The question of how to combat rape culture is a central one for feminism. If anyone doubted that we in the global north currently inhabit such a culture, the events of the last few years have proved them wrong. Rape culture, as Emilie Buchwald summed up twenty years ago, is ‘a social reality where … sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable as death or taxes’. This belief is embedded in our justice system and in everyday life. The constant stream of victim-blaming, rape apologetics, re-victimisation and exploitation on display in contemporary culture go far beyond the letter of this definition, revealing a culture in which Diana Herman’s blunt statement that rape ‘does not have to happen’ feels as radical as it did thirty years ago. What new imaginings might be necessary to make such a future happen?
Understandings of mediation are central to understandings of rape culture, posing the question: how are media implicated in the dissemination of rape myths? Do representations of violence simply contribute to the widespread cultural acceptance of rape myths, or might we need a more complex account of the relationship between media and lived experience? It is particularly productive to analyse the relationship between ‘real’ rape and representations of rape at the current historical moment, when media are deeply enmeshed with cultural practices through which we make sense of everyday lives and of lived experience, including the experience of living in societies where the ever-present threat of sexual violence is lived alongside a proliferation of often glamorised media images of violated female bodies. At the same time, the ways in which media are used to secure our consent to social inequality is radically at stake: digital spaces have created new spaces of oppression but also new, highly visible spaces of critique and organisation. As Nina Power writes, the immediacy of online communication ‘creates an impatience with the world as it is’, a ‘narrowing of the gap … between descriptions of something awful and the desire to do something about it’.
The new sense of feminist hope represents a significant shift: it is only recently that the mainstream media were engaged in energetically persuading us that the need for feminism had passed: Ros Gill, Imelda Whelehan and others identified a Sex and The City-dominated sensibility, an airbrushed world in which empowerment was seen as rooted in lifestyle consumption and commodification, where queer rhetorics of self-fashioning were bent to the will of neoliberal capitalism. As Whelehan wrote, such banal representations have a wearing effect on the feminist observer: ‘tackling postfeminism from a critical perspective can be nothing short of disheartening and sometimes frankly boring, as it becomes difficult not to level what seem to be the same kind of old‖ feminist criticisms at any number of cultural products’: although in hindsight such ideological analysis often failed to address why these representations might strike a chord with femme-identified audiences.
In hindsight, perhaps the exclusion of men from these texts tell us something about a shared hunger for a femme-defined space: perhaps their celebration of femininity might be interpreted as something other than an aversion to feminism: as longing for something different, for a world in which the aesthetics and practices shared by feminine subjects might be celebrated. But the vision of empowerment it proposed was one available only to the few: crucially, it proposed a world in which the reality of poverty, racism and violence had been photoshopped out.
Recent years have I think seen a marked shift in this sensibility: from a postfeminist culture of denial, to something much more hopeful, as well as a media sensibility that is more ambivalent. I don’t want to describe this as fourth-wave or as post-postfeminist, because I think the current moment might finally represent a different temporality, one that might finally transcend tropes of wave and generation. There is an invigorated sense of intensity, of immediacy in feminist critique. The terms I keep coming back to (with thanks to Eve Sedgwick) are boredom and interest; in contrast to the ennui of postfeminism, the current mode of feminist criticism is one of intense attentiveness: merging the media literacy of the fan with the anger and drive of second-wave feminism: this is a feminism aware of its history and its present, as well as intensely involved in the production of possible futures. It is as though feminism has finally found its own ‘queer time’ through a rejection of the normative linear temporalities imposed by the rhetoric of wave and generation. Seen in this way, we might even reframe postfeminism as an important experiment in negation, a necessary playing with the idea that feminism’s work might be over which has revealed just how much work is still to be done.
In order ‘to do something about it’, though, we need to hear about it in the first place. This is nowhere clearer than in the case of rape. Rape is one of the most feared crimes, but also one of the least reported. Media play an important role in this. Representations of sexual violence, inextricably entangled with a wider culture of disinformation and shaming, create a context for social marginality, silencing, shame and trauma to flourish. An EU report by a team of scholars headed by Professor Sylvia Walby, UNESCO chair in Gender and Violence at Lancaster University, found that women and men were inhibited not only from reporting their experiences of rape, but even from acknowledging them as such, since ‘many cases of rape do not overlap with the way in which rape and sexual assault are described and discussed in contemporary public discourse and media’. In this context, they suggest, digital media may provide an important platform for multiple forms of speaking out: though support, education and activism: providing a ‘counter-hegemonic space’ in which new survivors’ voices might be heard. But in order for this space to exist, it needs to be constantly defended. If online feminist fan responses to mainstream media suggest more complex entanglement with the new post-postfeminist media sensibility than we might expect, digital space overall is far from utopian. A feminist online finds no lack of ‘descriptions of something awful’: indeed the something awful often consists precisely in its description, in the reproduction of rape threats as a way of silencing women. The insights of second-wave feminism are necessary in understanding how power operates in digital space. In 1975 Susan Brownmiller demonstrated how the threat of rape has historically been mobilised to keep women literally and figuratively in their place: if postfeminism tried to give us some relief by imagining a world in which women were not subjected to effective curfew by fear of violence, such a suspension of disbelief is now impossible. The repetitive nature of online media results in almost limitless opportunities for re-victimisation of rape victims. In recent years we have seen women literally raped on camera, and then punished again and again through practices of griefing and doxxing: simultaneously, the very public visibility of such cases has engendered concern with what the ‘label’ rapist ‘does’ to the future expectations of male perpetrators, rather than concern for survivors. The case of the victim of former footballer and unrepentant convicted rapist Ched Evans, whose followers have continued to hound his victim even now he has been released after serving half of his pitiful five-year prison sentence, is only the most recent example of the ways in which the justice system and social media lynch mobs collude to make victims, rather than perpetrators, responsible for violent assault. No wonder the term ‘patriarchy’, once deconstructed out of existence, has returned with a vengeance.
