13 March 2011

Narrative, Politics, and Sexual Violence

A post by Timmi Duchamp first brought to my attention a now-infamous article in the New York Times, "Vicious Assault Shakes Texas Town", which reports on a gang-rape of an 11-year-old girl by 18 men of varying ages -- from early teens to 27.

Timmi described the article as being chiefly concerned with the rapists rather than their victim, and I must admit that at first, being in a particularly optimistic and naive mood or something, I thought, "No, there's got to be some mistake -- the Times wouldn't let something like that through, would they?"

They would. They did. It's a nauseating article.

Timmi nails it, and so do Mary Elizabeth Williams in a Salon piece, "New York Times's Sloppy, Slanted Child Rape Story", and Mac McClelland at Mother Jones with "The New York Times' Rape-Friendly Reporting". Perhaps the most vivid proof that James C. McKinley, Jr's reporting for the Times for this story is rotten comes from a comparison with other reporters' approaches to the same story, which Latoya Peterson at Poynter does quite well. (Though as Irin Carmin at Jezebel pointed out, the Times isn't the only one with appalling coverage.)


The Times's Public Editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, wrote a blog post saying he thought the story "lacked balance", which is true -- all of the force of the story is on the side of people in the community who want to blame an 11-year-old for being a victim of a gang rape and who feel sorry for how tough the lives of the alleged perpetrators will now be. But there's a whole lot more going on here, a whole lot more than just a moment of bad journalism.

Part of the problem is a perceived insatiable desire to know among the public, and the need to fill pages and broadcast time -- newspapers and TV news shows live to give us the details. Especially at a time when news is constantly updated on websites and 24-hour channels, there is an imperative to offer new information and to quench the (perceived? real?) unquenchable thirst of the audience for more, more, more.

But when a victim is 11 years old, there is, or should be, a limited amount of information available, and McKinley seems to have been sensitive to this, unlike other reporters who, apparently, dug up her Facebook page. (These people can live with themselves? They can sleep at night?) But he needed to write a story, and he couldn't just write a few sentences, because there are columns to fill and hungry readers to satisfy, so he filled out his story with what he could most easily get. Whether he cherry-picked the most noxious views of the people he quoted, we don't know, but what he did was create a portrait of an entire town that apparently thinks 11-year-old girls deserve to be raped. Even if that were true (it's not, according to other reporting), McKinley gave those people most of his attention, making the story all about them, when the basic fact of the story is: 18 boys and men allegedly raped an 11-year-old girl.

But the problem here is not only about balance and about the choice of narrative point of view, or the choice to add "human interest" to the bare facts with interviews -- it's also about language, as various people have pointed out. Consider the fourth paragraph of the story:
The case has rocked this East Texas community to its core and left many residents in the working-class neighborhood where the attack took place with unanswered questions. Among them is, if the allegations are proved, how could their young men have been drawn into such an act?
Note that last question -- it's not that the men committed an act (imagine it rewritten as "...how could their young men have gang-raped an 11-year-old-girl?"), but that some mysterious force drew them in.

Such a statement would be more understandable in an article trying to show the effect of social perceptions of rape on actual behavior -- an article that investigated, for instance, a town's apparent willingness to blame an 11-year-old for being raped by 18 men, and connected that to why these boys and men thought committing such a heinous act would be okay. But this one doesn't. The very next paragraph talks about how difficult this is for the town! How hard those guys' lives are going to be now!

I don't think the alleged perpetrators of this crime ought to be demonized as monsters. They are human, they committed a crime far more common than many people realize, and certainly there are elements of society and culture that make boys and men willing and able to do such things. But a news article about such a crime shouldn't extend the discourse that helped produce the crime.

