.

"I feel more serious about this rape 'entertainment' event than others because I had a personal conversation with Robert about this," she adds in an email. "I expressed myself clearly and I felt at the time (2006) that I had actually helped someone see what I’m talking about. But he had a second chance, and still …whatever."

Fordham also says that, "I am in approval of Playboy, Hustler and porn, but I know that everyone is going to see me as some nut job feminist."

"But there is a HUGE f***ing difference between constantly showing rape in our entertainment but then completely shying away from showing women choosing sex and loving it. Society thinks women being sexual is very bad and always makes movies depicting this as NC17. But rape? Aww, that’s just rated R."

She finally adds that she is still riled up about parts of Kirkman's response - specifically the part where she says he wrote that "he felt showing her not be affected by the rape, would show she is strong."

Anyhow, this is a snapshot of a conversation on a serious topic between two people - one a fan, and the other a major comic book creator who was not yet an executive producer on a hit TV show.

Personally, I relate to both sides of this email. I don't think Kirkman is anti-female nor do I think Fordham is a "nut job feminist," but I do believe this is a topic that is worth talking about. Fordham has an impassioned argument and speaks to a trope within pop culture. Kirkman replies thoughtfully - albeit at times awkwardly - in much the same way I might (since we're being honest and all) as someone who can't completely comprehend the horrors of such a vile act.

After reading the emails, let us know what you think. Weigh in and converse. But keep in mind that the letters refer to the comic, and to characters who were alive/active in 2006. A lot has changed in Kirkman's zombie-ridden world since then.

-Aaron Sagers

Here are the two emails submitted to me by Fordham in their entirety. The first is from Fordham:
From: Andrea Fordham
Sent: Friday, June 16, 2006 8:04 AM
Subject: What a poor choice. 
You took the low road and I am so disappointed that I can no longer go on with TWD.
I kept getting little red flags about you but told myself that I did not know you and I just needed to continue with TWD that I loved. 
Before the last straw with #28 I kept going when the zombies shifted to the back burner, I figured you had a plan and they would be back. I chuckled it off when you made a couple of comments in your letters column that you hated girls. 
I mean you had to be kidding, why would you alienate your female fans, it might still be a small group, but TWD has to have more than any other series. And I thought you might have mentioned you were married. 
I kept going when you created your world full of whiny, annoying and weak women. I know, I know, your Andrea is a sharp shooter, how ground breaking, I am sure you think that is a big bone to throw to women you think so little of. And then of course your undertone of women just want to be protected, I plodded through. 
Then you brought in a strong female, Michonne (even though you made her a little unstable) you still had her surviving on her own with leashed zombies. 
Then in # 27 I was so excited to find out about the fighting ring and could not wait for # 28. But that is where the low road came in. Instead of taking us to the exciting story line you set up for us, you took the strong female lead and played the rape card. 
A few weeks back I came across the comic Escape of the Living Dead. I picked it up to see if it was worth reading and found them to just play the cheap horror rape card and was so glad to say that TWD had not fallen to that but now you have. 
I have collected comics for most of my life and have defended the stereotype of the male comic collector of being creepy guys who never get the girls so that they become these distorted perverts who resent women. In just a few issues you have, through reading your own words, convinced me otherwise, at least about you. 
I mean if you are trying to be shocking or edgy, why not have a Deliverance scene? Most of your readers are men and would that not make them squirm more and be a more daring run? 
But no the cliché was the way for you. I am sure that you are having juvenile thoughts of what a feminist I must be or what dark secrets I must be sitting on to get this riled up. None of these things need to be true for a woman to be tired of seeing so many story lines turn to this. 
Even though you allowed Michonne to give a steely look at the end. Even if you do not
allow the attack to happen in # 29, you still went there man. 
Any of the women in your life should feel ashamed for you. And not that I think it will hurt your sales, but you have pushed a fan from getting new readers to TWD, to trying to sway them away. 
Thank God for freedom of speech so you could become a disappointing male.
And Kirkman's reply the same day:
From: Robert Kirkman
Subject: RE: What a poor choice.
Date: Fri, 16 Jun 2006 13:49:41 -0400 
I'm sorry you feel the way you do. 
I don't hate women at all. Anything I've said of that nature in the letters column has been a joke, even if it didn't sound like one. I may go a little too oddball in the letters column, I'll keep an eye on that in the future. 
The truth is, were "I" living in the world of the Walking Dead... I would just want to be protected so I don't feel bad having women say that. Lori and Carol are so concerned with their kids, they wouldn't be fighting and risking their lives. I shouldn't have killed DONNA. Had she lived, she would be on the voting committee, kicking ass with the men. She was the man of the relationship between her and Allen. 
But I killed her. 
Andrea... is a good shot, yeah... but she's young, too... and not very head strong. 
I think Maggie is a strong female character... but I haven't gotten to do much with her yet.
Patricia is a nut, a weak pathetic nut... but there are people like that who exist. I think I've portrayed weak MEN too. 
The rape thing: 
Damn, I wish I HAD thought of making it Glenn... that would have been totally cool. That would really freak people out. But in writing these things... I'm really just following the events and actions of the characters. Gov chopped off Rick's hand. Michonne is strong enough to retaliate... that's what her character would do. She bit off Gov's ear. Glenn wouldn't do that. 
Then I'm thinking... what would Gov do to retaliate against her... what would he do to make her regret her actions. Then I'm also thinking about what makes him seem the most despicable. 
So he rapes her. 
And he DOES rape her next issue, and he beats her up pretty badly. Sorry about that. But help me out here, as a woman... I'm thinking it'd be more offensive to have her be upset and torn up by the event... so I'm basically having her act like it doesn't happen. She bottles it up and ignores the event. 
Is that MORE offensive? Would it be worse to make it appear like the rape had no affect on her? 
I mean, she's going to come after the guy, get revenge, but other than that... no crying, no trauma, none of that. 
I do value my female readers and I apologize if this has been just too much for you. I'm attaching the cover for issue 33 just for kicks. It's the issue Michonne comes after Gov. 
P.S. I am married, and I have a sister, mother, grandmother, mother in-law and plenty of female friends. I love the ladies! Honest!
OK, dear readers, what do you think? 