This is not to suggest a simple boundary between mainstream and digital media, in which the former is conservative and the latter subversive. Today’s post-crash and post-Internet media culture embodies a sensibility that is grittier and more ambivalent than the shiny-happy aesthetic of postfeminism. It is not always clear whether this change in sensibility represents a backlash against feminist ideas, or an embracing of them. Recent years have seen a huge number of representations of sexual violence which seem to embody a sensibility which is more ambivalent and more violent than the postfeminist aesthetic: often gritty, they grapple with issues of consent, power, and objectification. Often these expose doubt or confusion about how consent works: the agonising sex scene between Natalia and Adam in Girls, in which she technically consents according to the letter of the law but is clearly left unhappy and degraded, is a case in point and generated a wide feminist response. If postfeminism was a reaction against a perceived denial of pleasure and erasure of feminine subjects’ agency, the current sensibility of feminist ambivalence can be seen as a reaction against postfeminism’s own absences and silences: indeed it may be seen as a direct response to postfeminism, as Rona Murray argues is the case with Girls. Often these media products evoke the question, why would feminists want to watch such a thing? The question of whether engaging with certain media makes one a ‘bad feminist’ is a constant anxiety even as it seems to be the wrong question. Feminist fandom, once seen as a contradiction in terms, makes sense since the figure of ‘the feminist’ and the figure of ‘the fan’ have historically been defined through the use of DIY media praxis as well as by an intense engagement with media, and since both have been stigmatised as excessive. The changing relationship between audience and text is crucial here: where once some strands of media theory spoke ‘for’ women as empty vessels of ideology, now the audience – in all its diversity, polyvocality, and with its often fiercely critical engagement with media products – is an unignorable presence. This makes sense, since there is a natural affinity between the figure of ‘the feminist’ and ‘the fan’: both historically stigmatised, associated with feminine or super-feminine excess: both – crucially – accused of reading too much into things, of over-attachment and over-analysis.
Some contemporary media command significant, and unexpected, feminist fandoms at least partly because they seem to question rape myths: and this intense feminist engagement, as some commentators have noted, can be unexpected. My own research on Game of Thrones revealed often complex and nuanced responses to the rape of Cersei Lannister, which seemed to resonate with the lived experience of women who take on the burden of concealing and rationalising sexual assault. The show has been called out by feminist fans for such moments of complicity: such as the the very first episode, in which the fifteen year old Danaerys Targaryen appears absolutely objectified, or where women of colour are displayed as sexual objects during the Dothraki wedding scene. Yet ironically, this overtly fantastical text also represented rape in a way that resonated with many viewers’ own experiences: the image of a powerful woman raped by a family member revealed much reparative work to be done in increasing understanding of what constitutes consent, but also encouraged fans to speak out about their own experiences. What might seem like a textbook example of anti-feminist representation became a potential rallying point for challenging rape myths. This is possible because media representations are never ‘just’ representations anymore: they exist in a complex network of online and offline conversations, which open up the ways in which we negotiate meaning in complex ways. There is no ‘right’ feminist way to read these representations: instead, feminist engagement emerges through confusion and entanglement. Fan spaces have made visible an engagement with media that is at once intensely affective and sharply critical. The paranoid and reparative are not oppositional but oscillate in the same space. This is not new, but makes visible as never before what feminists – and fans - have always known: that media are neither ‘merely liberatory’ nor ‘merely ideological’, but a site of struggle.
Brownmiller, S. (1975) Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. Simon and Schuster.
Buchwald, E. P Fletcher, and M Rot (1993) Transforming a Rape Culture. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions.
Herman, Dianne F.1984. "The Rape Culture." In Women: A Feminist Perspective, edited by Jo Freeman. Mcgraw Hill.
Murray, R. (2015) 'Is this what a feminist looks like?' Lena Dunham and the Politics off Authorship, Celebrity and Feminist Branding. Paper given at Hear Me Roar, Lancaster Arts City, March 2015.
Sedgwick, E.K. (2003) Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press.
Walby, S., P Olive, J Towers, B Francis, A Krizsan, E Lombardo, C May-Chahal, S Franzway, D Sugarman and B Agarwal (2013) ‘Overview of the worldwide best practices for rape prevention and for assisting women victims of rape’, European Parliament.
Whelehan, I. (2010) ‘Remaking Feminism: Or Why is Postfeminism So Boring?’, Nordic Journal of English Studies, Vol. 9, No. 3, pp155-72.