Director Michael Bay has scored a double whammy with internet pitchfork-wavers this week, with the release of Transformers 4 and the arrival of a new trailer for his version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The self-entitled keyboard warrior community are up in arms, and once again the plaintive, whining cry of “[insert writer/director/producer here] raped my childhood” has been rolled out in full force. To be completely honest I’m tired of hearing it, even in jest – and here’s why.
First and foremost, the phrase contributes to rape culture. It turns the violent, abusive and traumatising act of rape into a something that can be applied to an abstract like a collection of characters and stories, thus contributing to the normalisation of the concept or rape within our culture which, in turn, leads to it being taken less seriously. And that, frankly, is unacceptable.
Furthermore, the word “rape” is completely inappropriate for communicating what is, ultimately, the notion being expressed – the displeasure that a fan feels when a new creator takes on a franchise that they enjoyed in their youth and reimagines it for a new audience. A more appropriate word to use here, if it has to be one with such hyperbolic overtones, would be “pillaged” – and that brings me to my second point.
“Michael Bay is pillaging my childhood.” That, as a phrase, implies ownership, and no matter how strong your nostalgia for a childhood favourite is you, and by extension your fellow fans, do not own them and you do not have the right to dictate what is done with them. On the other hand, if you wish to argue implied ownership – whether due to the support you showed the franchise, the money you spent on merchandise or the love you hold for it in your heart – then you need to accept that if it belongs to you it belongs to everyone. That means that if you’re happy with the idea of somebody like Joss Whedon* making the idealised version of the story that’s floating around in your head you have to be okay with a director like Michael Bay trotting along and making his version. You can’t have it both ways.
That said, let’s have a look at those phrases once again. “Michael Bay is raping my childhood.” The use of the word “rape” implies damage, injury, trauma. “Michael Bay is pillaging my childhood.” The use of the word “pillage” implies destruction, theft, taking away. How does a director that you’ve never met making a film that nobody’s forcing you to see damage, injury, traumatise, destroy, steal or take away your childhood experiences? How does the (admittedly ludicrous) image of Bay’s Optimus Prime riding a hideously spiky Grimlock travel back in time and spoil those episodes of the TV show which you enjoyed? It doesn’t. It can’t. You can’t even argue that it’s tainting your memories of the story with fresh or retconned plot elements because it’s a completely different, completely separate version of the story. It’s big-budget fanfic. It’s somebody else’s take on a source material that you’ve enjoyed, no different to the dozens of unofficial films, animations, comics, novels, short stories and images which are no more than a Google search away. How exactly is this ruining your experiences?
Yes, it’s perfectly possible to go and watch that movie and be galled or aghast by how that source material has been adapted, but whilst that leaves you disappointed, upset or even angry with that film it doesn’t take the original version of the story away from you. It’s still out there, on DVD, YouTube and in endlessly reprinted comic books for you to re-experience and enjoy over and over again. If it helps, think of it in terms of sport: when a lifelong fan of Manchester United Football Club is displeased with the performance of the current team does she claim that Louis van Gaal** is raping her childhood? No. She expresses displeasure, she criticises performance, she opines on better team placement and tactics or alternative management and players but she does not venture the notion that current poor performance by the team’s brand (which, let’s face it, is exactly what it is) has in some way ruined or erased its previous achievements.
I know that this phrase has permanently entered the geek lexicon, and I know that it’s a simple shorthand to convey irritation, disappointment and displeasure at the use of franchises which you hold dear, but please let’s just cut it out.
* Insert the name of your favourite geek-in-the-industry here.
** Yes, I had to look that up.