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From anti-Americanism to European soft power: the geopolitics of Tintin

What's fascinating, when reading Hergé's series today, is how clearly its values evolve in line with a changing world. 

Who would have thought that Tintin would so easily become a social media star? After all, the protagonist of Hergé's comics is a pre-internet reporter, whose adventures around the world are set in a time that is long gone. But following the Brussels attacks, images of the young Belgian were suddenly all over the internet – picturing him lying on the ground, or in tears while reading the news (in a good old newspaper, of course).

Tintin remains dear to many Europeans, inside and outside Belgium. And if you think about it, there is no reason why he shouldn't be, since he has embodied the continent's values for half a century.

At first glance, Tintin represents a fairly straightforward message: the importance of selflessness and truth-seeking. But the 24 children's books, published mainly between the 30s and the 70s, are also filled with references to what Europeans thought about an ever-changing world. Some of these views still make us proud. Others, maybe, not so much.

According to Daniel Justens, who has authored two essays on the representation of language and geography in the series, Hergé's first editor, priest Norbert Wallez, “was deeply involved in a sort of Christian hyper-conservatism very close to the far right.” Nowadays, the stories written under his influence can be disturbing for how blatantly they pander to anti-communist and colonial stereotypes.

Certain scenes of the first episode, Tintin in the Land of the Soviets (1930), are pure propaganda. At one point, a Bolshevik officer burns bundles of straw in an empty factory, so that the foreign observers outside (“English communists”) can be shown the smoke coming out of the chimneys and be fooled about the country's industrial productivity.

When it comes to colonialism, Hergé's early work is not exactly nuanced. In Tintin in the Congo (1931), the young European journalist teases the locals for their laziness, teaches maths to a class of black children and fights against a sorcerer who wants to keep his people in a state of ignorance to dominate them more easily.

“It is a controversial book,” says Oliver Dunnett, a researcher currently at Queen's University Belfast who has studied geopolitics and identity issues in Tintin. “In the UK, a commission for racial equality called for it to be banned from sale.”

But what's fascinating, when reading the entire series today, is how clearly its values evolve in line with world politics.

In the 70s, Hergé sent Tintin (not for the first time) to Latin America. There, again, he ends up among an indigenous population with an entirely different culture, the Arumbayas. But this time around, there are few traces of his old, patronising behaviour. At one point, a white man who's decided to live with the tribe even scolds Tintin for his lack of tact: “When travelling, you must adapt to local habits. Otherwise just stay at home!”

This evolution over time is not limited to the relations between Europe and developing countries. Hergé was a sponge. Not known for being a very political person, he often absorbed the dominant narrative on an issue and made it part of his comics, not necessarily in ways that we would approve of today.

He re-wrote stories, too. A first version of The Shooting Star, which appeared during World War II while Belgium was under Nazi occupation, featured villainous Jewish characters and an American expedition competing with Tintin's side. Hergé then retouched it for the Cold War era, and in the new version anti-Semite references were largely gone and the US had conveniently been replaced by a fictional country, the São Rico (Saint Rich).

The new name, however, and the fact that the American identity of the reporter's opponents is still hard to overlook, also suggest that something does remain (almost) unchanged throughout the series. Judging from his work, Hergé was not a fan of US-style big business.

During his endeavours Tintin meets all sorts of greedy tycoons, most of them from the United States. Some offer him money, in which he is totally uninterested. Others try to grow their fortunes with appalling indifference to morals. In The Broken Ear (1937), set in South America, the magnate Mr Trickler causes a war to lay his hands on an allegedly oil-rich area. A reference, as it often happens in the series, to real events: the Gran Chaco War fought in the '30s between Bolivia and Paraguay.

In contrast to such ruthless economic imperialism, Tintin stands as a beacon of European humanism, a model of sensibleness committed to stopping the vicious, violent cycle of local coups. When in a more recent story he helps reinstate ousted General Alcazar, the latter has to promise he will not allow any bloodshed by his men.

Hergé's eurocentrism survived under the US political and cultural hegemony of the second half of the century. When he takes his creature outside the earthly atmosphere, in a couple of volumes published in the '50s, the fictional scientific mission is entirely European: in this space race, there is little room for the almighty ally and protector. Once again, Tintin and his gang succeed. After all, this tireless man, who has reflected the continent's virtues and flaws for so many years, did deserve to be the first to walk on the Moon.

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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.