At The Rumpus, Roxanne Gay moved on from the McKinley article to discuss the representation of rape in entertainment. She wrote as someone whose own fiction often includes scenes of violence, and who is working on a novel that includes a gang rape.
As I write any of these stories, I wonder if I am being gratuitous. I want to get it right. How do you get this sort of thing right? How do you write violence authentically without making it exploitative? There are times when I worry I am contributing to the kind of cultural numbness that would allow an article like the one in the Times to be written and published, that allows rape to be such rich fodder for popular culture and entertainment. We cannot separate violence in fiction from violence in the world no matter how hard we try. As Laura Tanner notes in her book Intimate Violence, “the act of reading a representation of violence is defined by the reader’s suspension between the semiotic and the real, between a representation and the material dynamics of violence which it evokes, reflects, or transforms.” She also goes on to say that, “The distance and detachment of a reader who must leave his or her body behind in order to enter imaginatively into the scene of violence make it possible for representations of violence to obscure the material dynamics of bodily violation, erasing not only the victim’s body but his or her pain.” The way we currently represent rape, in books, in newspapers, on television, on the silver screen, often allows us to ignore the material realities of rape, the impact of rape, the meaning of rape.
At Big Other, Tim Jones-Yelvington sensitively builds on some of Roxanne Gay's ideas, especially with regard to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. (Much as I like the points he raises, were I writing his post, I would phrase some things differently -- I understand, I think, his point about shelters and survivor services being a response to the crime rather than a solution to rape culture, but I think positing them as having "negative" consequences alongside the more obvious positive ones risks making it seem that such services are inherently problematic; what we need to combat rape culture is not just prosecution and survivor services, but forms of activism and outreach that address the elements of rape culture that prosecution and survivor services aren't designed for. It's not that such services have, in general, negative aspects that need to be fixed, but rather that they aren't necessarily solutions to powerful cultural forces.  Which is what Jones-Yelvington also seems to believe.) I was going to quote a couple paragraphs from the essay to show how he explores the idea of "most heinous crimes" and "worst of the worst" to raise some powerful points about demonization, inevitability, and the perpetuation of rape culture ... but I fear excerpting will distort what he's saying, so I'll just encourage readers to click on the link above.

The representation of rape is a topic at the forefront of my thoughts right now, since I'm teaching a course that began with Shakespeare's Timon of Athens, just yesterday finished Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell's From Hell, and will continue on with such things as Sarah Kane's Blasted and Lynn Nottage's Ruined -- all works that are filled with violence against women, including horrible rapes and mutilations. These are works that make it impossible to avoid questions of representation, and that's why I assign them. (Much of the time, I don't know how I feel about their violence myself.) It's an opportunity to ask students to talk about how they perceive and interpret representations of violence in media, because they all live in a society in which tv shows, movies, video games, comic books, etc. are filled with vivid violence. We live in that society together; as someone who is drawn to extremes of representational violence (I started reading Stephen King at quite a young age, and first saw slasher movies when I was not much older), and yet who gets light-headed at the sight of actual blood and is nauseated by any physical violence ... well, this is a topic that obsesses me. Because I really do think that how we represent violence matters -- in a social and even moral sense -- though I'm not sure it's possible to create guidelines, especially since representations affect people in very different ways. I told my students on the first day of "Murder, Mayhem, Madness" that we'd be spending a term reading about some of the worst things human beings can do to each other, and that there was no shame in dropping this class, that, in fact, perhaps the sanest thing to do was to refuse to read these books, but that I think, for people with strong enough stomachs, experiencing extremes of human horror within careful works of art can be helpful -- helpful in clarifying our own ideas, in tuning our senses, in developing empathy. I'm often cynical about the ability of art to change anybody (at least for the better), but in my most idealistic moments, I like to think someone who had really allowed themselves to experience Titus Andronicus, From Hell, Blasted, and Ruined would not be able to write an article like James McKinley wrote for the Times.

Tim Jones-Yelvington ends his post with similar thoughts:
One of the things I greatly appreciated in Roxane’s essay was her focus on the bodies of victims and survivors, in a really concrete, visceral and tangible way, a way that makes it nearly impossible to ignore that rape is violence, not sex. This focus on the body reminded me of Roxane’s fantastic review of Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, which in turn reminded me of the many fantastic authors that I count amongst my favorites who have written the body in brilliant, subversive and politically transformative ways — Dodie Bellamy, Rebecca Brown, David Wojnarovicz, Bob Gluck, Kathy Acker. And another thing many of these writers have in common is that they are often writing in a style that while it invokes visceral experiences of the body and subjectivity, also explores broader political and theoretical questions about signification and the stability of identities and subjectivities and desire and violence.
I think the emphasis on the bodies of victims and survivors that Roxanne Gay focuses on is, indeed, a strength of her essay. In my class, we're about to jump into Pat Barker's second novel, Blow Your House Down, which is a perfect companion to From Hell, because it moves the focus away from the perpetrator of crimes against women to the women themselves -- not just individual victims, either, but the community of which those women are a part. One of its most powerful sections alternates between the point of view of a serial killer and his victim (an aging, impoverished, ill, alcoholic prostitute), but it doesn't end with the killing -- we return twice to the body, are forced to look at it in our minds, to consider its life and pains, to honor it. It's a gripping, painful, and provocative novel, one in which the least "important" people in a place itself considered "unimportant" can provide a narrative of epic power just as much as a megalopolis at the intersections of all sorts of histories. Neither epic is, it seems to me, quite complete without the other.

I want to end here with some grand summing up, some statement about art and responsibility, assumptions and meaning, personal experience and collective action -- but all such thoughts feel compromised and jejune to me right now.

Lacking any good conclusion, I'll just say that I think we need words, sentences, and pages to stand against the forces that create and excuse human misery, and some of the items I have linked to here seem to me to do that.

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