I Am WAY OVERTHINKING The Walking Dead's Torture Speculum

WHY can I not quit hatewatching this show?
Publish date:
March 19, 2013
rape, television, the walking dead

I stopped enjoying AMC’s "The Walking Dead" sometime in the second season. I couldn’t tell you exactly when, but at some point I realized I was rooting harder for the success of the zombies -- soldiering on in their brain-dead but inexorable effort to destroy all non-zombie life and devour its delicious meats -- than I was for the continued survival of the people who actually spoke lines of dialogue on the show.

Nevertheless, I continue to half-watch "The Walking Dead" (insofar as I am usually in the room when it’s on, although I try -- and usually fail -- to ignore it) even though I now fully despise the series. Something always seems to keep me involved, and this week I saw something amongst the usual sources of annoyance that was annoying in a new and inventive way.

There’s gonna be spoilers for Sunday night’s episode, so -- don’t read if you hate spoilers.

For those who have stopped watching or who just need a refresher: the scary sneering bad guy at present is the Governor, who oversees a fairly comfortable settlement of survivors in a small town. He has been threatening our heroes, the familiar ensemble of characters the show has followed since the start, who have been recently living in a nearby prison.

See, our prison-dweller protagonists have taken in a woman named Michonne, a woman who also happens to have killed the Governor’s zombified daughter and stabbed out of one his eyeballs besides, and the Governor would very much like to have her back, ostensibly to give her a stern talking-to about not stabbing people in the eyeballs.

Nah, just kidding. He wants to torture her! We know this because in this week’s episode we’re treated to a couple of scenes in which the Governor seems to be preparing a torture room. On a table next to an old dentist’s chair, he slowly and ominously unpacks a series of torture-y implements, among which are some sharp cutting things and some pokey things and -- wait for a it -- a large metal speculum.

A speculum? A speculum.

Immediately, I felt irritated. Selection of weird menacing tools and then! A speculum. A torture speculum. Because why? Because apparently just plain old torture is not enough? Because there always has to be the suggestion of rape if a woman is being tortured? Because rape is REALLY BAD torture? Because the governor is really bad? And ostensibly rape with a medical device most women are at least passably familiar with is really, really, really extra bad?

Because this is me, and I cannot talk about anything without going into the history of it, I’m going to tell you now that the speculum actually dates to antiquity, and the first known examples of specula (that’s the Latin plural of speculum, naturally) were excavated in the ruins of the famed volcano-buried Roman tourist town of Pompeii. Given that Pompeii also had a bazillion brothels amongst its many charms, this is probably not surprising, as the town might have had more reason than most to ensure that its vaginas were in top working condition.

Around the middle ages, the speculum seems to have fallen out of use, as there is little mention of it for hundreds of years.

But then the speculum resurged with a vengeance in the 17th and 18th centuries (maybe somebody found one in a drawer?), and in 1845, James Marion Sims devised the first iteration of the familiar duckbill speculum most of us know from annual GYN visits today.

Sims seems like he would have been a fascinating dinner party guest, if John Allen Wyeth’s description of how he developed this new tool is accurate:

On that eventful day in June 1845, a woman was thrown from horseback. She was carried to her home and when Dr Sims reached her, she complained of great pain in her back and pelvic organs... Placing her in the genu-pectoral position (knee chest position) and in the further manipulation to replace the uterus, the accidental advent of atmospheric air dilated the cavity (vagina) and at the same time suddenly restored the uterus to its normal position. The quick eye of the genius at once took in the entire significance of this accident. Almost overcome with his discovery, he... hurried back to his office, stopping only at a hardware store on the way to buy a large pewter spoon and from this was evolved at once the speculum which bears the name of his inventor.

The quick eye of the genius peered into the vaginal mysteries suddenly exposed to atmosphere and he saw the future of gynecology. Y’all will never look at a really big spoon the same way again.

