Pop Culture and the Moral Conversation

Pop culture does not exist in a vacuum. In a sense that was the undercurrent of last week’s comics controversy over not just the events of Amazing Spider-Man #700 but over the way the book’s editor handled audience reaction to it. Real events have a way of catching up to such discussions, touching upon them, and making them worth revisiting.

Yesterday, news dropped that a California appeals court had overturned a rape conviction. So confounding were the circumstances of this decision, the court itself said it came to its decision only “reluctantly”. Specifically, it turns out that the man was convicted during a trial in which the prosecutor made use of a law from the 1800s drafted to punish men who commit sexual assault by pretending to be a woman’s husband. In the case whose verdict was overturned this week, the woman in question was victimized not by someone pretending to be her husband (she didn’t have one), but pretending to be her boyfriend. Thus, the court ruled, the law was inapplicable and since it’s unclear to what degree the jury relied upon that law in its conviction — as opposed to other laws — there must be a retrial.

Last week’s comics controversy centered around whether or not Mary Jane Watson would have sex with someone she believes to be Peter Parker but in fact and instead is Spider-Man nemesis Doctor Octopus inhabiting Peter Parker’s body. She hasn’t, yet. But at one point in the issue she was obviously prepared to, and later in the issue he kissed her — something even the book’s assistant editor flailingly proclaimed was not such a good thing. The problem arose when readers began discussing the clearly-implicated issues of sexual consent, and Stephen Wacker, the book’s editor, responded in something of a dumbfoundingly tone deaf manner on Twitter.

Here’s the thing. While we have our moral discussions not with pop culture but with each other, amongst family and friends, the texts which inform these discussions increasingly are pop cultural ones. We don’t talk about the Bible or the Koran, we talk about Battlestar Galactica or The Vampire Diaries. Not as sources of divine moral law, but as explorations of human — even if filtered through the genre lens of Cylons and vampires — morality.

Wacker’s intransigence in the face of just such a public moral discussion as prompted by a book he edits — and which clearly was intended to be provocative and to raise moral and ethical issues of sexual consent — was baffling. This week, perhaps, helps explain just why so many of us were that baffled by it. The book raises issues of rape (even, as I said before, if it doesn’t yet reach them) and does so in a country that just exited a political campaign season which included a number of brain-dead statements from men about rape, and does so in a society in which lawmakers don’t update laws from the 1800s, prosecutors make use of them anyway, and courts reluctantly have to overturn a rape conviction because of it.

Yet, in a flagrant disregard for pop culture’s place in our ongoing moral conversation (his citation of soap opera being the functional equivalent of saying “it’s just a comic”), when readers openly discussed the potential implications of what was depicted in Amazing Spider-Man #700, Wacker ridiculed and dismissed that discussion. As we unfortunately see from this week’s news, that’s staggeringly irresponsible.