Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Week with Rape Culture: A Party, A Book, and a Movie

This post is a part of my “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column at The Progressive Playbook in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.

Trigger warning.

As I frequently write, I believe rape culture is alive and well. Because of this fact, I could have just as easily titled this post "My Life with Rape Culture."  But I'm going to stick to some things I encountered this week specifically. Mostly because I just can't stop thinking about them and I'd like to get them out of my head.

Before I go further, I want to define what I mean by rape culture. I know that the concept does not necessarily have a common understanding or acceptance. For a good working definition, I always point toward Melissa McEwan's piece on the topic. In it, she not only lists many specific, concrete examples, she also quotes Transforming A Rape Culture which says:
In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes.
In other words, rape culture means that rape is normalized.

One run in with rape culture that keeps popping in my mind went down at a New Year's Eve party. I was talking about rape scenes in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (more on that later) with some other women. A guy I don't really know decided to interject in our conversation in a manner which I'm sure was intended to be funny in that "I'm so edgy that I break the rules of political correctness" kind of way (eye roll). It went down like this.
*General discussion of so much rape in the movie*

"Eh, I'm a fan of rape." Him

"What?!" Me

"Yeah, sometimes you just gotta be for it." Him

*I stare at him angrily for about 30 seconds at which point he awkwardly jumps over to another conversation with other people.*
Side note: I know, I know. I should have called him out. But unfortunately, it can be difficult to always speak up, especially in a social group that is out of my comfort zone. At least I didn't nervously giggle (and there by affirm this statement) which is something I could have done a few years ago.

The second run in was through reading Jeffery Eugenides' new book The Marriage Plot. I'm a big Eugenides fan. His book Middlesex is one of my all time favorites. In fact, he's one of the few male authors who I feel can authentically write in a female voice. However, in The Marriage Plot I was disappointed to read a few scenes where sexual situations went down in a way which made me wonder if consent was really present. In a specific case, one character (a female) sent a pretty strong "no" message, but she still had sex with her husband anyway, and it turns out she really wanted it. It was the classic "when women say no, they mean yes, actually."

Both of these examples signal the prevalence of rape culture although in difference ways. In the first case, with the guy at the party, the stupid "joke" he made was explicitly about rape. It made rape a topic which is so trivial that it is actually worth laughing about. (Or attempting to get a laugh about--he failed with his audience.) In the second case, the lack of consent was more implicit and covert. Most people reading these scenes in The Marriage Plot probably found them more titillating than problematic, which is kind of the point I'm making.

But in both examples, the normalization of rape is the result.

In thinking about these things, I started to more deeply consider The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I also saw this week. The film is a bit puzzling for me. You see, it famously contains the rape and rape revenge of the main female, Lizbeth Salander, as a pivotal plot point. So what I'm pondering is that if we know that rape culture sends the message that rape is just a fact of life, how do we deal with pieces of media which contain rape scenes? Because rape is very prevalent in our world, is it possible for a movie to depict it in a manner which is realistic but doesn't normalize sexual violence or, more generally, violence against women? Can a movie contain rape and not glorify it?

I suppose that this hypothetical movie is possible, but I haven't seen it.  As Lani at Feminist Fatale wrote (about the Swedish version of the film):
Lisbeth is a great, strong female character. We need more characters like her. We need them to inspire the ferocious, feral spirit that lives in all women. But, what we don’t need are more morally ambiguous, violent stories that are held on their axis by the portrayal of a form of violence against women that borders on sexualizing it.
Writer Pastabagle at Partial Objects comes out even more strongly saying:
The problem with Lisbeth Salander in the film is that she is too much like Lisbeth Salander in the books–completely and utterly unrealistic.

No sane woman would tolerate being brutally raped just so she could capture it on camera and hold it over her rapist. But that’s what Lisbeth does. The conclusion you should draw from this behavior is not that she is a strong take-charage woman, but that she is not sane. She is severely emotionally damaged. She is so emotionally detached from her own body that she puts herself through the worst torture just to throw it back in her attacker’s face. Over what? Money.
So how does all of this tie together? Well, when I first saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo earlier this week, I was disturbed by the rape content and it stuck in my mind, but I didn't see initially it as a part of rape culture, despite it's overt rape content. I kept asking myself the questions I listed above, most notably "Is it possible for a movie to depict rape in a manner which is realistic to our world but doesn't normalize it?"

The more I consider it, and I can't help but agree with Lani and Pastabagle. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is another case much like the dude at the party or Eugenides, which normalizes, and even glorifies, rape.

I'm so very tired of seemingly endless depictions of violence against women and the insensitive treatment of rape. It's only through media and societal examinations that we can begin to turn the tide and end rape culture. And really, it starts on the most basic ground level, in our day-t0-day interactions with others. That's why the biggest thing I'm taking away from this week is that I should have said something at the party. Something as simple as "That's not funny." I really wish I would have. So next time (and there will be a next time) I'm going to.

It's a New Year's Resolution I can get behind.


  1. I'm really glad I read this post today - I had a sort of similar experience a couple of weeks ago in terms of not speaking out when I felt like I really should have. An old friend of mine and someone who I've always respected as being intelligent and progressive, posted a video to facebook and titled it something like "an intelligent response to modern feminism." The video was from a guy who calls himself the amazing atheist, and the video was so incredibly offensive it was ridiculous (I mean, making points like "yeah, men have had the power over history... but they've also had all the responsibility!") And I couldn't bring myself to say anything - I knew the response I'd get, and I knew I wasn't capable of dealing with it at that point. It's been eating away at me for over two weeks now - I just can't seem to let it go.
    It's hard sometimes - it's nice to know that I'm not the only one out there who has moments of just not being able to do combat. Sometimes I feel like it's more about self preservation than it is about educating people who should really take the time to educate themselves.

  2. Hi Kelsy! I do agree that self preservation is very important and should be foremost in our minds...that's what it often comes down to. It does get very taxing being the eternal educator and we don't have a responsibility to educate anyone else. However, if this person is a good friend of yours and you can't shake the feeling you should have said something, maybe you can say it now, in a manner which feels nonthreatening to you. Of course, if you don't think it's worth it, don't bother, but just something to consider.

    I don't know the guy I was talking to so I have no idea what would have been effective, but either way, I do hate how the whole thing went down.

  3. The Amazing Atheist is evil and recently freaked out and intentionally triggered a whole chatroom full of rape survivors.

    OTOH, I suggest instead that Lisbeth might represent an individual more sane and more invincible than any real person. It's been my hope that I could become invincible, resistant to torture and trauma, to retroactively become someone who did not know fear. Not having seen the movie, I don't really know how it is portrayed. But I have a hard time seeing an aspiration to invincibility as so bad.


This blog has strict comment moderation intended to preserve a safe space. Moderation is managed solely by the blog author. As such, even comments made in good faith will be on a short delay, so please do not attempt to resubmit your comment if it does not immediately appear. Discussion and thoughtful participation are encouraged, but abusive comments of any type will never be published. The blog author reserves the right to publish/delete any comments for any reason, at her sole discretion.

TL;DR Troll comments are never published, so don't waste your time.