The speculum is a medical device critical to women’s reproductive health. Certainly, it’s not a device that many of us have fond connotations with, but in general it’s neither a positive nor a negative object. It does a job. It is not, itself, an instrument of torture -- I mean the worst it might do is pinch your vag wall a little bit on the way out. And this is not to disregard women who are honestly afraid of the speculum even in a medical context -- indeed, that makes all of this worse as it could be exploiting a legitimate fear many women, among them some sexual assault survivors, have to face.

The speculum’s association with torture in “The Walking Dead” sexualizes and makes violent a device that doesn’t need sexualizing or violent-making -- certainly, the vast majority of rapists have no trouble doing damage without the assistance of a speculum.

I also find the speculum’s inclusion as a harbinger of doom a little insulting to the audience. As though we are not already worried that rape is going to happen. As though we are too slow-witted to consider that a man looking to exercise control and power and punishment over a woman wouldn’t have thought of rape as a useful tool. As though explicitly gendered violence isn’t already ubiquitous in media. As though we weren’t bracing for it.

Because this is what happens to women who step out of line. When a woman is the victim, plain old nonsexual torture is never enough.

While I haven’t read the original comics myself, I’m led to understand that Michonne is raped multiple times by the Governor in that medium (I also understand that the television series has departed from much of the original comic narrative in some significant ways, so it’s not a foregone conclusion how this will go). In the TV series, we’ve seen rape threatened and even attempted, but probably owing to the limits of television censors, it’s never been carried out.

The inclusion of the speculum thus carries weight. A speculum has one inexorable purpose. I suppose there are at least two other orifices it could be attempted on, but neither is as culturally terrifying as it being forcibly used on the body part it was designed for. That is a violation psychologically distinct from any other -- vaginas are our most vulnerable parts, culturally speaking. To be injured anywhere is bad, but to be injured -- to be tortured in the reproductive business offers a special kind of horror, and not necessarily because it is a very sensitive place. Or at least, not ONLY because it is a very sensitive place.

The vague ominousness of the speculum also relies on the popular idea that vaginas are, frankly, gross. By the end of the short torture-organization scene I found myself wondering: Is the speculum there to frighten and disgust the women who might be watching this, or the men? (Likely, both, albeit for different reasons.)

Following each episode of “The Walking Dead” is a talk-show recap cringeworthily entitled, “Talking Dead.” These post-episode chats analyze recent plot developments and show behind-the-scenes tidbits. I don’t usually watch it, but I happened to leave the TV on long enough to notice that this week, there was a clip with the show’s prop master, who explains each of the torture tools they’ve assembled for the Governor to lay out.

“This is a blahblah bone saw,” he says, brandishing a big serrated blade, “and this is a catheter, and this is a pokey-stabby thing, and this is a yab yab yab wadda wadda wadda.” We get an introduction to every tool on the damn table -- except the speculum. Which, let’s be frank, would be easy to describe. It’s a device that props open a vagina to allow access to the cervix. And they couldn’t explain that on television.

Zombies devouring the faces of terrified and helpless victims is totally cool for prime time viewing, but a description of a freaking speculum, a tool that most women are made familiar with in a doctor’s office at some point in their lives, is just too risqué.

Honestly, the speculum’s big scene in the episode itself only got an eyeroll from me, but the obvious lack of explanation in the prop video was what really pissed me off. If you can’t say, out loud, “We included this SPECULUM to imply that the Governor is planning to also employ rape by vaginal or possibly anal penetration in his torture regimen” then maybe the fucking speculum shouldn’t be on the table in the first place.

Michonne is one of very few characters on this show that I don’t actively loathe -- she is tough as hell and a smart and committed survivor. The Torture Speculum, however, just serves to remind us all that there is no “strong woman character” in the world who can’t be taken down a notch by a man who gains access to her genitalia -- that all women are capable of being raped, no matter how tough or smart or “strong” they might be.

And no matter how dramatically effective exploiting that trauma might be, that’s a story I’ve already seen, and not just on television -- I’ve seen it in the real lives of people I love. I don’t need to see it again. Not even to demonstrate how bad a bad guy is. Not even to show how strong a strong lady is. I really don’t need to see it any more ever.