Rape Culture: Media and Message
Rape Culture: Media and Message
Something was taken from me the other day as I, in a fit of self-destruction, picked up Glamour magazine and decided to read it for pleasure. What was taken from me was my ironclad sense of immunity, because the advertisements and the articles got to me and made me hate myself and want to buy a cure over the counter. I do not feel safe when I look into the pages of pop culture and I feel even less safe when I watch TV.
Marx said one thing that nearly everyone knows; Religion is the Opiate of the Masses. And I am going to rephrase that and say that opiating the masses is the religion of media. People still have Jesus and Judaism, Mohammed and Hinduism as guides for moral conduct, but media has the youth culture in its grasp and a new kind of conduct is iterated as gospel. The media gives us gender roles and social norms to mimic and worship as creed. To disobey is to be outcast from the religion of normal, of popular.
Nearly every advertisement is sexist in some way. Ms. Magazine and Bitch have monthly critiques of ads that display the American way of misogyny through objectification of and disrespect to the female figure and to female existence. I have sent dozens in and never had one printed because the magazines simply receive too goddamn many each month. I started creating a notebook of clippings for myself, in case anyone ever needs validation of my radical feminist beliefs, needs my reason for fighting this particular battle. And it is full. After only a few months, it is full.
So back to my day of self-destruction and Glamour. The cover was harmless enough, an unhealthy looking and slenderized Minnie Driver, a few quotes about how to have better sex and how men did not want model bodies (au contraire, I found out inside the demonic covers). But, I told myself, I am confident. I am armed with feminist intent. I understand and hate the patriarchal system. I love myself the way I am. But unfortunately I did not believe me after seeing autumn’s new fashions draped over unattainable, delicately beautiful frames. I failed to come through for me when I read a line that said wear the red sequined dress that makes him pant and her narrow her eyes in envy. And then I turned to this particular Candies ad. And I stared, trying to convince myself that I was simply too caught up in my “everyone hates women” thing and that I was being really humorless. But I couldn’t do it this time. This time the media sexism, the rape culture, the patriarchy was too fucking blatant. They threw it in my face and dared me to freak out. I accept that dare.
The ad that you see reprinted here is not a joke. There is indeed a rock and roll dude pressing a key on the computer with a leering, self-satisfied smirk. And than button is, yes, causing a rocket to blast off directly up between the legs of a splayed out woman perched on top of the computer screen, who is coyly cheeking a bottle of something or other. What is the message? At the push of a button, a man can release a burning hot, compact phallus between a dumbly willing, hot as shit female. And she will just sit there and take it, love it, all the while just coveting her bottle of fragrance. This ad, apparently, sells perfume.
I am ready to never wear the stuff again. I am ready to just tear into Candies and tell someone off. I wrote some letters, made some calls–to no avail. I am just a humorless feminazi, apparently.
Unfortunately this style of ad is not rare. Candies has a whole campaign of misogynist, subtly violent ads that sell various products. You can hop onto their website and see a wide variety of images of violence against women in the name of “sex sells.” They call it racy and they call it daring. I call it the rape culture. I call their game.
This ad is violent. Because it uses the idea of a rocket blasting off into a woman as a play on sex. It makes a woman victim to a smirking man and markets this as sexy. The world, or at least the majority of it, is convinced that this is sex. That we live in an era where violent sex is okay.
It is not just this ad that perpetuates the stereotypes and dangerous social constructions of gender in America. In the book Cunt, (a book you should all read right now!), Inga Muscia encourages women to walk out of movies that have rape scenes. At first I wondered why. I thought that movie rape scenes must really show men how horrible rape is and encourage them not to do it. But then I thought about all the movies I have seen with rape scenes. Like The Accused, or Kids, or American Psycho. And I realized that these cinematic forays into the crime of rape make it sexy. They depict rape as rough, unwanted sex, that is nevertheless sexy. They show the frail, beautiful woman and the big, beautiful man engaged in sexual intercourse that just happens to be accompanied by mutters of no and some tears, or some serious drunken sleeping. Rape scenes in movies are geared to turn people on, not shock them. And as long as the public is being seduced by the myth that rape is about sex and not about power, and that rape is about lust and not oppressive violence, then the rape culture can continue to thrive and to destroy women.
Ads such as the Candies ad and the rape scenes in movies portray violence as sexy and acceptable. They seduce viewers into being believers in rape culture and help create another generation of rapists who believe that rape is not violence, but merely sexual intercourse that sometimes goes “wrong.”
The only “good” rape scene I have ever seen is in Boys Don’t Cry, a movie about the true story of a transgender female to male who was discovered to be a woman born and was therefore raped brutally and violently. The movie showed that the men raping Brandon Teena were not doing it to get off sexually, but to violently enforce gender roles. They raped her because she had a vagina and she had threatened their concept of gender.
I can’t really say I want to see more movies portray scenes like this either, because I threw up afterwards. I don’t want to live in a place where we have to endure such realities. But I also don’t want to live in a place that candy coats these realities into normative sexuality in order to support social roles and a culture that normalizes rape.
While ads and movies are normalizing rape, TV is busy making it just disappear entirely. When I was in high school there was an episode of the ever-popular Beverly Hills 90210 that depicted a woman being coerced into sex by a regular on the show. A regular that everybody in the 90210 communities loved and respected did not stop having sex when he was asked to and then proceeded to convince the woman it was okay. He never intended to talk to her again, and when she called it rape, no one believed her. So far, so good. Pretty real, pretty accurate. But the end is bullshit as she forgives dear Steve and Steve’s female friends relent and hug him and the next few episodes show him up to his old tricks and we never hear from the woman again. In that show the “incident” was not even labeled as rape. The mass media managed to wrap centuries of oppression into one tiny hour and depict it totally according to rape culture’s social roles. The woman was portrayed as annoying, drunk, overly emotional, and clearly full of shame at having slept with Steve. Steve was portrayed as confident and popular, incredulous of her accusation, and unaware of his behavior.
By the time this particular episode appeared, I was over my 90210 worship. But man, in the old days I was devout. I wanted to live that life and would have mirrored nearly everything on that show in my own social life. And I imagine that many young women and men felt the same. That episode along with many other prime time dramas sent the incorrect message that rape is an oops on the boy’s part and can be easily wrapped up and erased between commercials for toothpaste. But rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and coercion are in real life incredibly difficult emotional ordeals for women.
In this TV show, which represents a microcosm of the youth mainstream and their social assumptions, the gender norms that create the rape culture were reinforced and the reality of rape was pushed far into the subconscious of youthful viewers.
The power of TV and other media to influence the values, personalities, and lifestyles of all of us cannot be overestimated. With working parents’ busy lives, children are often plopped in front of the cheapest babysitter to be found, TV. In a culture obsessed with sound bites and quick gratification, young women read blurbs in exploitive magazines and get advice from advertisements. In a culture seduced by the almighty dollar, capitalism is allowed to replicate the rape culture by selling it maniacally as sex. When I read that Glamour magazine I lost something. I lost the bet with myself that I, as a feminist, as a media-avoiding, enlightened rape counselor, would be able to manage to hold ground under the persuasion of God-like media images. If I lost, what about the masses of women who don’t have an education in the field of feminism? What about their self-perceptions and social interactions? Today women learn to be women and men learn to be men immersed in rape culture, and the day ends and begins on the same note of silence from viewers of the mass media.
by alyn pearson
Photo (Woman astride a picture of a rocket launch as a man watches)
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Aug/Sep 2000
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