Branden Wellington said...

When the rape scene appeared in last night's episode my eyes were glued to the screen with petrified anticipation of what would happen next.
For a moment I thought maybe Glenn, who had recently broke loose of the chair he was tied to, would heroically burst through the door to save Maggie.
That heroic moment never came. We were left with Maggie standing cold, alone, and topless. with The Governor standing behind her basking un-solicitously in her beauty.
It never crossed my mind that the writer cheapened her character. Quite the opposite had occured. I believe it furtherd the plot of the story, gave the audience a heart for Maggie, and made The Governor more detestable and eerily unpredictable; and unpredictable is writing, plot, and character development at it's finest.
It presents more questions to consider. What will happen to Andrea? Has this happened to other women in the city? How dark can character of The Governor become? Should he be killed later, will the writer earn his death?
Furthermore, after Maggie was returned to the room with Glenn, she appeared strong spirited and unblemished. I was unsure if more had taken place then just a strip show. (Rape wasn't shown..AMC) However, after giving up the location of their friends to spare Glenn, who now has a gun to his head, you could see the rape had broken her courage and that her love for Glenn was rooted.

Looking forward to next week.

Branden Wellington

D's birds-eye view said...

This comment is very dissapointing:
"But help me out here, as a woman... I'm thinking it'd be more offensive to have her be upset and torn up by the event... so I'm basically having her act like it doesn't happen. She bottles it up and ignores the event"

I'm especially dissapointed because this is a person who will reach many viewers and it is simply a shame that this is the view he has of women and how we react to events in our lives.

Lost In a Sense said...

I think Kirkman's wording in his letter says a lot. "I do value my female readers and I apologize if this has been just too much for you." It sounds to me like he thinks it is just the delicate sensitivities of a woman and not justified anger. To me it's just bad writing, go for the hackneyed response. Why is it that writers never have the psychopathic character break into a house and rape grandma or the family pet? Well, that's going too far. But it is somehow OK if it happens to a young woman. While it is meant to infuriate and disgust us, there are sickos out there who get off on seeing this stuff. I agree with Kevin Smith who says this happens way too much in our entertainment.

