We at Nursing Clio may be making “WTF? No, Seriously. WTF?” a regular feature — a place to express anger, horror, and disbelief at current news stories.
This is one of those weeks where the news – especially the kind of news circulating on feminist blogs – is making me incredibly angry. There are a lot of those weeks lately. Here are just a couple of the rage-inspiring news stories:
The Office of Student Conduct at the University of North Carolina is threatening sophomore Landen Gambill with possible expulsion because she has persisted in speaking out about the rape and harassment she endured at the hands of an unnamed ex-boyfriend. In a bizarre and offensive twist of logic, Gambill – the victim – is being charged with “disruptive or intimidating behavior that willfully abuses, disparages, or otherwise interferes with” her alleged rapist. Perplexed by this charge, especially considering the fact that she never publicly identified her attacker, Gambill attended a preliminary Honor Court meeting, where she asked whether simply stating that she was raped could constitute a violation of the university’s Honor Code. The answer, she reports, was yes. You read that correctly: apparently, at the University of North Carolina, saying “I was raped” can be construed as a violation perpetrated against one’s unnamed rapist.
Meanwhile, in the Maldives, a teenaged rape victim has been sentenced to 100 lashes for engaging in premarital sex. Officials are claiming that her crime is unrelated to the grisly rape case – her stepfather is charged with raping her, impregnating her, and killing her baby – but whether or not that is true, it is likely that this young girl came to the attention of the courts because she was a victim of a rape. And instead of helping a teenager who has clearly been through hell, the courts are punishing her – by flogging her, a practice Amnesty International calls “cruel, degrading and inhumane.”
These stories are clear examples of victim blaming, and victim blaming is not new. Historically, it has taken myriad forms. During the eighteenth century, as Sharon Block demonstrates in Rape and Sexual Power in Early America, doctors believed that conception could occur only when a woman had an orgasm, which could happen only if she was enjoying the sexual act. Consequently, women who accused men of rape but became pregnant were perceived as liars. As Joanna Bourke points out in Rape: Sex, Violence, and History, nineteenth-century experts often dismissed claims of rape as exaggerations or fabrications. Working women and women of color were especially vulnerable to victim blaming. For example, an 1890s forensics textbook written by J. Dixon Mann claimed that “women of the lower classes are accustomed to rough play with individuals both of their own and of the opposite sex.” These women, the textbook claimed, could defend themselves; if they claimed to have been raped, they were likely lying. This logic, fueled by racism and classism, led to a construction of sexual violence that charged women with defending their virtue rather than charging men not to rape. We still see this phenomenon today. Even Landen Gambill, a white, relatively privileged college student, faced intense scrutiny when she told her story. She claims that when she reported her rape, university officials “were not only offensive and inappropriate, but they were so victim-blaming. They made it seem like my assault was completely my fault.”
So. We have rape victims being blamed and silenced and punished, in the United States and abroad. We have universities that care more about protecting rapists and stopping bad press than they do about the prevalence of sexual violence on their campuses. And in an atmosphere like this, we are expected to enjoy the way this past Sunday’s Academy Awards played out? Giggle at Seth Macfarlane singing about seeing Jodie Foster’s breasts in The Accused? Laugh at the Onion calling Quvenzhane Wallis – a nine-year-old girl – a cunt? I’m the first to admit that we should not necessarily take the Oscars too seriously. The ceremony can (and probably should) be about film and fashion and fun and escapism. But some of these moments were stunningly inappropriate.
To be clear, I’m not as offended by the Oscar broadcast as other feminist bloggers have been. Damsel in de Tech called Oscar host Seth Macfarlane “the embodiment of rape and rape culture.” I see the reasoning, but I would not personally go so far. What I do think is that we live in a society where rape culture still prevails, where young girls and adult women are sexualized without their consent, and where women’s talents are constantly ignored in favor of prolonged discussions of their bodies, their hairstyles, and their favorite beauty products. And the Oscars demonstrated, for approximately the six billionth time, that Americans are basically conditioned to laugh at those facts. Macfarlane’s “We Saw Your Boobs!” song was not meant to be an attack on women, but it was something more insidious. The Academy Awards is supposed to be, in part, about recognizing the work of talented actors and actresses who tackled challenging roles. It is difficult enough for women to earn that kind of recognition for their serious work in the film industry without honoring them, at the biggest industry event of the year, with a song that is basically saying, “hahaha, we’ve seen your boobies!” And come on! At least two of the movies Macfarlane mentioned in that song – The Accused and Boys Don’t Cry – were about sexual violence. Is it appropriate to make use of those movies in that way?
Similarly, I recognize that the Onion produces dark, biting satire. I usually love the Onion! But calling an elementary-school-aged actress a cunt is totally unnecessary and incredibly offensive, and the fact that the Onion deleted the offending tweet and then apologized does not magically fix the whole thing.
This, I suspect, is why feminists get stereotyped as angry and humorless. This is why people tell us that we take things too seriously, that we should lighten up. It’s just the Oscars, right? Except when it’s not just the Oscars. I get angry because things that should be light and fun often reflect terrible, dehumanizing truths about the way that women are perceived and treated in this world. And we laugh at it. WTF? No, seriously. WTF?