A fresco depicting four superheroes committing what has been interpreted as a gang rape is currently the subject of a huge scandal in France. The mural—which is painted on the wall of a hospital in Clermont-Ferrand—depicts Wonder Woman having anal sex with Batman while Superman comes in her mouth. Supergirl is there, fisting, and the Flash is getting a handjob. It's causing its fair share of controversy in a country still dealing with the emotional fallout of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
The outrage kicked off on Saturday, when the Facebook page Les médecins ne sont pas des pigeons ("Doctors aren't dupes") published a photo of the fresco. The mural was first created 14 years ago (according to a comment on the page), but a recent addition has turned it from a mere rape mural into an overtly political rape mural.
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These speech bubbles—it's unclear whether they were added in Photoshop or if someone actually painted them on the wall—read, "Take it deep," "Take that health reform," and "You should inform yourself a bit better!" They're thought to be intended as an attack on the reforms proposed by the French Health Minister Marisol Touraine last November. Those reforms—which proposed to clamp down on doctors charging over the odds for consultations by outsourcing the payment to health insurance companies—were rejected by the French National Medical Council (CNOM) on the grounds that they "didn't answer the needs of doctors on the ground, and of the patients."
Fans on the Facebook page have been defending the fresco by referring to the recent Charlie Hebdo case and to the principle of "freedom of expression," with many suggesting it was hypocritical to say the Prophet Muhammed could be depicted in cartoon form but that you shouldn't create an image implying the rape of the health minister. One of the comments reads: "Does [Marisol Touraine] feel above the Gods? 'Cause apparently, it's fine to caricature Gods…"
Others blamed the Facebook group for publishing the image, saying that such frescoes are "part of our [medical students] traditions and had never caused problems before."
The French feminist association Osez le Féminisme ("Dare Feminism") was quick to react to the Facebook post, publishing an article on its website asking for the fresco to be erased and for measures to be taken against the authors. The post also called the mural "misogynistic" and said that it wrongly used "rape as a means of showing discontent towards a Minister and her law." It warned that such representations could "eroticize extreme violence" and contribute to building a "degrading image of women."
The post was painted over early on Monday and Clermont-Ferrand announced it had decided to "erase the wall painting" and take "disciplinary, or even judiciary action against the presumed authors for their unacceptable behavior." For Osez le Féminisme, however, this is not the end of the fight, as the incident in Clermont-Ferrand is not an "isolated case." Claire Serre Combe, a spokesperson for the association, spoke to me on Monday.
VICE: Hi Claire. Can you explain for anyone who is a bit slow on the uptake and might not get it, why you wanted the fresco to be erased?
Claire Serre Combe: It represents a woman who is the victim of a collective rape. When you know that each year in France, 75,000 women get raped, that only 10 percent of them make a complaint, and that it leads to a sentencing in only 2 percent of the cases, while at the same time future doctors find it acceptable to paint such frescoes in their waiting room, it means there is a huge problem with attitudes. What's even more shocking about this fresco is that it was used for political purposes. It's a very degrading and humiliating message, and a clear attack toward the health minister.
Do you know who the artist is?
We don't have exact information as to who the artist is. But it doesn't change the nature of the problem: Young students—medical interns—are being exposed to a humongous painting that is disrespectful to women. This painting is completely inappropriate.
How is it relevant to the current minister's project if it was painted more than a decade ago though?
The fresco itself was painted a while ago, and entitled, Internes de Clermont-Ferrand: les super héros ("Interns of Clermont Ferrand: the superheroes"). In order to protest against the legal reforms that are currently being discussed, the comments in the bubbles were added. What we don't know is whether the comments were actually added on the wall itself, or whether they were added in Photoshop.
Have you had direct contact with the university?
No. We sent a letter to the CNOM [medical council] in Puy-de-Dôme [a region in the center of France] on Sunday, asking for the fresco to be painted over, and for sanctions to be taken against the authors. We've also asked them to take relevant measures in order to raise awareness among doctors and aspiring doctors about the issue of violence against women, and to make sure that such drawings disappear from all universities.
Have you or your organization come across similar issues in other universities in France?
In general, in the student world, there are quite often problems like this. It's not the first time we've noticed this sort of drawing, except this time it's a more serious case, as it touches upon rape, which is a crime.
Very often we have to step in, especially for posters advertising student parties. For example, in Grenoble, two years ago, a party got canceled by the university's dean as the poster advertising it was deemed sexist and degrading by feminists and other associations. In Toulouse, two or three years ago, students organized a "DSK party"—referring to ex-IMF leader Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of sexual assault—suggesting that it was going to be a kind of rape-themed party.
How can you tell if your interventions work?
They have proven useful. What we regret, however, is that we constantly have to keep an eye out and warn people. Attitudes do change among students, but not fast enough. Removing or suppressing things is one thing, but what we really need to do inside universities is work on raising young people's awareness on these issues, to make them understand why it's dangerous to represent women in certain ways.