LeeAnna Jonas said...

Ok, I am not cool with the rape scene either, but I don't think he actually went thru with it. If you re watch the scene he neither pulled her pants off, nor did he have his open. Look at the last time he was behind her and they are both clothed. There were no motions either, not too mention not enough time... Look at it from a filming point of view and it doesn't add up. I took it as since she said,"do what you have too", therefore she took the power away from him and he didn't. Am I seeing this wrong? Did you guys see something different than I?

Yes, I agree the intentions were there, but I think they turned it around as if she stood up to him which inturn he felt like an arse. She didn't give him the answer of satisfaction for him to feel in control.

I did not read the comic, just a newbie to the history of the story, so I cannot participate on that end. I am just looking at what acutally was filmed and I didn't see a rape. Just my 2 cents

LeeAnna Jonas said...

I wanted to add... if what Kirkman says is true, next episode he will rape her and beat her badly. That I wouldn't agree with, but this is TV and to honestly state as someone who doesn't go for gore, I think this show has well gone over the line in many instances. I don't condone rape, but an animal is an animal. The Gov is such as well as many others I see that could carry this crime out. I see shock value at it's finest. I applaud Andrea and Aaron for stating thier feelings and bringing this to light. Maybe it's time people speak out about what truly is too much on TV. Unfortunately this is a cable show and has the freedom to do what they like. No holds bar. It doesn't make it right, but it is what it is.. After all is said and done, will you still watch? Nuff said from this mouth.

frenchtoast21 said...

I have mixed emotions based on what Kirkman stated in his response to Ms. Fordham. I can see that from a writer's (SOME writers) stand-point that sexual assault would seem to be the most "despicable" thing someone can do to another human being. If you want to turn up the hate volume for a character, have him rape another character... particularly a strong, well-liked character. I think sexual assault is worse than death and it certainly creates a vile hatred for a character who is responsible for it.

When I watched the original version of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I had to leave the room during the assault scene. It was the most brutal scene I've ever known and I will never watch any of those movies again.

So in the comics, the Governor became an even more despised character based on what he did to Michonne, and Kirkman felt she would retaliate in a big way just like other writers portray characters in similar situations to show that women are actually stronger than they seem and will eventually seek their revenge. It's an old story that has been done millions of times before.

What surprised me was Kirkman's reaction to Ms. Fordham's original correspondence. He seemed legitimately interested in her opinion and even liked her suggestion that it be Glenn who suffered at the hands of the Governor. Kirkman seemed to really value an actual woman's response if put in the same position as Michonne. He wondered how a woman should deal with the assault and tried to figure out how a woman would feel after it was over. I was genuinely in awe of his curiosity about Ms. Fordham's feelings on the matter.

But then, after his discussion with Ms. Fordham and looking ahead to the television series, Kirkman had every opportunity to change the outcome of a female character's assault and chose not to (whether it be implied or not) even though it seems he enjoys straying from comic book material from time to time. If TWD is a show based on shock value, what better way to depict that then alter which character suffers that fate at the hands of the governor? Is sexual assault only shockinug when it happens to a woman? Why does it always have to be a woman? Is this what women have to endure in the minds of authors in order to truly show how strong and resilient they can be? They must be assaulted and seek revenge upon their assailant? Give me a break.

I know how this issue affects many women personally, and I think many women would find this constant, familiar storyline offensive and tiring. Why not let men squirm in their seats as they watch a fellow man face such a brutal attack? Make it a loved male character, right? A strong man. How would a man react after it was over? With shame? With weakness? With silence?

I think some men are too far removed to understand the horror of sexual assault. As Lost In A Sense pointed out, some men seem to enjoy this topic as a source of entertainment, and it sickens me as well. If you want to change things up and bring in the shock factor, have a male character endure it. Then see the reaction of male viewers. I'm tired of the old clichés just as most women probably are.

And Ms. Fordham is 100% correct in her view that women are consistently ill-depicted in their dealings with sex as something to be enjoyed. Women are human with wants and needs just like men. Why is it bad for a woman to enjoy sex? Why is that unacceptable and risqué, while sexual assault is okay to show audiences? How does that make any sense? I'm tired of male writers having the same issues Hitchcock seemed to have with women. Stop torturing them because of their gender. Stop being so cliché!

I know Kirkman stated that he admires women and did not have issues with women though he hasn't really had a true lead female during the series. And I understand that it's the end of the freaking world and no one in the series really has it all together, but come on...

Very interested to hear what Kirkman's response would be...

Andrea Fordham said...

I'm the writer of the above 2006 email to Robert Kirkman.

At the time I wrote this, there was no talk of a show yet. After writing Robert there were a few things in his response that I liked and a few I did not.

On the one hand I felt he was interested with my ideas on how the story could have gone, but then for him to suggest that it would be stronger for a woman to act as if a rape never happened shows he really was not listening to the point I was trying to make. Understandably, he was still coming at it as a writer and not from any emotional aspect at all. But being a writer myself, I know you have to take both into account.

As the TV show progressed, I was very curious as to how this part of the story line would be handled. If things were changed, I was not looking to brag about any power I exerted. I honestly just hoped that my point had been heard because I know I'm not the only one with these thoughts, I'm just more vocal than many who feel this way.

While watching the episode with Glen and Maggie's torture, I expected to have my usual anguish that comes with sexual violence or threat but there was a new aspect added.

If I look at the two scenes side by side, this is what I see.

While Merle is talking to Glen we get to see that Maggie can hear everything. Corrugated tin walls are thin. We see Maggie placed in the "widow's walk" situation. We watch her weep and slowly fill with fear for Glen and herself. Which is a normal reaction.

Then we get to see the amazing moment and fight that Glen gets. I love Glen and I was on his side and feeling like I was there fighting with him. Because as an audience member, this is our position, we go through what the characters go through. And Glen getting to show his strength and story arc, felt fantastic.

Then it's Maggie's turn. We never see Glen, who is free from the chair after his fight, hear any of Maggie's torture. Why? Maybe it was editing for time? But as a viewer I felt that the creators just showed us how strong and capable Glen has become and they did not want to show him being powerless again and full of anguish. He had become a strong hero and they wanted to leave it that way. He was not going to be shown worried or weepy. But he would have heard everything, just as Maggie heard everything Merle said.

I understand that the Governor threatened to bring in Glen's hand but for Maggie to show no fight at all is not what would happen nor is it what should happen. Any regular human has a built in preservation switch. As the Governor walks around the table, any woman would naturally walk in the opposite. Maggie was reduced to the behavior of a broken dog who just takes it. Maggie did not have a steely look. To me I felt I saw the actress being directed to go against what her own natural instincts would be as a human with fight. It just looked unnatural. But this is my opinion.


Andrea Fordham said...

For me the the entire show has become misogynistic. Andrea has mostly been a blind airhead.

Lori was whiny until the end. We get to see Lori be brave just as we lose her.

Carol I do like but she can be weepy and flirty while getting turned down. And Carol must have kicked ass to get away from all the zombies but we never get to see it. After all the zombie ass Carol must have kicked, we only get to see the man come to her closet trap rescue.

Michonne in the comic I loved and related to her strength and fighting abilities, but for me that was why Robert chose to rape her on the comic. Don't get too strong ladies. In the show though she is basically a cave woman who's repartee is written down as grunts and stares through her dreads.

As for the TV show Maggie is the strongest woman. When they were clearing the prison I loved the moment when she got so excited as she took the walkers down. It was the same feeling I had for Glen's fight. But oops, don't get too strong ladies otherwise you'll have to be put back into place. I felt this is the reason Maggie was chosen to be the one shamed through sexual violence. And while the rape may or may not have happened, it was sexual violence that happened to her. Do not let society make you feel different.

I had one male friend tell me something that greatly disturbed me. He said that Maggie might not fight back because when living in a world where she has already seen insane violence, this would just be one more thing on the pile to be numb about.

If this were true then why was it not stupid when Rick totally broke down after learning about Lori? He was allowed to turn into a raving prison lunatic, talking to imaginary phone people. He's lost so many along the way, why get crazy over another death?

The reason is this. If we take all the humanity out of the writing then what is the point at all?